Alexandre Aja, the French director who rose to prominence with the visceral slasher film Haute Tension in 2003, came as a breath of fresh air to a genre which appears to have been struggling of late with expensive, flaccid remakes and shock value quite often taking the place of the very basic premise of the horror film, to elicit fear or at least a lingering unease. With Haute Tension he succeeded and with his next big release, 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes, he pulled off another coup by doing what so few manage, delivering a fresh, effective and exceedingly disturbing remake of a cult classic.
This year, Aja gives us Piranha 3D, which, needless to say, the Pakistan-based viewer shall not be able to enjoy in its full glory. Having clocked the number of eyeballs and other unmentionable body parts shooting towards the camera on a DVD print, this is no bad thing on balance. Piranha 3-D is an entertaining and often amusing creature feature beautifully shot with a clean palette of blues, greens and yellows. It stars some fairly likeable and better yet, dislikable, stock characters — several of whom have large chunks of flesh rent from their bodies by a shoal of the titular carnivorous fish. The premise is pure delight: a small town hosts spring break, a peculiar American custom/rite of passage whereby idiotic college-goers descend upon towns en mass to under-dress, over-drink and use as few of their brain cells as humanly possible. Since spring break is synonymous with the odious video series Girls Gone Wild, which celebrates sexual exploitation in the name of sexual freedom, a large selection of potential victims, whom one would only be too happy to see eaten, is at hand for the piranhas to have a field day. There are cockle-warming touches such as Christopher Lloyd borrowing from his Back to the Future persona as a scientist who informs us with incredulity that this particular species of piranha hasn’t been seen since ‘’the Pleistocene epoch, two million years ago’’. I do love a horror with a touch of the prehistoric.
The central character should have been the lovely Elizabeth Shue playing the town sheriff; it is she and her cute kids whom we are rooting for. Sadly, the real central character in this film is the Spielberg masterpiece Jaws. While the film nods and winks at it throughout, opening with a cameo from Richard Dreyfuss reprising his original role, by and large the effect is largely to remind one of just how brilliant Jaws was. Clearly it was intended as a playful parody and homage to Jaws rather than competition, but the tone is inconsistent. Aja seems to have stepped out of his genre for this film — let’s face it, the French aren’t really known for their sense of humour. He’s more convincing when he gets nasty, and he really does, with a thoroughly disturbing massacre on the water of Saving Private Ryan proportions.
As such the film, for all its entertainment value, is somewhat scattered. There are, for me, two ways to go with a creature feature: there’s Jaws, which channeled Melville and made a psychological drama of it. Alternatively, there was the glorious Lake Placid, a whole other kettle of fish, scripted as a comedy, with an exceptionally low body count. With Piranha one feels as if it was scripted as fluffy entertainment and handed over to a serious director, ending up with Jaws-lite.