Sharp teeth, wit make ‘Piranha’ a hit

Scott Viau

Every few years a horror film is released that is so drenched in blood and gore that it simply can’t be taken seriously. The best part about “Piranha” is that the filmmakers all know this, which results in a campy, fun and thoroughly ludicrous tale about killer fish.

For the teenagers of Lake Victoria, Ariz., the only thing that seems to be on their minds is partying and where on the beach they can get a perfect tan. But when a local fisherman goes missing, Sheriff Julie Forester (Shue) is on the case. Soon, she and her partner locate the missing man’s mutilated, piranha-bitten body and decide that the best plan of action would be to shut down the lake until the problem can be taken care of. However, with beaches packed and nobody heeding their warning, the fun-seeking citizens will soon discover the destruction and death living just below the surface of their lake.

“Piranha” succeeds where other films have failed because of its constant winking eye to the audience. The opening scene features Richard Dreyfuss with a very sly but recognizable tip of the hat to “Jaws.” Christopher Lloyd’s performance as the pet shop owner that clues Forester in to what kind of problem she is dealing with is given with the same kind of gusto and bravado that he gave to the character of Doc Brown in the “Back to the Future” trilogy. In fact, if Forester had not understood the circumstances I would’ve have expected him to tell her she was “not thinking fourth dimensionally.” It’s great to see Shue playing against type again (her last performance that comes to mind was when she played herself in “Hamlet 2”), and her presence is calming and effective against all the chaos in the film. O’Connell plays Derrick Jones in what is an obvious reference to and parody of “Girls Gone Wild” creator Joe Francis. O’Connell is entertaining and energetic, even though his character displays a vulgar and misogynistic demeanor.

As a horror fan, it’s hard to truly be shocked by what flashes across the screen of a theater, but with its buckets of blood and imaginative kill scenes, “Piranha” was able to do just that. There will undoubtedly be at least one death during the lake massacre scene that will make each audience member squirm in their seat and laugh with fiendish delight. At some points, it felt like I was watching an interpretation of the opening of “Saving Private Ryan” by Troma Studios. If the mayhem of that scene doesn’t do it, then perhaps the dismembered computer generated image (CGI) of a penis will.

This brings me to my next point. Although CGI allows filmmakers to accomplish more graphically, the fact that it’s so obviously CGI substantially diminishes its capacity to truly shock. Granted, this is not for all aspects of the movie, but the more gruesome scenes contain it and it’s easy to brush off the disturbing images on screen as just a little bit of movie magic. Had “Piranha” contained more actual make-up effects the horror of what is happening would be all the better for it.

Director Alexandre Aja’s resume ensures that viewers who know of him will know what they’re getting themselves into. His previous efforts include “High Tension,” which, despite it’s disappointing and confusing ending, was still one of the best horror films in a long time. He knows the genre very well and what fans have come to expect of it.

I’m glad to say that “Piranha” is one of those rare remakes that actually work. It’s not as heavy-handed in its self-righteousness as the “Saw” films, and it doesn’t take itself as seriously, either. Audience members looking for a gruesomely gory time with a date or even by themselves will need to look no further than “Piranha.”