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There are films that leave a cultural mark on Hollywood, looming large over projects for years and years to come. Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. led to a wave of sci-fi space operas, even helping to resurrect the Star TrekOriginally conceived as "Wagon Train in Space", Star Trek was released during the height of the Hollywood Western film and TV boom. While the concept CBS originally asked for had a western vibe, it was the smart, intellectual stories set in a future utopia of science and exploration that proved vital to the series' long impact on popular culture. franchise into theaters. Peter Jackson's Middle-earthCreated by J.R.R Tolkein, Middle-earth is the setting for the author's big sagas, featuring the characters of hobbits, dwarves, elves, and men. films caused a small flurry of fantasy movies to hit cinemas. The MatrixA speculative future story with superhero and anime influences, The Matrix not only pushed viewers to think about the nature of their own reality but also expanded what filmmakers could do with action sequences and filming. It then launched a series of movies, games, and comics, creating a franchise still talked about today. gave every two-bit direct an excuse to put "bullet time" into their films. Twilight gave every studio suit hopes they could turn any YA novel series into a mega-blockbuster in theaters. But, before all that, there was JawsThe mother of all shark movies, this film from Steven Spielberg made a whole generation of movie fans afraid to go into the water., the first major Summer Blockbuster, and after that film came the rise of the carnivorous animal flicks.
The success of Jaws was, of course, had to duplicate. Hell, the main series struggled to find financial viability with the diminishing returns of Jaws 2 and Jaws 3-D, before the franchise was eventually euthanized after the failure of Jaws: The Revenge. But other films also sprang up and tried to find the same success, from Orca, to Grizzly, and Mako: The Jaws of Death (we see what you did there). Perhaps the most success, and longest running of all the mockbusters to spring up in the wake of Jaws, though, was the Piranha series. Executive produced by Roger Corman (as so many low budgets films are), this series took the idea of "what if Jaws, but scary and funny?"
It was a hit. Hell, Spielberg even commented that the original Piranha was, "the best of the Jaws ripoffs." High praise indeed. This, naturally, led to a franchise of films, from 1982's Piranha II: The Spawning (notable for being James Cameron's first directorial effort), to the 1995 remake and then, fifteen years later, another attempt at a relaunch. 2010's Piranha 3D (also known as just Piranha in non-3D showings) is a horror comedy that leans into both sides of the equation, giving anyone with even a passing interest in yet another reinvention of the Jaws formula everything they were looking for. It was also a solid success, making $83.1 Mil against $24 Mil budget. Not huge, but for a horror cheapie on a budget, that kind of return on investment makes suits stand up and take notice. It delivered, and that's what counts.
Let's be clear: Piranha 3D is not a good movie. It is, however a very enjoyable movie. It has a cast of B- and C-list stars (Elisabeth Shue, Steven R. McQueen, Jerry O'Connell, Ving Rhames, Paul Scheer, and Christopher Lloyd) delivering solid performances in an around a ton of gore and plenty of nudity. For fans of horror schlock, it's a film that takes itself just seriously enough to be watchable while still having all the silly charms you expect of a movie based on a Roger Corman original. It's delightfully stupid, and that's what really matters.
The film is set in Lake Victoria, Arizona, during Spring Break. Every year sees the town absolutely descended upon by Spring Breakers, all because it has a huge, pristine lake perfect for partying. It's great business for the town, of course, but it leads to no end of stress for the sheriff, Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue), and her deputies. Her son, Jake (Steven R. McQueen), though wants nothing more than to head out onto the lake and be around all the cute half-naked (and sometimes very naked) girls. He even has a girl that he likes, Kelly (Jessica Szohr), who is back home from school for Spring Break. When he gets an opportunity to go out into the lake to act as a tour guide for the Wild Wild Girls group, led by sleazy entrepreneur Derrick Jones (Jerry O'Connell), he leaps at the chance despite originally agreeing to take care of his younger siblings that day.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, an earthquake a few days earlier unleashed a massive threat to the Lake Victoria ecosystem. As discovered by marine biologist Novak (Adam Scott), and his crew (who are very quickly eaten), a species of prehistoric piranhas, long thought extinct, have been unleashed from their briny depths deep under the lake. Now these fish are loose and looking for a meal, and they're happy to snack on all the swimmers enjoying their time in the sun on the lake. Julie and Novak need to find a way to warn off the swimmers, and save who they can... but they might just have to go out to save Jake and the rest of his party as well from these terrifying fishy monsters.
I've seen Piranha 3D twice now, a fact that I only realized going back and watching it again. I could have sworn I hadn't seen it before, but going in there was too much I remembered for it to have been a fluke. So that speaks to the fact that, in some ways, this is just another evil fishy movie. I wasn't exactly memorable enough for me to keep it in my brain after 13 years. But, at the same time, that did allow me to re-experience the films charms on this second watching, and there were plenty to be had.
For starters, the film does commit to the bit. While it could have gotten off on just being a dumb, campy, horror comedy, it instead invests just seriously enough in its scenario. It treats its story like a legitimate Jaws clone, with Shue's sheriff and Scott's marine biologist going out and delivering real drama as they discover the horror that the lake has unleashed. That helps to add to the scares of the scenario since, more often than not, it's not treating the scares as laughs but, instead, as really horror in its own right.
Hell, the scares are legitimate once the fishes come for the swimmers at spring break. It's like a switch is flipped at the halfway mark and suddenly the fish are everywhere and the blood and viscera starts spilling. If I were to count bodies for a film like this I know I would have lost count pretty quickly as so many partiers get killed in grotesque and gory ways. It's funny, but it's legitimately horrifying, too. That is thanks to how willing the film is to dump a ton of fake blood, gore, and mangled flesh onto the scene all to sell the real scares of its stupid scenario.
At the same time, though, the film knows what it is. It's a remake of the 1978 Piranha, a legitimately campy and silly horror film that didn't take its own material too seriously. Thus we have plenty of bits of campy humor, from Richard Dreyfuss playing a parody of his character from Jaws who gets killed in the opening scene of the film. Christopher Lloyd plays a wild-eyed marine scientists to perfection. There's a scene of two naked swimmers going through a water dance set to an aria, while people around them act like it's the most erotic thing ever. It's so stupidly dumb that it becomes funny, and you know that was the intent.
I'm was legitimately surprised at how well the film balances all its elements. It should be the dumbest movie ever but, instead, it's actually a legitimately watchable horror comedy. It has just enough storytelling chops, mixed in with solidly executed gore effects, to make for a great low-budget film. Sure, not everything is perfect about it (the CGI is glaringly bad, and the film basically ignores the Lake Victoria swimmers once the sheriff goes off to save her kids, never giving her job a second thought again), but that doesn't really detract from the overall product. It's fun and dumb and really scary good.
My only hope is that the rest of the films in the overall series hold up as well. Something makes me doubt that, though...