Reel Time
Dale Hill

            About a third of the way into “Piranha 3D” there's an enchanting sequence in which two not-quite-naked (they're wearing swim fins on their feet) porn-film actresses (real ones) perform an underwater ballet to the Flower Duet from the Léo Delibes opera “Lakmé.” This is the moment when you realize what's wrong with the movie.

            American cinema has a long history of delivering horror comedies that see-saw nicely between comedy and horror. American cinema also has a history of adding lots of gratuitous sex to the gratuitous violence, thereby appealing to the widest possible fan base. Mostly this is done with the writer's and director's tongues firmly planted in their (own) cheeks, allowing audience members to enjoy whatever percentage of the humor that they care to, or are capable of.

            You might well think that a movie involving ancient flesh-eating ichthyoids set loose in a body of water full of busty, semi-nude spring-breakers has lots of potential along those lines, and you'd be right. It all started with Spielberg's  1975 “Jaws,” which delivered thrills and tension and uneasy laughs in equal measure, and incidentally invented the Summer Blockbuster (true!). The thrills diminished, as usual, through all the “Jaws” sequels, and were taken up by the “Piranha” spoofs, starting in 1978. Were they really intended as parodies? Just look at the original “Jaws” poster, then at the original “Piranha” poster if you have doubts.

            For that matter, look at the original “Jaws” poster and then at the new “Piranha 3D” poster (2010); things don't get more obvious than that, even in Hollywood.

            The story-line also remains exactly the same: implausibly dangerous natural creature(s) menace(s)  bevy of innocent merry-makers as they frolic in sparkling waters of attractive holiday destination. This time, however, the subset of characters we're expected to identify with are beyond redemption, automata who are providing the plot points for situations you can tick off while napping: nasty, drug-sniffing porno director with potty mouth: victim; busty, drug-sniffing (but good-natured and possibly victimized but maybe not) porno actresses: victims; big-hearted African-American sheriff's deputy: victim, but dies heroically. In fact the story hews so slavishly to formula you find yourself hoping that some of the innocent people we're supposed to sympathize with, like the 17-year-old hero and his 9-year-old twin siblings, will get just a teensy bit gnashed up.

            The sheriff (who is also the kids' mom) and her deputy have the impossible task of trying to convince the partyers to leave the water. Unlike the more subtle “Jaws” problem of arguing against the resort's economic imperative, we don't even get close to the Town Office; these kids are so doped on sex, beer, and really loud techno-pop at the wet-T-shirt contest that they can't even hear the bullhorn's warning. They keep on with the excess until hundreds of them start getting mutilated at once, and the water turns so red that the following scene looks green for about twelve seconds; this is what you've been waiting for, so don't tell me I'm spoiling it for you. And it delivers just what you expect, with countless topless bikini-clad extras being torn to pieces in the most graphic ways imaginable.

            Oh, and back to the Flower Duet, and what it tells us about what's wrong with the movie: the thing is, except for that unexpectedly sophisticated French moment, none of this is any fun. It could have been, obviously, but the director and co-writer, Alexandre Aja (his nom de film, as I would put it – it's more concise than nom de metteur en scène ou peut-être de guerre ou bien de pêche) is a young Frenchman who, at least in this case, is tone-deaf to the American sense of reckless entertainment. His father is a (French) director and his mother is a film critic (a serious French critic, I suspect) and I imagine that Alexandre thinks that severed boobs count as humor, and ugly dialogue counts as wit to most audiences in the Etats-unis, so he threw in lots and lots of those things. It's a shame he didn't watch Godard's “Breathless,” or anything by Billy Wilder, a few more times.

Mais d'esprit, ô le plus lamentable des êtres,
            Vous n'en eûtes jamais un atome, et de lettres
            Vous n'avez que les trois qui forment le mot: Sot!*

This is not my first experience with cross-cultural misunderstandings of comedy: a friend of mine and I sat in a cinema in Arles, in Provence, watching “Revenge of the Pink Panther” with Peter Sellers. We were laughing ourselves to sobs while the rest of the sold-out audience was stony silent. Maybe they were quietly appreciating subtleties in the subtitles that we Yanks couldn't grasp.

            Needless to say, all of this mayhem is R-rated, so if I haven't been explicit enough, that should warn you not to take the toddlers. For my favorite example of a monster movie that's honestly terrifying and also a laff riot, let me recommend the original “Tremors” from 1990, with Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward and Reba McIntyre (yep!). It's horror that's not afraid to make fun of itself, and you're with them all the way, on the edge of your seat.

            BTW, unlike the rest of the instantly-forgotten “Piranha” soundtrack, that “Lakmé” duet is one of the loveliest things you'll ever hear. A French upbringing must be good for something.


            *Another contest! – One free pass to the Narrow Gauge Cinema to the first reader who emails anacreon@tdstelme.net with the correct origin of this quote.#

            #Contest valid only within state of Maine unless contestant visits Maine within next fortnight.