It all began with JAWS. The summer blockbuster that kicked off the summer blockbuster concept, that was fun and well-made and not too taxing on the higher cerebral functions. PIRANHA 3-D is a loving homage to that film made by people who understand what made that film great, and who understand how to make it even more fun with a well aimed lampooning. From the main title music, which is a big sloppy wet kiss to the iconic shark theme, to the opening sequence with JAWS alum Richard Dreyfuss as first victim to the horde of hungry eponymous fish, to the uncanny knack of echoing the tropes of terror and mayhem, this is a flick that is out for a good time and a whole mess of comic book carnage.
The bloodletting begins when Matt (Dreyfuss) is out bass-fishing alone at the deserted site of a Mesolithic dig somewhere in the vastness of Lake Victoria, AZ. With only the gila monsters and the sun for company, hes lazing along on a still lake and a not dissimilar amount of beer. Whether the beer bottle that drops overboard as he reels in a bass is the metaphorical straw that breaks the lake floor, thus allowing the killer fish to escape into the upper, populated reaches may or may not be the case. What is the case is that a whirlpool appears and Matt disappears in a froth of foam and blood.
As should be the case in all good exploitation horror flicks, the fish escape during Spring Break, when the water is full of nubile, well-toned, and scantily clad bodies. As should also be the case in good horror flicks, there is also a coke-crazed pornographer (Jerry OConnell) on the lake to shoot his latest soft-core opus. And as should also be the case in good horror flicks, there is the handsome kid (Steven R. McQueen), the pretty girl (Jessica Szohr) he wants to impress, and both a kid brother and a kid sister with an unerring ability to put themselves in harms way.
As should be the case of a film paying tribute to its roots, there is also a town sheriff (Elisabeth Shue) reluctant to close the lake because of the financial loss it would represent to her town, a fish expert (Christopher Lloyd) to solemnly intone the dangers inherent in a species unchanged for two million years and eager for fresh meat, and for no reason other than its just fun, an intrepid seismologist (Adam Scott) with a rifle and a jet ski. Plus, theres Ving Rhames as the deputy with an attitude and an outboard motor.
The plot builds upon time-honored lines, with illuminating piranha-eye views of the frolicking teens on their menu. The performances are dead-pan, the direction is straightforward, the tone serious, but with a sly wink to the audience inviting it to be in on the joke, which is that no plot development will be so much a surprise as a confirmation of genre expectations executed smartly as a wickedly effective cinematic union of suspense and irony, topped with an invigorating dash of dry wit. When little sister innocently wades out knee-deep into the infested waters, of course she will cut her foot on something sharp, and of course it will attract the piranhas. When the pornographer takes the wheel of the aptly named Barracuda, of course he will hit the rocks he was warned about. Of course the sheriff will strip down to a tank top and demonstrate even more preternatural agility and balance than the porn stars did while filming the underwater nude ballet. Of course the young teens will squabble before falling into peril only to realize their undying love for one another.
With all that going for it, the flick tops itself with the nasty little critters themselves. One character describes them as looking ticked off and they do. Above and beyond the instinctive aggressiveness, the clattering needle-like teeth and staring iridescent eyes both have a palpably annoyed air about them which renders them both scary and oddly perky. This isnt just a feeding frenzy, complete with bodies gnawed into giving up slimy excrescences as they fall to pieces, its a vendetta that seems almost personal.
PIRAHNA 3-D is not for the squeamish, though the gore is relatively tame and rendered with a sense of the absurd. Full of inside jokes (is that Eli Roth at the wet t-shirt guy? You betcha), social commentary lurking within the ostensible social commentary, and a punch line that is all the better for giving the audience enough warning to see it coming, but not enough to spoil the guffaw, this is a wild ride that asks only for the audience to ride along, and to do anything but take it seriously.