It's surprising to learn that Piranha 3D was inspired by the infamous Tommy Lee/Pamela Anderson sex tape—unless, of course, you've seen the film, in which case it explains a lot.
The story goes a little something like this: Screenwriter Josh Stolberg (Sorority Row, Good Luck Chuck) saw the video and was mightily impressed by—get this—its location. Mistakenly believing it to be Lake Havasu, Ariz., Stolberg Googled the spot and learned that it's a popular spring-break destination, complete with boats outfitted with stripper poles. Recognizing it as a primo horror movie setting, he and Sorority Row co-writer Pete Goldfinger cranked out a script called Killer Fish. (They decided to fill the lake with piranhas because sharks would be silly.) The script found its way to a producer who had decided the time was ripe for a new entry in Roger Corman's 32-year-old Piranha franchise; around the same time, French horror auteur Alexandre Aja (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes) was ready to tackle a project that didn't involve homicidal lesbians, mutant rape, or exploding nuns (none of which would have been particularly out of place in Piranha 3D).
It was a perfect storm that has resulted in one of 2010's guiltiest pleasures. Piranha 3D manages to cleverly spoof the blood-and-boobs exploitation flicks of the 1970s while simultaneously reveling in the genre's carnal excesses. It's a gleefully trashy, unapologetically obnoxious movie that has little interest in the bleak grindhouse mentality of torture porn, opting instead to wallow in the lurid fun of sleazy drive-in classics. There's gore by the gallons—an entire tanker truck full of the stuff, if reports are to be believed—but it's the sort of cartoonish carnage that's more apt to inspire giggles than nausea. The film's non-stop nudity is just as self-consciously silly; at one point, Aja brings the action to a grinding halt for a lesbian underwater ballet. Let me repeat that: Lesbian. Underwater. Ballet. It's pure Weeki Wachee Mermaids kitsch, if the Weeki Wachee Mermaids shows were choreographed by horny 17-year-old boys. Piranha 3D certainly isn't for all tastes, but if you can appreciate a solid exploitation flick for what it is, there isn't a better time to be had in theaters this summer.
A plot summary feels superfluous for this sort of movie, but here it is: As the small town of Lake Victoria, Ariz., fills with thousands of chemically impaired college students for its annual spring-break debauchery, Sheriff Julie Forester (Elizabeth Shue) has her hands full. An earthquake has opened a rift in an enormous underwater cavern, releasing thousands of prehistoric piranhas into the sheriff's aquatic jurisdiction. As the fish slowly make their way to the revelers, Julie's teenage son Jake (Steven R. McQueen) and his estranged girlfriend (Jessica Szohr) get themselves stranded on a boat with a sleazeball porn mogul named Derrick Jones (Jerry O'Connell), a thinly disguised version of Girls Gone Wild creator Joe Francis. Some stuff happens, but you won't really care until the film enters its third act.
At this point, the game changes. Everything that came before is just a build-up to one of the most insane set pieces of the summer—a gonzo bacchanal of torn flesh, exposed bone, and gushing blood that takes its cues from everything from Saving Private Ryan to Humanoids From the Deep. In spite of its off-the-charts cheese factor, it's a masterfully staged scene that should secure instant "cult classic" status for Aja's lovingly crafted creature feature. If you see the film again (I did), this scene will likely be the reason.
And if you see it again, you might think twice about paying the 3-D upcharge. Though it's remarkably well-done, especially considering the film was shot in 2-D and post-converted, à la Clash of the Titans, Piranha 3D never really takes full advantage of the format. Either to its credit or to its detriment, depending on your perspective, there are hardly any gimmick shots; when they do happen, the technique is generally reserved for thrown paper cups and projectile vomit. Perhaps it's telling that, while marketing materials all bear the "3D" title tag, the film's opening credits simply read, "Piranha."
There's something weirdly comforting about a movie as shamelessly sleazy and boisterously fun as Piranha Maybe-3D. Aja knows exactly what kind of film he's making, but he delivers a movie that's much better than it really needs to be. The cast is likable and the characters are fairly well-drawn, with Shue bringing a perfect mix of gravity and tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation to her role as the heroic Forester. McQueen (grandson of the great Steve McQueen) makes for a surprisingly charming lead, and Richard Dreyfuss and Christopher Lloyd are put to beautiful use in spite of their minimal screen time. The script strikes just the right balance between horror and comedy, and Aja's direction is spot-on. In the end, though, it's all about skin. Roger Corman must surely approve.