Lately, I've been doing a lot of neuroscience writing that's been boring the pants off everybody, so when my mind cast about for a topic for a second article in this month's acid logic, I thought I should make an attempt return to the classic pop culture criticism for which I am so revered. But what to write about? I've largely become disconnected from culture, pop or otherwise, and my hipness quotient has sunk to subterranean levels. I haven't even seen "The King's Speech" for Christ's sake! But then it dawned on me: I should do an article on "Piranha."
Doubtless you are at least dimly aware that a remake of the 1970s Joe Dante directed, Roger Corman produced "Piranha" was recently released (in 2010, to be exact) in 3-D glory*. And you probably have some familiarity of the general plot (blatantly lifted from Steven Spielberg's "Jaws.") Libidinous partygoers descend on a natural body of water (in the remake, the placid Lake Victoria.) Via a twist of fate, a deadly fish menace is released into the water leading to a horrible bloodbath which well-meaning authority figures are helpless to stop.
* The movie was released to theaters as a 3-D film, and titled "Piranha 3-D." The non-3-D version I saw is simply called "Piranha."
I'd seen the previews for "Piranha," and it was on my short list to see, but somehow I never made it into the movie theaters. I did however manage to order it up on my cable box of several nights ago (pay per view is awesome; it makes avoiding interaction with your fellow man easier than ever!) and was delighted with the results. How delighted? Let me tell you.
Some might be wary of applying the term "masterpiece" to a movie that's been out less than a year. Shouldn't such acclaim be reserved only for movies that have percolated in the public consciousness for years, earning critical appraisal and thought? Normally I would say yes, but I make an exception for "Piranha." Why? Because it's the greatest film ever made.
"Oh, come on," you squeal in your whiny, nasally voice. "The greatest film ever made?! How can it surpass such universally respected classics as Citizen Kane, Apocalypse Now or The Great Muppet Caper?"
I hear you my friends. It does seem odd to laud "Piranha" as the pinnacle of modern moviemaking. To justify my argument, let me return, briefly, to the study of neuroscience, particularly the work of cognitive psychologist/philosopher Elanor Rosch. A modern scientist, Roche has done a lot of theorizing about how the human brain categorizes the world. One of her precepts is that for an object or concept to fit into a particular categorization, it needs to have many, though not necessarily all, of the attributes often associated with the category. And certain things are better examples of a category than others. We all agree that sparrows and penguins are birds, but we view sparrows as more birdlike than penguins (mainly because we consider the ability to fly a key component of the bird category.) Some objects or concepts match the attributes of a category so perfectly, they can be considered prototypes of the category.
How would this apply in film? For categories of films, certain titles are more prototypical than others. When we are talking about action-adventure movies, "Raiders of the lost Ark" is clearly a better fit than "Gandhi." When we're thinking about gauche comedies, "There's Something about Mary" stands above "Star Wars." We understand that these movies map to many of the understood attributes of each category, even if we're not really conscious of those attributes.
Let's consider the genre of the horror film. What are some of its important attributes?
A) Horrible, gory death scenes
C) A good monster/villain
D) More boobies
E) Punishment of sinners
F) Formerly great actors slumming, but with a twinkle in their eye
"Piranha" brilliantly hits all its targets. Let's start off with horrible gory death scenes. I think we would all agree this is of prime importance in horror, and "Piranha" is one of the bloodiest gore fests of recent memory. Obviously I don't want to give away too many good parts, but I think I can "wet" your appetite with a few. (Get it? It's "wet" because blood, spattered brains and mountainous blobs of viscera are wet! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!)
The very premise of "Piranha" --- fish who consume targets by the overwhelming power of swarm --- pretty much guarantees some good gore. And there are plenty of great scenes of humans being rendered alive by toothy monsters intent on ripping out hamburger sized pieces of flesh. But there are also some instances of gore you might not expect. A recent innovation in the horror movie market is the concept of people who get sliced in two (or three!) so quickly and cleanly that it takes several seconds for their body to actually split apart. "Piranha" playfully includes such a scene.
But what really caught my attention was the following: a female swimmer gets her long blond locks caught in the stalled gears of an outboard motor propeller, while a panicked youth attempts to gun the engine. Anyone who has seen their share of horror films might predict that he starts the engine thereby drilling the propeller into her head. What I didn't expect was that it would instead rip her face clean off her skull!
Next attribute: boobies! Longing camera shots of voluminous youthful breasts have long been a key element in the horror genre, but their appearance has declined in recent years (either because of the slightly rightward turn American culture took post 9/11, or because gratuitous pornography is so readily available on the Internet that basic titty shots are close to pointless.) "Piranha" makes up for this recent reduction with an onslaught of ovoid breasts plus --- get this --- actual muff! In fact, there's a genuinely artistic scene of two perfectly formed and completely naked porn stars swimming and making out underwater. It just doesn't get better than this, people!
How fares the villain of "Piranha?" Obviously the hordes of hungry fish are not "personality monsters" like Freddy Krueger of "Nightmare on Elm Street." But there is something innately terrifying about the swarm concept. Were a human matched against one piranha --- or even two or three --- he or she might have a chance. But it's the fact that there are hundreds of the nibbling monsters, each of them inflicting wounds that individually would be meaningless but cumulatively ensure death, that is so horrifying. The piranha swarm is the ultimate expression of strength through numbers; there's almost something inspiring about them: each fish alone can accomplish very little, but by working together they can transform a human being into a gleaming skeleton in less than a minute. That's a message for the kids out there.
Another attribute I consider to be key to the horror film is punishment of sinners. It's a given in a horror plot that characters who are more virginal and pure of heart have a better chance of surviving, whereas whores and whore mongers will be dispatched as painfully and messily is possible. Thus it has always been and thus it should always be. (Actually, several recent movies have strayed from this predictable formula.)
This plot device offers a catharsis for the frustrations of your average horror film fan. As mentioned, the prototypical horror film needs plenty of nubile, half naked teenage girls running around. However, the average horror fan --- even one as attractive as myself --- knows that the odds of those teenage girls actually sleeping with him is close to nil. To make matters worse, these teenage girls seem to be having sex with every himbo douchebag who gives them a ride on his motorcycle. Thus the viewer develops a seething, steaming rage towards these libidinous fornicators and wants to see them killed as horribly and brutally as possible. "Piranha" perfectly delivers on this desire during a key scene where the piranha swarm attacks hundreds of drunken college students partying on the lake. One cannot help but see the same hand of God that crushed Sodom and Gomorrah at work as our pint sized aquatic friends remove gobs of flesh and muscle from screaming youth. There is a certain irony at play as well. These vacant teenagers have derived all their good fortune from their physical appearance. When the skin and flesh of that appearance is removed, they are revealed to be nothing more than jutting bones, bubbling viscera, floating eyeballs and crimson muscle. No doubt they appreciate this poetic justice as the horrible pain from their wounds chases them into unconsciousness.
My last attribute for a good horror film --- slumming actors --- might be a bit controversial, but I feel a brief review of the horror genre proves its importance. Just as horror films have been the starting point for many great acting careers, they too have been the fallback position for thespians (including former Oscar winners) on the decline. Think of Joan Crawford in "Berserk!" or "Trog." Geoffrey Rush in "House on Haunted Hill." Or Marlon Brando in the remake of "the Island of Dr. Moreau." "Piranha" has no shortage of a accomplished actors. The movie starts out with Richard Dreyfus slyly nodding at his role in the ultimate killer fish movie, "Jaws." The main protagonist is played by Academy nominated actress Elizabeth Shue. Jerry O'Connell, child star of the famed "Stand by Me" has a delicious role as a misogynistic porn director*. And "Piranha" even features the screen return of the great Christopher Lloyd. Truly an all-star event.
* I guess that's something of an oxymoron.
With this final piece in place, I have no doubt you --- the loyal acid logic reader --- agree wholeheartedly with my assessment that "Piranha" is the greatest movie of all time. However, it may not hold onto that title forever --- there's a sequel in the works!
Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at firstname.lastname@example.org
View Wil's Acid Logic web log, a stirring endorsement of sex with pandas!