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Friday, July 24, 2020

Joe Dante’s ‘Piranha’ vs. Alexandre Aja’s ‘Piranha 3D’ [Revenge of the Remakes]

Welcome to Revenge of the Remakes, where columnist Matt Donato takes us on a journey through the world of horror remakes. We all complain about Hollywood’s lack of originality whenever studios announce new remakes, reboots, and reimaginings, but the reality? Far more positive examples of refurbished classics and updated legacies exist than you’re willing to remember (or admit). The good, the bad, the unnecessary – Matt’s recounting them all.

In last month’s “Revenge” column, I detailed how viewing Maniac (2012) before Maniac (1980) might have lessened my opinion on William Lustig’s original. This month, I encounter the same reverse-sequential situation. I’d seen Alexandre Aja’s Piranha 3D twenty-something times before ever indulging in Joe Dante’s Piranha, says a self-proclaimed fool. Aja’s grotesque feeding frenzy on Lake Victoria’s beaches suggests something that the original is not: an outright rabid creature feature. Working backward, I was shocked to find Dante’s aquatic nightmare somewhat more wholesome yet still devoted to underwater terror. So very Dante, at the top of his game, which I should never have doubted.

It’s safe to say I’m a fan of both, but for substantially different reasons. Aja enlists the special effects mastery of Greg Nicotero and focuses on gratification through gore. Sloppy, limb-gnawing, torso-slicing gore. Meanwhile, Dante favors B-movie thrills and camp – summer camp, performative camp, any way you interpret “camp” – for a markedly contrasting type of “GET OUT OF THE WATER” experience. Some might say he’s toying with ideas that he’d eventually hone in later films like Gremlins, like how James Wan used Dead Silence to test stylistic choices that’d later define such titles as Insidious.

Let’s rip into the meat of my analysis to explain why Piranha 3D is the kind of remake we herald around these parts, while simultaneously acknowledging how Piranha has rightfully become one of my favorite aquatic horror movies of all time.

The Approach

I’ve long called Piranha 3D a “remake,” but now I’d change that classifier to “remix.” Writers Peter Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg honor John Sayles’ original screenplay’s fundamental structure, but with a modernized spin. A school of hungry piranhas surges into public waters where smiley-splashy swimmers get chewed to pieces. That’s the bare-bones model of both narratives, but Goldfinger and Stolberg ditch the sleepy mountain-town vibe for DJ Chocolate Thunder’s party-rocking anthems. New fresh smell (Axe body spray and vomit), and yet still respectful in terms of championing Dante’s original. You’ll notice reused shots in shuffled order, with altered outcomes, yet still wholly recognizable when acknowledging 1978’s fin-flick spectacle.

Aja’s 2010 update takes us to spring break at Lake Victoria, the real-life Lake Havasu, where sheriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue) races against time to save intoxicated partiers from a very real piranha threat. Her son, Jake (Steven R. McQueen), finds himself playing host to an adult entertainment mogul (Derrick Jones, none other than Jerry O’Connell) and in harm’s way on the coked-out filmmaker’s yacht. It all starts with an unexpected earthquake that releases the evolutionary-enhanced piranhas from an undiscovered cave system and could end with countless deaths if Julie can’t clear the lake. All she has to do is kill the most epic at-sea festival of the year, and convince beer-bonging brochachos to dock their boats. How hard can that be?

It’s inconspicuously simple, and that’s what allows Aja to focus his talents on kills galore. You’ll notice how Aja’s take doesn’t include any mutated lab experiments like in Dante’s, and only focuses on one primary disaster populated by characters who don’t require investment. Most anyone introduced will become chum, thrown into the water for a gruesome death. Dante injects environmental horror and government conspiracy subplots to make an “animals attack” entry with more to chew. Aja’s take could be considered torture porn at sea, but impressively so since the third-act finale is as harrowing as Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day invasion. Both shorelines inescapably soaked in blood.

One film an almost family-friendly (sans some nudity and child endangerment) glimpse of aquatic horror, the other a borderline mean-spirited prop warehouse showcase with a nastier bite.

Does It Work?

Speaking for myself, yes. It does what a good horror remake should. I know I’ve reused this phrase throughout “Revenge Of The Remakes” and will continue to when promoting good behavior. Goldfinger and Stolberg lay the groundwork for an original take on what’s otherwise an unoriginal story (not a burn!), and Aja’s delivery is rooted in differentiation. There’s an immediate recognition that Piranha 3D is a more savage beast than Piranha through Richard Dreyfuss’ early death, repurposing a direct callback to Bradford Dillman’s hero character when he raises his hand out the water. In Piranha, this is a sign of hope to reassure viewers that Dillman still lives. In Piranha 3D, we see Dreyfuss’ boney remains stripped of flesh to signify certain doom. One hell of a way to sell your film’s tone (bonus Jaws reference).

As we’re introduced to characters from Eli Roth’s wet t-shirt contest emcee to douchebro Todd (Cody Longo), it becomes very evident that most Lake Victoria regulars are horrid humans. The only souls worth saving are the Foresters (even Jake, the world’s worst babysitter), sweetheart Kelly (Jessica Szohr), Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames), and maybe nude model Danni (Kelly Brook). Everyone else ranges on a scale from “That Dude Who Runs Girls Gone Wild” to those who support “That Dude Who Runs Girls Gone Wild” (although, for lawsuit reasons, Derrick Jones totally isn’t based on that dude who runs Girls Gone Wild [wink wink, nudge nudge]). Most of the time, this wouldn’t work for myself or larger audiences because empathy helps elevate on-screen deaths. We’ve seen too many horror films populated by gutter trash whose sole purpose is to inflate the body count. That’s what sets Piranha 3D apart – it’s efficiently good at karmic justice against otherwise cringeworthy archetypes.

Nicotero’s practical effects work is next-level outstanding when it comes to carnage, and is the secret weapon of Aja’s reimagining. Under the shadow of night, you can hide jankier effects and find more forgiveness. Under the blistering sunlight of “sunny scary” horror, your craft is on full display. There’s no hiding your imperfections, which doesn’t bother Nicotero in the slightest. Where you’re watching Piranha to see what surprises are in store, you’re watching Piranha 3D to see how Nicotero mixes physical effects with digitized smoothing for epic finishers that continue to push gore-forward boundaries. What would be a career-defining turn for other behind-the-scenes crafters is just another day in the office for Nicotero.

The Result

Piranha 3D might be a “remake” by specific definitions. Still, it’s a standalone experience that unites kegger-carelessness and sun-soaked thrills with a raw intensity that’s rarely allowed to shine in mainstream aquatic horror. Aja balances his viewers on a razor’s edge, executing these chaotic underwater attack sequences without losing focus in a flurry of gnashing mouths, air bubbles, and bloody leakage. There’s a cheekiness promised with the “3D” add-on that assures viewers there’s going to be some midnight movie vibe. “Piranha” is a movie about piranhas, but “Piranha 3D” sounds like a slice of aquatic horror that’s never going to take itself too seriously. Aja delivers just that.

I love all the nods to Dante’s fan-favorite. It could be something simple, like Jake’s escape from Derrick’s flooded vessel when he’s pulled from the near-wreckage by a speedboat with a water sports rope attached to the back. Maybe it’s how Jerry O’Connell’s skeletal remains from the waist down are an homage to Keenan Wynn’s chewed legs. Same for Ving Rhames’ last stand in relation to Paul Bartel’s saving of his campers. Even Gianna Michaels’ death as “Parasailing Girl” is a reference, when she screams for her boat to pull her out of the water just like the waterskiing man in Piranha (sans explosion, sadly). All these moments mirror something that happens in Dante’s release, but in their unique ways. Goldfinger and Stolberg manage to capitalize on the 2010s in terms of horror trends at the time (when movies like multiple Saw sequels were popular).

The thing is, Piranha 3D still boasts its own identity. Some might call it “fratty” or obscene, but I view it more as a reflective product of the times. It’s sure as hell gaze-heavy when showing off hot bods in swimsuits (or without them), but there’s a genuine sense of retribution once chaos erupts and all these terrible jabronis shouting lines like “Show me your tits!” become piranha chow. Not only that, but Aja never shies away from his subterranean creatures when weaponizing them against Lake Victoria’s unsavory invaders. Think of how many shark flicks hide their titular beast until the very last moment. Piranha 3D lunges forward in the very first minutes as a showing of dominance and never backs down. From the first red-saturated cyclone as Dreyfuss’ body is nibbled to pieces, to O’Connell’s severed weiner, to the girl who spills her entrails when carried out of the water – it’s all adrenaline, all the time.

The Lesson

Let your movie speak for itself. Sure, remakes aim to capitalize on marketability value. You want that nostalgic draw and tag-along audience where applicable. That said, your movie should stand on its own in comparison. Piranha 3D and Piranha make an exemplary double-feature that proves two entities with the same concept can exist in totally separate universes. Alexandre Aja is not Joe Dante, or vice versa, and that’s a good thing. That’s why two piranha-centric films can exist as sibling watches with singular voices and messages. One the more “playful” and satirical commentary that weighs hubris against nature (Dick Miller’s attraction owner drives this home in a “Mayor Larry Vaughn” way), the other where Adam Scott can hop on a Waverunner and blast leaping piranhas out of mid-air with a shotgun.

So what did we learn?

  • Directors should be allowed to realize their vision without restraint in staying familiar with a remake’s original.
  • Updated technology allows for benefits when it comes to something that could be described as “outdated,” although Piranha holds up swimmingly.
  • Adam Scott needs more roles where he shoots things with a shotgun.
  • When you identify how your remake will stand out, drive that point home like the third-act of Piranha 3D with gore upon more gore upon endless gore.
  • Go big or get out. Aja approaches Piranha 3D with the motto, “Anything you can do, I can do better.” While some will argue if “better” fits, there’s no denying his commitment to razor-toothed ambitions.

I still remember seeing Piranha 3D in theaters, and consequently, haven’t had as much fun in a theater with aquatic horror until Crawl. Aja knows his way around liquified horror and scaly dangers, but that’s not to discredit Dante’s work in the least bit. Honestly? Piranha and Piranha 3D might be my favorite one-two punch of fishy genre exploitation, which is high praise considering my love of others such as Deep Blue Sea or Lake Placid. I’m sorry it took so long to pay my respects, Mr. Dante and Mr. Aja. Your films will forever be tethered in my mind, darting ahead of the pack when it comes to wet, wacky, waterlogged horror entertainment.


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