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"Piranha 3D": When Horror Turns to Trauma

by Christopher Campbell
August 23, 2010 2:31 AM
10 Comments
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After watching "Piranha 3D," a movie I enjoyed far less than expected, I was reminded that director Alexandre Aja also helmed the 2006 remake of "The Hills Have Eyes." That's the one where we're made to watch the very horrible sequence of events in which a man is burned to death in front of his family, two daughters are raped, an infant is threatened with a gun, the mother is shot in the stomach and finally one of the daughters gets her brains blown out. Meanwhile everyone is screaming and crying and experiencing one of the worst traumatic events imaginable -- I'm talking about the characters, though I was feeling a tiny bit of that trauma myself, and I am not typically that sensitive a person when it comes to graphic movie violence. That kind of horror is not scary in any sort of entertaining way, unless you're a disturbed person. It's really quite awful and sad watching this stuff happen, regardless of the fact it's on a movie screen.

I thought "Piranha 3D" would be a little more "fun" than that. I hadn't seen or planned to see any of Aja's work since leaving "The Hills Have Eyes" so upset (plus "Mirrors" just seemed like a rip-off of "Poltergeist III"), but this promised to be more in the comedy-horror genre than the agonizing and torture-filled sort. I was baited and I did suffer, not nearly as much as I did watching mutants torment that family in "The Hills Have Eyes," but after a slow buildup and a few fairly funny and gross kills, Aja hits us with a crescendo of mayhem that just keeps on going and going and going. What separates this sequence, in which the film's prehistoric fish go to town on hundreds of partying co-eds attending a wet t-shirt contest, from the rest of the obviously silly movie is how real and traumatic it appears. I'm not alone in noticing the change in tone. I've seen comments on the web likening it to watching footage from an actual disaster.

Sure, there's some level of humor to be had in watching a girl fall into two halves while being carried out of the water, but in context I am slightly disturbed. I think part of it comes from how extensive and explicit the violence is in this bloodbath. First of all, we see less of the cartoonish CGI piranhas at this point. It's mostly just the victims, many with patches of skin and limbs missing. Second, there are a lot of deaths and injury that come not from the fish but from other humans in panic. Also, we see more survivors in critical condition who've nearly escaped, even if for just seconds on a boat or beach where they'll probably bleed to death, screaming and crying and twitching from shock, as though we're seeing the aftermath of a bombing or plane crash or earthquake. I can appreciate the need to remind people that in certain traumatic disasters even survivors are often left in bad shape, physically and psychologically. I just wasn't expecting such a reminder with a B-movie about killer fish.

But this is what Aja likes to do, put us into that carnage. In an interview with Cinematical, he says the following:

I think when you do a movie, you have to create an immersion for the audience. You have to make a movie where the audience [members] feel like they are living the story and not only watching something. To do that, you need to see what your protagonist sees, and to feel their trauma, and that's what I tried to do in The Hills Have Eyes and High Tension. If something awful happens, I want the audience to be able to see it as the character is seeing it so they can react to it the same way. For me it was always finding the line between gratuitous violence and what is important to show to get the implication of the events inside the story.

It would seem Aja should be doing dramas, then, rather than horror -- especially horror comedy -- but he also claims that this over-the-top gratuity is fun, at least for him. So either he doesn't truly mean to make his audience suffer along with his characters, or he does but he sadistically gets a kick out of doing so. In which case "Piranha 3D" is not as hypocritical as critics like A.O. Scott see it as, with its desire to condemn a sleazy pornographer while also serving the audience a heaping helping of bare breasts. I had to wonder if, as Eric Kohn writes, this movie is "a scathing indictment of America’s increasingly blatant obsession with dirty sex," why does it seem to be tailor made for the viewer who identifies with the Spring Breakers on screen? Does Aja mean to get the beer and breast-obsessed crowd into the theater and make them react like their peers, with watery eyes and a lifetime of anguish? Should the officials at Lake Havasu fear not that people will believe piranhas are really at the site but that people will suddenly stop coming because they're abstaining from Spring Break-type activities?

Given the reactions of most of the audience I saw it with, I don't think that kind of message works on those kinds of people. No sinner is going to watch "Piranha 3D" and see it as a morality play in which the earth opens up to unleash aquatic demons upon the Dionysian college set -- and if they do spot metaphor, it's still not likely to change their ways. They, like my more-intelligent colleagues, will just enjoy the movie as a darkly humorous opera filled with ridiculous debauchery and gore, without becoming emotionally involved with the characters on screen. Meanwhile, the more sensitive types will stay away or, like my poor fiancee, be dragged to the theater, where they'll pay $17 to entirely cover their eyes, hands over 3D glasses, for at most of the movie. And very few of us will sit there and watch and get watery eyed beneath 3D glasses, relating piranha attacks to real-world tragedies, only to be made to quickly forget the trauma with the return to comedic moments involving detached penises and wacky Christopher Lloyd.

Does anyone else want to confess to being traumatized by parts of "Piranha 3D"?

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10 Comments

  • David Albert | January 16, 2011 8:27 AMReply

    I went to see Piranha at the theatre and then went out to buy it for a relatively cheap price. I myself do enjoy watching these kind of movies (although, maybe enjoy isn't quite the right word). As a child, watching a movie like this would have caused me anguish for months, but when I got older, I felt a feeling of control, knowing that it was all special effects. I now find the beginning scene of Saving Private Ryan more terrifying, and I won't even watch Schindler's List. Those movies are based on real events that took place and the horror was very realistic. I really enjoyed watching the making of Piranha on the dvd. The cast was having a great time making the movie and didn't take it all that seriously. When a movie says brutal violence and gore you should know what to expect.

  • lina | October 7, 2010 7:18 AMReply

    ic byouti foll very good kiss holywood

  • mike | April 8, 2013 10:15 PM

    you're fucking stupid

  • Al | October 7, 2010 2:52 AMReply

    For me it was all cartoonish, I didn't for a moment believe it was anything that it wasn't: horror/porn/comedy.

    However, I witnessed a couple of teenage girls flee from the cinema during the aforementioned carnage scene: one, cell phone in one hand, the other hand clutching her mouth looking all the world like she was about to puke up her popcorn and big gulp everywhere, without making it to the porcelain in time.

    I guess they took it somewhat more seriously than I did :P

  • mark | August 28, 2010 12:49 PMReply

    Well, horror comedy does have a responsibility to convey aspects of both horror and comedy. Most of Piranha isnt scary; so when the film's horror centrepiece arrives, what is expected there exactly? Does the Writer wish for clownish music and pratfall sound effects to help enjoy the visual of people being slaughtered?
    Sounds like the Writer is not built for the horror genre in general, but periodically views its work(s) out of some morbid fascination. Most of the film is tasteless. Skillful, but tasteless. Some will find themselves will a moral standpoint or personal tragedy relationship with which to denounce it. Others will enjoy or dismiss it for the same reason; it only wants to have fun.

  • keyla | August 24, 2010 12:46 PMReply

    i like it it waas scary

  • Me Smart | August 24, 2010 3:53 AMReply

    Yes movies are real, dumbass. If they didn't exist then what physical object is being projected onscreen? MOVIE FILM!!!

    Anyway, I think horror is more fun when it's less realistic. It's the difference between Hills Have Eyes and Irreversible.

  • JBD | August 23, 2010 12:22 PMReply

    I was shocked by how gratuitous the violence and gore was. I thought it was going to be silly! Cartoonish! But, no. It was over-the-top and made me want to go home and watch a Disney movie in my jammies under the covers.

  • Christopher Campbell | August 23, 2010 8:19 AMReply

    You don't need to remind me. But must I remind you that movies also mean to evoke an emotional response, and the more real or realistic the horror is portrayed, the more it should likely evoke a response similar to that of real violence and trauma?

    The more I'm thinking about this, the more I realize I've had similar responses to scenes with a great number of kills, one after the other, as opposed to those scenes that wipe out only one or two characters, a la most slasher films, or a ton of people in one swoop, a la many disaster films.

    Other movies/scenes that I'm thinking of off the top of my head included the opening of Maximum Overdrive, of all movies (but I did love that scene growing up, maybe due to the AC/DC covering much of the screaming), and parts of Titanic, though that even was more cartoony with all its CGI people than the Piranha 3D massacre sequence..

  • lolita_haze | August 23, 2010 7:33 AMReply

    are you trying to say that violence in horror movies is more "fun" when it's not realistic? have you ever seen the original "hills have eyes", it's pretty brutal too. but really, is all that gore just spoiling the fun of laughing at people being massacred on screen.

    also, must i remind you that movies are not real?

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