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"Piranha 3D": When Horror Turns to Trauma

By Christopher Campbell | Spout August 23, 2010 at 2:31AM

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.
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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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