“Welcome to rock bottom,” Baywatch alum and celebrity guest star David Hasselhoff mutters at one point in Piranha 3DD. I’m happy to report that this absurdist meta-take on Jaws 3D (that’s the one that takes place at Sea World or whatever) doesn’t quite sink to that level. In fact, like its swarming antagonists, it sometimes jumps right out of the water.
The plot has to do with some nonsense about some jackass (David Koechner) transforming what was once a mere “water park” into The Big Wet Water Park, a gratuitous peep show filled with “water-certified” strippers, nudist pools and a “Cooch Cam” by the ladders to catch all those fleeting crotch shots. His stepdaughter, Maddy (Danielle Panabaker, already a grizzled horror veteran at 24), is none too happy about this crass revisionist take on her late mother’s family-friendly vision, but she’s soon got bigger problems than familial dysfunction: namely, the little critters with big teeth that have been around since the Dawn of Man (or something).
After two employees (Meagan Tandy and Paul James Jordan) are killed by the creatures after indulging in hot van sex, Maddy and her pal Shelby (Katrina Bowden) seek the counsel of Carl Goodman (Christopher Lloyd, returning as the B-movie version of Doc Brown), a kooky marine biologist who warns that the damn things can now eat through metal, so to hell with your pool grates and whatnot. From there, Shelby’s would-be suitor (Jean-Luc Bilodeau) gets his junk chomped off (a crude but effective variation on the “vagina dentate” myth), David Hasselhoff wields a trident as a funhouse-mirror version of himself, Ving Rhames returns from the dead equipped with shotguns where his legs used to be and lots of bouncing breasts fill the damn screen in lecherous close-up (hey, the flick holds true to its title, if nothing else).
I found Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s 2010 remix of Joe Dante’s amusing 1978 B-movie variation on Jaws, to be something of a mini-masterpiece. Aja knows horror (High Tension, Mirrors) and he knows horror remakes (The Hills Have Eyes), and Dimension was smart enough to know that you can’t hire someone to make fun of a horror movie unless they could actually make a real horror movie themselves (perhaps the main problem with Joss Whedon’s cheeky The Cabin in the Woods). Aja mined a lot of laughs out of Piranha 3D by simply playing its outrageous premise relatively straight, conducting a gleefully unapologetic grand guignol freak show with style and confidence.
The sequel doesn’t quite carry on its follow-up mayhem with the same sense of grace and gusto. Director John Gulager works with a script that trades the humorous yet more grounded tone of Aja’s film for almost full-blown parody, bringing a sense of snarky self-consciousness to the point where the characters really might as well be doing double takes to the camera. It’s kind of. . . well, clunky. Really, it’s a wonder the producers approached Gulager, who has a least one rather impressive horror film under his own belt (Feast), for this gig rather than, say, the Wayans Brothers; really, as it’s constantly making fun of itself (or is perhaps afraid of itself, but let’s not imply that it’s that smart), the film could’ve been called Piranha Movie.
Still, as Gulager is the man who brought us Feast, the movie that featured a woman spitting monster semen out of her mouth (ah, memories!), he’s got some extremist tricks up his sleeve that keep Piranha 3DD entertaining enough for those who are into this kind of thing. Gary Busey plays the poor hayseed who gets devoured in the film’s prelude, a show-stopping setpiece that’s very much aware of the fact that, if you’re going to have a scene in which Gary Busey gets killed by a bunch of fish, you kind of have to go all the way. Ving Rhames does look pretty cool with his shotgun legs, and he looks even cooler as he blasts away the little beasties with a look of grim determination (Rhames is nothing if not dedicated to this madness). And the film reaches almost transcendent heights of dumdum brilliance every time the Hoff is on screen – he deserves a Good Sport award as he’s the butt of most of the film’s jokes, though he still somehow manages to always maintain that Michael Knight sense of cool as he’s being poked and prodded (and sometimes bitten).
Above all, Piranha 3DD wants you to love it. It tries too hard, yes. But in a genre that is too often undone by laziness or indifference, that’s better than not trying at all. So get in the water and dig in.