Friday, 27 August 2010
'Piranha 3D' sinks when it simply fails to scare
The fact that it is so skillful to create a truly scary film is one that many overlook when making a film; there is a tendancy to produce an essentially formulaic end product, using a frequently-used, and therefore predictable, set of ingredients. I don't by any means want to say that these films aren't effective at giving the scares that we want as viewers. Some of the greatest horror films use this technique, from the likes of 'Psycho' as early as 1960, to recent cult horrors such as 'The Descent' and 'Drag Me To Hell' in 2005 and 2009 respectively. Overall, if a horror has honestly scared you then it has been a success.
One of the key aspects of this formula is to spend the first half of the film building the atmosphere, and this was done extremely well in 'Piranha 3D'. The characters had started meeting each other, of course unaware of what was to come later in the film, the setting had been established, and there was enough discreetly strange events and suggestively dangerous camera angles to create a satisfying sense of building tension.
Another key ingredient that is frequently used is to make the viewer think they are about to be scared, and then to let the built atmosphere drop, as it turns out that it was an innocent series of events after all. It was usually the cat. This puts you into a feeling of insecurity, and therefore a sense of vulnerability about yourself. The makers can play on this later when something scary really does happen, and hopefully it has been the cat so many times that this time you're tricked into an opposite feeling of security, and it's not the cat this time. It was the killer. And you get the biggest fright so far in the film. This is also used throughout the first half of the film, so much so that I really felt like the rest of the film would be really effectively scary. There had been no darkness, and in my experience darkness really plays on that insecurity, but I got the impression there would be some later in the film. It had followed the formula so far, why would it stop?
I don't know why it stopped sticking to the formula, but everywhere the film hadn't quite succeeded in the first half, mostly the obvious lack of darkness and ridiculous explanation of events, was exactly where it focussed in the second half. I would have huge amounts of respect for a film that strays from the norm, and bucks tradition, if it pays off in the scare stakes, but 'Piranha 3D' simply didn't. The film really lost all sense of horror when the explanation was provided, which was so ridiculous that it just wasn't scary anymore. A film has to have some sense of realism, some sense of 'oh my god it could actually happen to me', or it is not scary at all. You can't help completely stopping to empathise with the characters in the slightest, and that is precisely what happened in 'Piranha 3D'.
The quotation everybody uses when talking about horror films is that the best make you 'afraid of fear itself', or that it's scariest when you 'don't even know what you're scared of', which is why it's such a good idea to use darkness. However, the entirity of the film was set in complete sunshine, in the clearest water the location scouts could find. This makes you wonder if the makers of this film were even intending to scare you in th second half. If they didn't want to, then they wouldn't have used prehistoric man-eating piranhas, or amounts of blood to make the 'Saw' series jealous, so what you're forced to conclude is that it was a horror that failed in trying to scare.
Where the film doesn't fail, though, is being a spring break-themed teen film. There are countless instances of nudity, in certain areas full-body nudity (cleverly no camera angles compromising enough to class the film as hardcore) and solely consists of drinking, dancing, swimming, and not a T-shirt in sight. Until the piranhas show their ugly faces. Then it's just a lot of dying. So, until the piranhas are introduced, the film is ideal for it's audience. It's actually impressive at creating a party atmosphere even before the first opening credit.
Another thing I was pleased to see was Christopher Lloyd, or Dr. Brown from 1985's science fiction classic 'Back To The Future', an essential part of my childhood. Joining him as someone else who I thought must surely be dead was 'Kojak', credited instead as Ving Rhames. I have seen him since, in the epitamy of action films, 'Con Air', in 1997, and one of my favourite films of all time, Tarrantino's 'Pulp Fiction' in 1995. Of course it was nice to be reunited with these faces in a film, but I was let down by what an un-scary horror film they'd both signed up for.
This became my sentiment for the entire film, I can see how effective it was at creating that college party vibe, and it was pleasure in itself to once again see Rhames and Lloyd, but my approval couldn't be gained for it as a film because it was so obviously a horror film that wasn't scary.