Return of the Creature Feature

piranha-3d-movie-wallpaper-1280x720The success of Piranha 3D marks the resurgence of monster movies and a welcome reintroduction of fun to horror films.

There’s a strange, almost perverse, joy to be had watching films that you know are bad. Not bad in a Sex And The City 2 way (lame puns, lazy Arabic stereotypes etc.), but enjoyably cheap and light-heartedly goofy. They usually occupy the realm of film-making which is better funded than student movies (although only just) but not considered big enough to get mass distribution. As such, they usually go straight to DVD or television, but are loved enough to get screenings at indie festivals. And they usually involve creatures that attack.

Following the Internet-led hype for Samuel L Jackson vehicle Snakes on a Plane, there has been something of resurrection in schlocky creature features. Last month a remake of Piranha – now in 3D – made it to the big screen with largely positive reviews. The favourable response wasn’t because it was a great piece of artistic filmmaking, but because it was an enjoyable 90- minutes that ticked all the right boxes for this type of movie – gore, violent creatures, humour, over-the-top dialogue, in-jokes and nudity. The latter will have been cut for the censored cinema version in this region, so if you have any interest in Kelly Brook’s underwater nude lesbian scene and dismembered-member jokes then the DVD is out next month.

What Piranha 3D – or plain old Piranha by the time it’s on DVD – does that marks it out as a rare success is this: it takes a fairly sizeable budget and uses it to encapsulate the spirit of exploitation films from the ’70s and ’80s, but re-contextualises these eras for a modern audience. Hence the children’s summer camp has been changed to a Girls Gone Wild-style spring break. In the process, they’ve recreated something we’ve been missing at cinemas in recent years.

The groundswell of hunger for these films has been building for some time. American TV channel SyFy regularly screens original creature flicks, largely made by production company The Asylum, and regularly pulls in around two million viewers. Their film Mega Shark v Giant Octopus gained a cult following, as has Sharktopus — the killer in the sea that’s a shark’s head with octopus’ tentacles. (It was a genetically engineered military weapon that got loose, in case you were wondering, and it co-stars the ’80s pop singer Debbie Gibson as the maverick marine biologist).

Somewhat appropriately, there’s an element of cannibalisation about the genre, with cheap knock-offs of bigger hits. So the follow up, Mega Piranha, is simply cashing in on Piranha 3D’s popularity and it even co-stars Gibson’s former pop-rival, Tiffany. Mega Python vs Gatoroid is out next year, starring both Tiffany and Gibson, and they finally get to fight each other – at one point using cake as a primary weapon. The trailer is already online.

This element of fun had been missing from horror films for too long. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made an interesting stab at reinvigorating the genre in 2007 with their Grindhouse special, Planet Terror/ Death Proof, but it felt more like a fan’s self indulgent pet project and the double-bill format left many cold — not least Harvey Weinstein who lost money on the project. The basic idea was, however, laudable.

Horrors have recently trended towards so-called “torture porn” (Hostel, Saw, Wolf Creek, etc.) or remakes of psychological Japanese horrors, such as The Ring, The Grudge, One Missed Call or Dark Water rather than the make-em-jump-make-em-laugh films that many of us grew up watching in cinemas.

Ruggero Deodato, the director of the notorious and once-banned Cannibal Holocaust (1980), had decided not to make a follow-up because he believed that it would be too violent for mainstream audiences, but changed his mind upon seeing Eli Roth’s Hostel. Roth — who incidentally, appears in Piranha 3D as a the MC of a wet T-shirt contest — went on record saying, “I’d seen all these films on the festival circuit like Audition, Ichi the Killer, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, and I said: ‘This is the kind of movie I want to make. Something that’s sick, and disturbing, and f***ed-up… But I wanted it also to be a fun ride.” That ride, in general, has been veering off into increasingly more disturbing, and less fun, places.

This has recently reached either a logical conclusion or a sickening nadir, depending on your perspective, with the 2010 films The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film — the latter of which is struggling to even receive a classification such is the savagely nihilistic nature of its content. The screenwriter of A Serbian Film, Srdjan Spasojevic, argued that his film was “a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government… It’s about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotise you to do things you don’t want to do. You have to feel the violence to know what it’s about.” Perhaps, but trust us, you really don’t want to see this film.

Art may well reflect society and we do live in an era where torture is a social issue. But horror films weren’t supposed to be about real life, and the genre lost something important along the way — escapist entertainment. There were no laughs, little fun and not a screaming teen in a bikini anywhere. The goofy creature features that we’re seeing now right that wrong, and the motherlode of screaming bikini-clad teens that was

Piranha 3D has proven there’s a market. The sequel has been greenlit and this could open the cinematic door for a return to the popcorn horror films that had previously been confined to cable channels and the DVD market. All this is proof that, despite what you think you saw on screen, the creature is never really dead.

For Esquire magazine – click here for PDF 1 / here for PDF 2


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