In all albeit belated adjunct to the recent(ish) exploitation cinema series found on these very ... pages (?), I recently watched the re-make of 'Piranha' and it made me think. (Is ‘pages’ the correct noun for an online blog? Am I alone in my obsessive and intransigent avoidance of Kindle? Will anyone else miss holding a real paper book in bed, literally unfolding the story page by page and then slipping a marker between the two opposing sections – read and un-read – before turning off the light, gently farting and then spending a pleasant, optimistic couple of minutes investigating whether your other-half is indeed, too far into sleep to interest in a brief and perfunctory bout of that type of sex where you have to think quite hard the next morning whether it had been a dream or not, before accepting that she is and then trying to doze off with an erection.)
Hold on; where was I? I haven’t even started yet. Focus.
So, anyway; after that viewing, and further to a conversation with your good host, misterneil himself, I did what any self-important film obsessive with an overblown sense of righteous indignation would do: I bought the original from Amazon to prove my suspicions correct.
What makes an exploitation film an exploitation film? Gratuitous gore and nudity? No. It needs both of those elements, but their presence doesn’t fundamentally make it what it is. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I’m afraid the days of the true exploitation movie are over – it’s impossible to make a genuine exploitation flick in the 21st century. Why? Because they need innocence, contradiction in terms though that sounds. Irony is off-limits and films which attempt to push the boundaries of taste these days are simply too knowing. Who to blame? Perhaps Wes Craven, whose Scream series deconstructed and subverted the horror movie in a supposed affectionate parody. It could be said, however, that this was more a case of biting the hand from which Mr. Craven had fed for a long, long time. In the subsequent fifteen years or so, it seems that every genre film-maker is more intent on showing the audience that they ‘get it’ and are savvy, than employing the techniques they’ve learned to thrill said audience. We’re therefore presented with a never-ending series of ‘knowing’ or ‘tongue-in-cheek’ homages to the films we used to love.
There are two major problems with this:
1) Nothing original is produced.
2) We shouldn’t want to raise a superior eyebrow to these films, we should want to buy into them like we used to.
Sure, we’re older now, and it takes more to scare us, but for God’s sake, don’t give up! We don’t have to believe vampires and werewolves and genetically mutated piranha exist, but for an hour and a half we can pretend we do. And isn’t that what makes cinema what it is: make believe? Have we become that cynical as a race that we’ve lost the power to make believe? Of course, what scared me thirty years ago will wring barely a snort of bored indulgence from my kids, which is the basic problem, in that genre film-makers recognise our levels of tolerance to gore and violence are now off the scale – nothing shocks us anymore.
Which brings us to culprit number one: the internet.
Whatever our personal weaknesses are, we can fire up the old PC and find a website to suit our own ... how can I say? Peccadilloes. And everything on said website can be as graphic as we want it to be, again; depending on our tastes. And so the gauntlet to film-makers wishing to thrill and surprise has been thrown down. As a result, it appears they’ve thrown in the towel with regards to horror (I’ll try and get another couple of “thrown” analogies in later) and turned to sex.
So; the exploitation films of the seventies and eighties used sex gratuitously, but somehow - like 'Carry-On' films, I suppose - they managed to retain an innocence of sorts, whereas the sex employed in the 'Piranha' re-make feels seedy, as though it has ass-pirations (sorry; couldn’t resist) to be internet porn, but daren’t quite make the leap. The heroine’s son is repeatedly caught surfing porn in a running ‘joke,’ one of the main plot lines is that of a seedy pornographer making a skin-flick on his boat (his dying words are, “wet t-shirt ... wet ... t-shirt”) and almost every female victim is disrobed immediately prior to, or during, her death scene. The viewer is left with the vaguely uncomfortable feeling that we’re sitting at home on the internet listening out for our parents’ or partner’s approaching footfalls. The horror element of the piece – whilst admittedly creative in the make-up and effects departments – seems more like an add-on to the sexuality, not the other way around, as it surely should be (and always used to be).
Joe Dante’s 1978 version, however, whilst cheap, derivative and badly dated in parts, boasts a drum-tight script by John Sayles encompassing government experimentation and musings on Vietnam, and characterisation which prompts genuine empathy. The action is driven, creating tension as the two main protagonists race to shut off the river’s water supply before it reaches a children’s summer camp and – finally – the teenagers’ revelries. This last section which provides the climax to the original (extending to only the final twenty minutes), serves as the entire plot of Alexandre Aja’s remake – horny teenagers take off their clothes and become lunch for big fish with sharp teeth. Any semblance of narrative or characterisation is dispensed with immediately in favour of an unimaginative series of boobs / gore / boobs-gore / gory-boobs set pieces.
An act of heroism in the original performed by a previously unsympathetic summer camp leader, is at once touching as he stands waist-deep in the broiling waters, lifting his charges, one by one, to safety, where a similar scene in the re-make – Ving Rhames and a boat-propeller – has little of the same impact, as the character means nothing to the audience.
Who am I to preach, what do I know? Though consider this: you won’t shock the kids of today with gore. But remember: it wasn’t gore that scared audiences in the first place, it was suspense. And suspense is timeless.
What does exploitation mean? Is it our (the viewers) emotions being exploited? I like to think so, and if that’s the case, then we’re happy to go along for the ride; we don’t need to be in on the joke.
Make it cheap by all means, we’ve not signed up to watch Oscar winning acting, and don’t worry if the production values aren’t top-notch, it doesn’t matter. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a low-budget is another pre-requisite for a true exploitation flick. But low-grade or not, we have the right to demand at least a decent narrative, a modicum of wit and invention, and characters to root for.
It may be the 21st century, but exploitation cinema should be more than just boob-a-rama and massive leg trauma.
by Paul Rowe