Take the opening scene of Jaws, the skinny dip and shark attack: titillation and punishment are the twin engines of the horror movie. Sometimes we’re invited to look, and then confronted with the horrifying implications of our voyeurism, as when peeping tom Norman Bates goes—well, you know. More frequently, if we’re getting off on someone’s frisky hedonism, we know it’s only a matter of time before we’re getting off on her (it’s almost always her) grisly demise.
Another option, lately popular, is air quotes: if the presentation of genre-movie thrills is self-aware, the presumption goes, we’re shielded from any actual moral implications of the sex and violence we’re enjoying: it’s just what happens in movies like this. Alexandre Aja’s Piranha 3-D, with its wink-nudge Jaws riffs, is the glibbest “exploitation movie” now in theaters (though Machete’s close); it also uses for fish food our culture’s apex of self-aware hedonistic excess, girls gone wild. Wild Wild Girls, as they’re called here, spend spring break booty-shaking and motorboating, until retro B-movie killer fish rip through their wet t-shirts. In 3-D.
That the piranhas also rip right through the Speedo of Jerry O’Connell’s twitchily abhorrent Joe Francis stand-in might, if anything meant anything anymore, suggest that his very apropos comeuppance is ours, too. (Though not Aja’s—though both he and O’Connell spend most of the first half of the movie filming tits, the reversal is too severe, too hypocritical to read as self-critical.) It still serves them right, those dirty sluts, but it serves us right, too.
Aja even allows one of his titillating, punished vixens to explain herself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, inasmuch she’s an actress for whom getting paid to wear a bikini for an hour and a half is proving to have been a smart career move, Jessica Szohr nails the role of an innocent townie taking a walk on her wild wild side, most notably by doing body shots off other babes. Giggling and shaking her head either excitedly, flirtily, or to keep introspection in abeyance, Szhor suggests a wide range of justifications for “empowering” pre-emptive self-objectification: It might be fun. She wants attention. She doesn’t want to be, or be perceived to be, the kind of person who wouldn’t do this. She’s not a prude, or a chicken.
And, of course, she’s drunk—she upchucks the tequila almost as soon as she’s sucked it out of that blonde chick’s belly button. She wouldn’t have done it sober—her very insides rejected the sexily slurped spirit, good girl at heart that she is. And this, in the movie’s moral compass, counts: having established herself as more Madonna than whore, she deserves to live—unlike the career Wild Wild Girls played by Riley Steele (a porn star) and Kelly Brook (on the cover of this month’s Playboy), prancing pragmatists who suggest that they might genuinely enjoy what they do, or least find it a sensible way to make a living. They get eaten by prehistoric carnivorous fish, which suggests that Piranha’s hypocritical Puritanism is, after all, a little less than equal-opportunity.