Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The great joys of people in peril”

Posted on June 22, 2012


Among the low pleasures in life, few can top films about fellow humans beset by bees and killer fish and other generally horrific situations.

The provocatively titled Piranha 3DD is, uh, a bust. It delivers neither on the first half of its title, nor the latter half – unless, of course, our censors had something to do with it. The film can be loosely described as Baywatch-meets-Jaws – lots of people in skimpy swimsuits jogging in the direction of the (3D) camera as nasty fish with pointy teeth target their well-toned flesh. As a big fan of the earlier film (which was simply called Piranha 3D), I was quite disappointed, and to explain why, I must share with you a deep, dark secret. Every film critic has a vice, a fondness for a shockingly disreputable genre. Some like horror films, for instance – that’s the only genre I detest. I see no point in sitting in front of something and closing your eyes because the soundtrack jumps up a few notches. I prefer schlocky films, where hubris-filled men get their comeuppance for playing God, and also the so-called “creature features,” where human beings become prey. Switch off the lights and pass the popcorn.

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My favourite man-playing-God films include The Towering Inferno (man tries to play God and build tallest skyscraper; it goes up in flames) and Deep Blue Sea (man tries to play God and cure Alzheimer’s with brain tissue harvested from genetically modified sharks; he’s reduced to fish food) – but not Titanic. For one, the latter is too ambitious a production. It doesn’t exactly qualify as a “guilty pleasure” like The Towering Inferno, which is worth the ticket price (or the rental price) simply to watch megawatt stars like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Faye Dunaway pretend, by way of all that acting, that they signed on for reasons other than the fat sums of money they were being paid. It’s always a bonus when big stars are trapped in yawning chasms of land (Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner in Earthquake) or pursued by killer bees (Michael Caine and Katharine Ross in The Swarm).

The Birds may feature a similar plot – people evading avian assassins – but it’s too classy a film to qualify as junk. Its set pieces are thrilling constructions, and besides the real stars aren’t Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren (who weren’t all that big as stars anyway) but the director Alfred Hitchcock. For the creature feature with smaller stars and guiltier pleasures, we should look towards Alligator, which has the titular creature (a giant, naturally) that’s taken up residence in Chicago’s sewers and is polishing off people, or Anaconda, where Jennifer Lopez, frustratingly, survives being swallowed up by a monster snake. (Rooting for specific people to die is one of the chief pleasures of the creature feature.) The best of this kind of film, in recent times, was Piranha 3D, which opened with a scene that’s a classic of its kind, both a wink to Jaws (Richard Dreyfuss in water) and a parody of it (he’s devoured by a school of piranha, almost as if in retaliation for the shark murder he committed all those decades ago in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster; revenge, if you remember, is a dish best served cold).

But there’s another kind of people-in-peril movie that I’ve begun to enjoy, and that’s the no-budget feature about being trapped in a specific situation. The best such film I’ve seen is Buried, where Ryan Reynolds wakes up to find himself in a coffin under the sands of Iraq. These films operate on a higher level than the big-stars-screaming-their-way-to-safety genre and the smaller-stars-becoming -animal-food genre. They envelop you in a queasy state of anxiety. Unlike the laughable protagonists of those other films, we are actually invested in the survival of Ryan Reynolds, and while those other films remain distant viewing experiences, Buried makes us wonder what we’d do in this situation. (No one watching Alligator, on the other hand, is going to think, “Let me prepare myself for an eventual attack by a giant reptile lurking beneath my toilet.”) We feel for Reynolds in ways we don’t feel for James Franco in 127 Hours because Franco, in a way, was responsible for his plight – Reynolds wasn’t.

Two other films of this nature that impressed me are Open Water and Frozen – and both play on our fears of what we’d do if stuck in these very plausible situations. In Open Water, a tourist couple is left behind in a shark-infested sea when their boat captain takes a wrong headcount and sails away with the others. And in Frozen, which was one of those serendipitous TV-channel discoveries, three friends are trapped in a ski lift (bad weather from above, circling wolves below) after the resort shuts down for the week. I realise that in writing about Buried and Open Water and Frozen, I have deviated from my original premise of cheesy films about imperiled humans, but all these films are built on our primal fears about being stranded in situations where we are no longer in control, and against enemies (whether creatures or the elements) we have no natural defenses against. It’s just that some of these films make us laugh, while the others make us grateful to return to a warm bed at night.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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