08.19.10

Return of the Creature Feature!

Piranha 3D is the latest campy monster movie audiences can't help but love. Shannon Donnelly on the genre's surprising comeback and why viewers are flocking to escapist fare.

What do you get when you mix 80,000 gallons of fake blood, a cadre of co-eds baring ample cleavage, and a swarm of killer fish? Piranha 3D, the new horror movie by director Alexandre Aja, which marks the big-screen return of the schlocky creature feature. With its campy humor, high gross-out factor, and complete lack of subtlety, Piranha 3D could have been made decades ago and fit in beautifully alongside Godzilla, Creature from the Black Lagoon and, of course, the original Piranha from 1978.

But a B-movie throwback hitting the big screen is hardly surprising to fans of the SyFy channel’s lineup. For years, SyFy has been premiering 24 original films a year on Saturday nights. An increasingly vocal fanbase of sci-fi and horror fanatics tune in twice a month to check out movies including Shark Swarm, Mansquito, Dinoshark, Dinocroc vs Super Gator, and Mega Piranha. Sci-fi blog io9 has been breathlessly covering the upcoming Sharktopus for months—even though the film doesn’t premiere until September. Before the trailer’s debut, editor Annalee Newitz declared, “ Sharktopus isn't just a kaiju—it's a lifestyle.”

“SyFy is already teasing the epic catfight between 1980s pop icons Debbie Gibson and Tiffany in the upcoming Mega Python vs. Gatoroid.”

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“What we’ve been trying to do with our original movies is create fun, escapist entertainment for our Saturday night viewers,” says Thomas Vitale, executive vice president of programming and original movies for Syfy. “And the theatrical world is picking up on that and again making escapist fare for the summer audience.”

Jacob Bernstein: The Year’s Most Hilarious 3D RompIt certainly makes sense from a business perspective. Vitale says that SyFy’s original movies average 2 million viewers for the premiere, and that number jumps to 4 million or more when the repeat runs are added. “If that was a theatrical movie, that’s a $40 million box office,” he said.

So why the sudden audience appetite for creature features? After the string of successful slasher movies in the '80s and '90s, horror movies from the past decade have fallen into two camps: torture porn ( Saw and Hostel) or psychological and supernatural creepers ( The Ring, Paranormal Activity, and Aja’s own Mirrors). Vitale says that the torture-porn genre was lucrative in the tumultuous years after the 9/11 attack because “the images on television were so dramatic and so troubling and so horrible that for a movie to move the audience, it had to go even further.”

As for tailoring programming to the modern viewer: “This year the audience is focused on recession. What you need when you come home from a tough week of work—you have two jobs, three jobs you’re holding down, when you’re worried about your mortgage payment—the flavor of entertainment you want is no longer something heavy. A lot of the audience is looking for escapist fare.”

Enter Piranha 3D, Sharktopus, and other campy “Don’t go in the water!” films. Producers certainly know how to play to their strengths. SyFy is already teasing the epic catfight between 1980s pop icons Debbie Gibson and Tiffany in the upcoming Mega Python vs. Gatoroid.

Part of what makes the new generation of creature features successful is recognizing the camp value and playing up the zaniness, but still preserving the basics of storytelling. “A lot of straight-to-video movies lack in the logic department,” says Vitale. “Even big-budget theatricals don’t always worry about internal logic and consistency. What we try to do is create a scenario and stick to the rules. You put the characters in a situation and they stay consistent in the situation as it escalates.”

Still, there is one problem modern movies have to deal with that didn’t exist in the ‘50s versions: life-saving technology. “The cellphone has changed the world of mystery novels and creature features because you can just get on the phone and call the National Guard if you’re got a giant, 20-foot whatever attacking,” says Vitale. “So [modern films] must deal with the cellphone situation and why people can’t just get in their cars and drive away.”

But like Sharktopus, Hollywood’s mastered the evolutionary process. Look for Piranhas vs. iPhones coming soon to a theater near you.

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Shannon Donnelly is a video editor at The Daily Beast. Previously, she interned at Gawker and Overlook Press, edited the 2007 edition of Inside New York , and graduated from Columbia University. You can read more of her writing here.