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'Piranha' is fun if you like B-horror flicks

Mere words cannot describe how awesomely gnarly "Piranha 3D" is, and how entertaining.

This is not a joke, by the way. This movie is a blast as an homage to B-horror flicks.

Like "Snakes on a Plane," which came out in the dead of summer four years ago, "Piranha 3D" knows exactly what it is and does exactly what it should do. It's about piranhas ... in 3-D.

It's cleverly knowing without collapsing into parody. It makes great use of its extremely random cast, including Elisabeth Shue in an unusually sassy role as a sheriff, Ving Rhames as her deputy and Jerry O'Connell as a Joe Francis ("Girls Gone Wild") type. Christopher Lloyd has one great scene in full-on, crazed-Christopher-Lloyd mode as the resident fish expert. The second you see Eli Roth - playing the emcee at a wet T-shirt contest, no less - you know some hideous fate will befall him. And then there's Richard Dreyfuss (Remember "Jaws"?) making a very cute cameo off the top. That's all we'll say.

The whole point of this kind of movie is the gore, and French director Alexandre Aja finds hilarious and creative ways to kill off his characters. Not a surprise, given his previous movies - the suspenseful "High Tension" and a Wes Craven-approved remake of "The Hills Have Eyes" - but here, there's a sense of fun about the carnage, if that makes sense.

Besides, partying provides the premise for the film. It's spring break at Lake Victoria, Arizona - really Lake Havasu - and hordes of drunken college students have arrived to trash their bodies. But there's something swimming in the water that can do that much more efficiently. Thousands upon thousands of them. The piranhas have razor-sharp teeth and ferocious eyes. A seismic shift beneath the lake created a rift that unleashed these prehistoric creatures. Now they're here, and they're hungry.

In classic horror-movie fashion, the victims get picked off one by one. Sheriff Julie Forester (Shue) and Deputy Fallon (Rhames) discover the first body and call in the scientific experts, led by Adam Scott (cast against type). But containing the fish is as difficult as stopping the kids from dancing on boats in their bikinis. And so when the inevitable bloodbath happens, it's vast and horrifying but with some giddy glimmers of absurdity sprinkled throughout.

Stuck in the middle of this are Julie's three kids, the eldest of whom, Jake (Steven R. McQueen), has become an impromptu crew member on a "Girls Gone Wild"-style video shoot. Yes, there is nudity and girl-on-girl action here, but again, it's used with a wink. It was shot in 2-D and then converted, but it looks better than other films that have followed that path, including M. Night Shyamalan's muddled "The Last Airbender." Still, some of the underwater mayhem is hard to make out.

But Aja mostly employs the 3-D precisely as he should with this genre: in totally gimmicky, gratuitous ways. A guy sprays beer from a keg and it shoots right at you. And of course there are the fish, zooming right at you.

There could be a moral to this story: Don't act like a cheesy, drunken idiot during spring break. But that would be no fun.

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