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A Short, Silly History of Schlocky 3D Summer Horror Movies

Killer sharks. A rampaging Jason. Some ravenous piranhas. Does seeing these cheesy fright films in 3D help? Usually not.

Listen, we have bad news: There is probably not going to be a summer movie season this year. But all is not lost. Each Friday for the next few months, we’ll be presenting “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, goofiest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. Maybe it will be a celebration of an iconic film or actor. Perhaps it will be a salute to Miranda Priestly. Or, like today, it will be a rundown of bad 3D summer horror movies.

Ever since Steven Spielberg practically invented the modern summer movie season with 1975’s Jaws, we’ve been accustomed to seeing horror films during the hottest time of the year while chilling in the multiplex air conditioning. In the last few decades, everything from The Sixth Sense to The Conjuring to Midsommar has debuted during the summer, but there’s a special kind of fright film that also sometimes puts in an appearance right about now, and that’s the low-budget 3D horror flick. These disreputable pieces of junk don’t carry any sort of prestige or impressive names in front of (or behind) the camera. Basically, they’re schlock, hoping you’ll put down good money to watch pretty young things get killed as you wear ridiculous glasses and munch on popcorn.

The 1950s were a boom time for 3D B-movies, with House of Wax, Creature From the Black Lagoon and other horror films terrorizing unsuspecting viewers. The marriage of scares and 3D always made sense: These films live to be immersive and to get their shocks as close to you as possible. Having the technology to cram creepy and/or disgusting images right into your eyeballs was something no enterprising producer could resist. As Ben Chapman, who played the monster in Creature From the Black Lagoon, later recalled, “[W]e did shoot a lot of the things where they would fly out in the audience. When those things fly out, you will move.”

For a brief time in the early 1980s — and then for a brief time in the late aughts and early 2010s — 3D horror movies invaded the summer calendar, and most of them were terrible. (And yet, just about always, the creative teams behind them insisted that the 3D wasn’t just a gimmick, when it most certainly was exactly that.) What follows is a quick reminiscence of these bygone stinkers. And, for the record, I’m not including 3D summer horror movies like World War Z or the Poltergeist remake because those films actually had aspirations to be good. The below films never dared to dream that they’d even be respectable — which sometimes worked to their advantage.

Friday the 13th Part III (1982)

Why Was It in 3D? Released in May 1981, Friday the 13th Part 2 had been a modest hit, and so Paramount brought back the film’s director, Steve Miner, to make another sequel, which opened about 14 months later. Because of Miner’s success with Part 2, he was rewarded with a budget of about $4 million, which was pretty paltry but still about eight times what was spent on the 1980 original. And Miner was informed Part III needed to be in 3D, a novelty for a studio release.

Unfortunately, nobody knew what they were doing. “There’s no ‘state of the art’ where 3D is concerned,” Miner said around Part III’s release, “because all of the systems are from backyard inventors who are piecing them together.” (Grindhouse director Worth Keeter, a specialist in 3D, tried to show Miner the ropes but knew the poor guy was screwed. “We went over all the technical details,” Keeter recalled in 2017. “Finally [Miner] said, ‘How much is it gonna cost to make this movie here?’ I told him I needed to see a script to break it down and come up with a budget. ‘Well, we don’t have a script. By the time we have a script, we’ll be shooting the movie.’”)

Nonetheless, Part III made almost as much as the original Friday the 13th, suggesting the viability of mainstream 3D horror movies. The following year, Jaws 3-D and Amityville 3-D would follow in its footsteps.

So, How Bad Is the Movie? Writing in The New York Times, critic Janet Maslin summed up the limitations of 3D. “[T]here is a lot of time devoted to trying out the gimmick,” she wrote. “Titles loom toward you. Yo-yos spin. Popcorn bounces. Snakes dart toward the camera and strike. Eventually, the novelty wears off, and what remains is the now-familiar spectacle of nice, dumb kids being lopped, chopped and perforated.” Naturally, when Jason gets killed in Part III, he lunges right toward the camera — which just looks really hokey without 3D.

Jaws 3-D (1983)

Why Was It in 3D? It had been five years since Jaws 2 — and eight years since Steven Spielberg’s incredible original — so Universal needed an excuse to get audiences excited for another shark movie. The first step was concocting a plot in which Dennis Quaid and John Putch played the sons of Roy Scheider’s character from the first Jaws, moving the action down to a Florida aquatic park. But the real coup de grâce, of course, was that the movie would be in 3D.

Cleverly titled Jaws 3-D, the film hoped to capitalize on Friday the 13th Part III’s success, although the filmmakers swore their movie would use the technology responsibly. “I really believe this film uses 3D as an enhancement, not a gimmick,” cinematographer James Contner declared. “We’re not constantly poking things out at the audience.”

Strictly speaking, that wasn’t true: When the Jaws 3-D shark dies, it’s in a violent explosion, and her teeth fly straight at the viewer. Still, the movie was a hit, grossing more money that year than Scarface or Twilight Zone: The Movie.

So, How Bad Is the Movie? Jaws 3-D is so cheesy, but at least it’s not as terrible as the follow-up, Jaws: The Revenge. Not that Putch agrees with that assessment. “I was acting with Dennis Quaid, Lou Gossett and all those great movie actors!” he once said. “I gotta believe some of the other actors had to know it was bad. … People argue with me and say [Jaws: The Revenge] is worse and I say, ‘There’s no way that was worse than Jaws 3-D! We’re fighting a shark in Sea World, for God’s sake!’”

The Final Destination (2009) and Final Destination 5 (2011)

Why Were These in 3D? After three hit Final Destination films — the horror franchise in which attractive young people cheat death but are then knocked off, one by one, by mysterious forces — the producers decided that 2009’s The Final Destination would be the last installment. And it would be the first to be shot in 3D, with Final Destination 2 director David R. Ellis returning behind the camera. 

The summer of 2009 was just a few months before James Cameron’s Avatar would legitimize 3D as a viable filmmaking technique — after a few decades of being a punchline, the technology had started becoming fashionable again around 2006 — and The Final Destination suggested that a new generation of horror fans would eat it up in the same way that previous ones had.

As a result, the movie ended up being the highest-grossing chapter in the franchise, and paved the way for Final Destination 5 two years later. For that film, Steven Quale, who had done 3D work with Cameron for almost a decade, was brought in to direct. You’ll never guess what he had to say about working in 3D. “I’m a firm believer in using 3D to enhance the movie and not as a gimmick,” Quale said, later adding, “[Y]ou don’t do every shot as an eye poker and get ridiculous with it.”

Still, Final Destination 5 does kick off with a pretty nifty sequence in which a bridge collapses, which was far more impressive because of the 3D. 

So, How Bad Are These Movies? Less schlocky than the 1980s horror movies that came before it, the 3D Final Destination films are at least competent and reasonably entertaining. I’d be tempted to call them the Citizen Kane of this pathetic subgenre of fright films, but that distinction belongs to the next film on this list. 

Piranha 3D (2010) and Piranha 3DD (2012)

Why Were These in 3D? Piranha 3D was when trashy, cheap-o movies became brilliantly self-aware. Director Alexandre Aja (who had previously made the serious horror films High Tension and the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes) embraced the camp appeal of this tale of ravenous fish, based on the 1978 Joe Dante original, which was itself a horror-comedy. The point of these types of B-movies was that they were junk — so why not make them fun junk, complete with 3D? 

“I tried to navigate between the horror, the comedy, to the action and adventure, and just get the audience with me on that roller coaster and just go through the ride of a spring break attack,” Aja said at the time. He later added, “I had to do this movie. I had to make that ode to my teenage years where we were watching movies and cheering whenever we saw a topless girl.”

Full of graphic nudity and insane amounts of gore, the movie flaunted its excesses, and the 3D captured every lurid detail. Critics appreciated the subversive humor, and the movie spawned a sequel, which Aja had nothing to do with. Obviously, that one was called Piranha 3DD. 

So, How Bad Are These Movies? The first one is wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, sending up the tropes of drive-in-theater horror. Unfortunately, 3DD is where the joke runs out of juice — you can skip it.

Shark Night (2011)

Why Was It in 3D? After the glowing reception for Piranha 3D, goofy so-good-they’re-bad horror-comedies had a moment. Then along came Shark Night, directed by David R. Ellis, who had made The Final Destination and, more importantly, 2006’s Snakes on a Plane, which remains the platonic ideal for this kind of big, dumb genre flick. For Shark Night, Ellis (who died in 2013 at the age of 60) tried to meld Snakes’ self-mocking cringe factor with 3D’s retro-hip appeal.

The idea could have worked — instead of killer fish (or killer snakes), we’d return to killer sharks — but, foolishly, the filmmakers decided to go for the tamer PG-13 rating. “Piranha 3D was a very campy movie, and gore and nudity was a big part of it,” Ellis explained. “With Shark Night, we felt that we had a good story and did not need nudity, excessive gore and cuss words to have a really scary movie.”

He was incorrect, and the woeful 3D didn’t help matters, either.

So, How Bad Is the Movie? Shark Night marks the moment when 3D summer horror movies jumped the shark: It was stupid but not entertaining, and trashy without any wit. Just as in the early 1980s, the trend burned itself out alarmingly quick once audiences realized there was nothing beyond the gimmick.

Horror films continue to pop up in 3D, but these are bigger-budget affairs — or, in the case of 2018’s The Meg, a really expensive movie that’s meant to seem like a junky B-movie — that stay away from pure schlock. All in all, I miss movie theaters but I don’t miss having to wear uncomfortable glasses while watching shitty, low-rent summer horror films. It’s a good thing that the fad proved easier to kill than some of these movies’ beastly predators.

More From the Ultimate Summer Movie Guide:

How Christopher Nolan Became Hollywood’s Most Unlikely Summer Blockbuster Showman

‘The Devil Wears Prada’ Changed What a Summer Blockbuster Could Be

How ‘Why So Serious?’ Became This Century’s Best Summer Movie Tagline — and Then a Punchline