When Jaws debuted in 1975, it not only fundamentally changed the landscape of movie-going and film distribution, but it also inspired legions of nature-run-amok knock-offs. Shark Kill had the distinction of being among the very first, which is important to note since its punctuality might be its only distinguishing feature. Premiering in May of 1976—less than a year after Jaws’s theatrical bow—it feels like the product of an exec at NBC pestering somebody to produce something—anything—that could capitalize on the success of Steven Spielberg’s film. The task ended up falling to Sandor Stern (The Amityville Horror, Pin), but quality—as was so often the case with these rip-offs—was apparently an afterthought, as this one isn’t exactly among the best of the vintage shark movie wave.
To its credit, it at least isn’t the least bit concerned with completely ripping off Jaws. Its plot—what little bit there is of it—is very much its own (lame) beast: as an oil rig crew conducts underwater construction, it seeks the consultation of Rick Danyer (Phillip Clark), a marine biologist who spots a shark in the nearby waters but is mostly ignored, which is both fiscally and morally irresponsible. When a pair of divers is sent down despite protests from both Rick and their families, they’re attacked by shark. One is killed, while the other is left critically injured, leading local authorities to put a $20,000 bounty on the beast. Seeking revenge, the surviving diver’s brother Cabo Mendoza (Richard Yniguez) attempts to charter a rickety, barely seaworthy vessel but doesn’t have the money; luckily, Rick is interested in the same boat, so the two men split the fee and agree to do the same for the bounty, assuming they’re able to slay the shark.
Or, if I’m being honest, if they’re even able to fucking see it. Despite the title, the shark doesn’t feature a whole hell of a lot in this thing. Rick spots its fin early on, and we catch another glimpse during the big attack sequence about halfway through. Otherwise, we’re stranded with these two men as they navigate their personal lives. Rick’s too much of a free-spirit to be tied down to this shit job, nor does he want to settle down with his girlfriend in L.A. He only lives for the sea, even after growing up in Iowa, blaming the movies for his aquatic obsession. Cabo claims Hollywood also inspired him to join the army when he was younger, though he has no explanation for his tendency to get in bar fights as an adult. We also see him plead with his brother to forget his dangerous job and joke around with his nieces and nephews, thus assuring the viewers that he’s a good guy, even if he is a bit of a roughneck.
Both men have ample time to learn a lot about each other, as the final third of the film finds them stranded in the ocean after a yacht full of drunken revelers plows into their boat. Essentially, Shark Kill starts to feel like Open Water before Open Water, only not nearly as effective. Obviously, that film’s cinema verite approach is nowhere to be found here; instead, you’ll be treated to a 70s movie-of-the-week aesthetic that’s full of uninspired compositions, loads of corny chatter, and a budget that couldn’t possibly deliver satisfying killer shark action. Of course, not being able to show a shark might be preferable to modern-day SyFy junk that has no business showing off their own low-budget beasts, so it’s a real Catch-22 when it comes to this subgenre. Veteran TV director William Graham does his best to coax some suspense by intercutting some nice stock footage with a phony fin, but Shark Kill drags along rather lethargically despite its 76-minute runtime.
Aside from a few humorous moments (most of them involving the eccentric old coot that rents out the pathetic dingy), that short runtime is just about the only thing that keeps Shark Kill on the right side of being watchable. Admittedly, the two leads aren’t the absolute worst, with Yniguez’s personality proving to be especially infectious. His enthusiasm at concocting an explosive shark solution recalls that scene in Jaws where Brody and Hooper have to stop a reckless guy from embarking on a shark hunt with dynamite in tow, but Cabo finds no such opposition here. In fact, the “Mendoza Cocktail” miraculously survives the wreck, and the two decide to use it as a flotation device, a decision that seems to be extraordinarily dangerous. (Spoiler: it is—for the shark, which learns never to fuck with Mendoza.)
After a while, these two manage to work their charms, so much so that you can’t help but giggle at the ending a bit. With their bounty in tow, the two buy their own spiffy boat and seemingly ditch everyone and everything in their lives. Before leaving to hunt the shark, Rick leaves a nice note to his girlfriend explaining the situation and insisting that she hopes she’ll still be around when he comes back, but he apparently totally ditches her. She’s literally written out of the film, never to be heard from again. I couldn’t help but laugh, even if the shot of these two guys (in all their hairy, 70s glory) riding off into the sunset did remind me a bit too much of Tintorera. No movie should ever remind you of Tintorera, though I suppose I have to issue this one a pass since it arrived a year before Rene Cardone’s oily, sweaty snooze-fest.
A word of warning: if you do feel compelled to probe these depths, be aware that Wild Eye’s DVD release does Shark Kill zero favors. In fact, it does it negative favors. Perpetually washed out and desaturated of color, it looks like an actual home recording from 1976 (however difficult that would have been) that was passed down over decades and transferred onto a disc without fanfare. The image starts out off-center and recovers ever so slightly, warbling along tenuously enough, with the image dropping out completely during one scene. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie look this poorly on even the sketchiest public domain collection, so buyer very much beware with this one. Of course, the best way to avoid the disc would be to just avoid Shark Kill in general. It may have beaten a lot of films to the punch, but, as we know from years of internet comment sections, yelling “first!” doesn’t really mean shit.