Written by: Ramon Bravo, Vincenzo Mannino, Marc Princi, and Ugo Tucci
Directed by: Enzo Castellari
Starring: Vic Morrow, James Franciscus, and Joshua Sinclair
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“There‘s only one shark in the world that can do that type of damage…”
When the success of Jaws spawned numerous knock-offs and imitators, it’s no surprise that many of these came from Italy, the land where things like copyrights and intellectual properties are little-heeded or outright ignored. Interestingly enough, this collection of spaghetti-killer-shark tales all came from some of the country’s most notorious horror directors: Joe D’Amato (Deep Blood), Lamberto Bava (Devil Fish), and Bruno Mattei (Cruel Jaws). The most infamous of them all, however, came from Enzo Castellari and has become most known for being banned from the United States. L’ultimo Squalo (also known as The Last Shark, Great White, and even The Last Jaws) wasn’t banned for the reasons you might expect (gratuitous gore, poor taste, etc.) either; instead, the film was so derivative of Jaws that Universal sued the producers, won the case, and kept the film out of American theaters.
Port Harbor is a quaint little coastal town that’s on the eve of its annual regalia; the teenagers are preparing for a wind-surfing contest, and loads of tourists will be coming in to enjoy the beaches. Things take a deadly turn when one of the teens ends up being devoured by a great white shark. Of course, the mayor doesn’t want to hear any of it and is quick to blame it on a boating accident (sound familiar yet?). Enter our heroes: author Peter Benton (perhaps named after Jaws writer Peter Benchley?) and Ron Hamer, an old, grizzled veteran of the sea that knows exactly what the town is in for. When things get personal for both Peter and Mayor Wells after an attack involving both of their kids, everyone involved sets out to destroy the beast.
Being a huge fan of Jaws, I’d obviously heard about The Last Shark for years. That interest was re-piqued after I realized Castellari was the man behind the madness. The director of The Inglorious Bastards and Keoma at the helm of one of the most infamously terrible movies of all time? Sign me up. Oddly enough, I’m not sure if the film really lived up to any expectations--the film itself certainly has its reputation for being terrible, and the probability of dealing with cheese is always high with Italians involved. That said, the film isn’t terrible cheesy or terribly bad. It’s not without its absurd moments, like when the mayor claims that another victim of the shark could have been the causality of a grenade that was used while fishing. There’s also the obvious use of stiff-as-board mannequins that fall into the maw of the beast, and the acting from just about everyone is woeful at times (check out James Franciscus emoting all over the place at the hospital bed of his daughter).
The Last Shark certainly lived up to its reputation as a Jaws rip-off. The film practically copies every story beat from the original film, and even throws in the helicopter attack and “teens in peril” aspect of Jaws 2. The problem, of course, is that the film shares nothing else in common with Jaws: the production values are super low, the characters aren’t nearly as compelling, and John William’s iconic score is traded out for a super cheesy, disco-tinged soundtrack. It makes for quite an interesting experience--for me, it was kind of like watching one of my favorite films of all time again for the first time, only everything was just a little off. I actually did find myself taking quite a liking to Vic Morrow’s Quint-inspired character--he’s like a creepier, less humorous version of Robert Shaw’s character who seems to have a personal grudge with the shark. I suppose the film can serve as a punch-line to a joke--“how many Italian writers does it take to rip-off Jaws?” (four).
However, I’ve said it many times--I’m a sucker for some good shark action, and The Last Shark does deliver that well enough. The film’s mechanical beast looks pretty phony (almost as if it were made out of rubber), but it sort of adds to the charm. There is some effective use of real shark footage mixed in as well, even if the contrast between the two is really obvious. It takes a while for the titular character to really show up, but once it does, there’s some fun sequences--the aforementioned helicopter attack, an attack on the windsurfers, and the film’s end sequence where the shark attacks the remaining principle characters on a dock. Gore-wise, it’s more schlocky than Jaws, but not as much as you’d expect from an Italian production. Limbs are severed, and a few people are bitten in half, but the red stuff isn’t exactly sprayed everywhere, which wouldn’t be so bad if there were some genuine suspense thrown in. Most disappointing is the climactic battle with the beast--one character is basically killed off-screen, and the fate of the beast itself is just perplexing.
Most importantly, The Last Shark feels like a Cliff’s Notes version of Spielberg’s film--it’s not even 90 minutes long, so it doesn’t really wear out its welcome. I’m not quite sure what the fuss is about on just about all fronts with this one--it isn’t embarrassingly bad, and even Jaws: The Revenge is even more absurd. It’s also not very good, not even in a Z-grade, “so bad it’s good” sense. I suppose its brazen, balls-out ripping off of Jaws is its most notable aspect, but I think Universal should stop being such a stick in the mud there as well. After all, it’s not like they didn’t shamelessly milk the Jaws franchise for all it was worth. Plus, it’s not like the horror genre hasn’t been littered with other knock-offs and rip-offs over the years. Sure, The Last Shark takes it to an extreme, but it’d be nice to see the film properly restored and given a bit of a chance with an official release. Until then, you’ll have to be content to track the film down through alternate channels, where your source will either be a VHS or laserdisc release ported over to disc. It’s hardly ideal, but it should satisfy your curiosity, especially if the allure of the film’s reputation is hard to resist. In the end, I think the infamy overshadows the film itself because it’s mostly just a mediocre experience with the exception of some fun moments here and there. You probably won’t see it on rental shelves anytime soon, but humor me. Rent it!
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