Written by: William Dever, Jim Wynorski, and Corey Landis
Directed by: Jim Wynorski
Starring: Dominique Swain, Traci Lords, and Christine Nguyen
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
You Can Never Truly Escape
There’s no women’s prison in Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre. You can take that how you will: either the production was too cheap to fully deliver on the title, or, you know, that’s the joke—this is another one of those sorts of movies, the kind that’s going to be inherently bad, so the title’s more of a warning than an indicator of any plot. Neither of these explanations is exactly comforting, particularly the latter, which, as it turns out, is the most correct answer here. Nobody expects anything from a movie titled Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre, so why bother?
You might be wondering why I—the guy who has reviewed nearly fifty shark movies in the last eight years—seems particularly surprised or upset about this, and that’s fair. By this point, I certainly know not to expect much; hell, anyone who’s only seen five recent killer shark movies should know that. However, this one comes with Jim Wynorski’s attached, a name that can only inspire so much confidence to be sure, but you have to take whatever scraps of optimism this genre tosses at you at this point.
Indulging them proves to be immediately misguided, as Sharkansas is virtually indistinguishable from the SyFy aesthetic horde. It opens on a pair of frackers who open a whole in the earth’s crust and unwittingly unleash a prehistoric shark on the marshlands bordering an Arkansas prison facility. A prison van stationed outside of an otherwise nondescript exterior clues us into this fact (again—no actual prison in this “WIP” movie) before a quartet of inmates is shepherded into the vehicle to…well, actually, I’m not sure. A couple of guards take them out into the middle of the woods with shovels to dig holes for some reason. Look, according to the movie, what’s important here is that there are barely-clothed women forced to do menial tasks. “Just gaze upon the boobs and don’t ask any questions,” it basically says. “Also, look, a shark that can go on land! (Please clap).”
At this point, any effort (well, “effort”) into this genre strain is the Jeb Bush of killer shark movies—we’ve surely already seen the most spectacularly worst its bloodline has to offer, so why are you even bothering? Nobody in their right mind wants another one, and we’d all just be better off if they just quietly faded into obscurity. This isn’t just a poisoned well—it’s one that’s run completely dry and has only left tiny, poisonous droplets that will slowly but surely drain the life out of anyone who watches them. Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre is particularly insidious because it’s coasting on a wave that’s already rolled over and limply washed ashore, much like how I’m coasting on all of these mixed metaphors.
What meager plot emerges out of this also feels like the punchline to a lame joke: eventually, one of the gals’ lovers (Dominique Swain!) stages a jailbreak and forces the group at gunpoint to shack up in a “Friday the 13th style cabin in the woods,” as one of the ladies puts it. Yeah, the movie whose title promises a shark attack in a women’s prison just actually has a bunch of sharks (well, CGI fins, mostly) circling a modular home in the middle of nowhere. Say what you want, but Sharknado at least features a goddamn tornado full of sharks. It’s an age-old exploitation bait-and-switch tactic at work here; sometimes, I’ll concede to it when it’s cleverly deployed, but I guess I’m going to have to call bullshit on it here. Don’t insinuate Bait in a women’s prison then deliver the umpteenth dumb shark movie that doesn’t have the decency to really distinguish itself.
It’s probably only fair to at least describe what Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre is rather than dwell on what it isn’t. It’s definitely a movie that features Traci Lords, here filling out the obligatory role of the familiar face that inevitably pops up in these things. She’s a no-nonsense sheriff saddled with a bozo deputy, though they’re almost completely ancillary to the actual plot. Most of our time is spent with the five women (plus one of the guards) hanging out in the house, where Wynorksi makes any excuse to have them in bathing suits or lightly making out with each other. The attempts at titillation are actually light by Wynorski’s standards , which is either a disappointing or a pleasant surprise, depending on your persuasion.
Having seen enough of this sort of thing, I fall into the latter camp there, though I wish I could say Wynroski replaced the softcore shenanigans with anything worthwhile. Character development here amounts to one of the prisoners repeatedly mentioning she has a son, while another discusses how much she’s taken to reading while on the inside. One of the better (read: “better”) scenes has her wistfully thumbing through a first edition copy of A Tale of Two Cities, a moment that only highlights the utter contrast of the junk you’re actually watching. You could be doing literally anything else—like actually reading A Tale of Two Cities—yet here you are, watching something called Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre. If nothing else, it’s a bold reminder on the movie’s part.
A few years ago, I might have been more inclined to approach this movie on its level and acknowledge that, yes, it mostly just exists as a vehicle to absurdly juxtapose scantily-clothed women (some of them adult stars, even) with a prehistoric shark. Timing, however, is absolutely everything in this case: despite its title, Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre is an all-too-familiar farce, complete with unsightly digital effects, ugly, over-lit DV photography, and a premise that’s old hat. This would usually be the part where I joke about that old hat being like a shark’s fin, but that would be like sinking to the levels of Sharkansas Prison Massacre, a film that makes a predictable land shark reference to a 40-year-old SNL joke. Nothing else quite captures the eye-rolling, obvious nature of a movie that goes for the easiest, dumbest gags.
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