Slashbacks: The Last Shark/Shark Night

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2018-08-09 17:35
Welcome to Slashbacks, a new (semi) regular column commemorating 10 years of OTH. For this month’s edition, I revisited a couple of shark movies ahead of The Meg

The Last Shark (1981)

I try not to become a victim of hype, but I think I was when I watched The Last Shark for the first time about a decade ago. After hearing so much about this infamous film—which was banned from U.S. theaters after Universal filed an injunction on the basis that it ripped off Jaws too closely—I was left mostly indifferent towards it. Yes, it’s most certainly brazen in its attempt to cash in on Spielberg’s blockbuster, which I found to be its most noteworthy quality. Unless you’re very familiar with just how often this sort of thing happened during the Italian film scene’s heyday, you almost can’t believe something like The Last Shark could even exist, and that infamous reputation tends to overshadow the actual movie itself.

But this is why we go back and give things another shot: to move beyond that shadow of expectations and hype in order to better focus on the film itself. Doing so with The Last Shark makes one thing clear: I may have underestimated just how gonzo this thing is beyond its notoriety as a rip-off. In fact, its plagiarism is almost like a footnote the second time around because when you’re not watching it with that angle explicitly in mind, The Last Shark is free to regale you with its own specific brand of lunacy. Rather than being continually bemused at it feeling like an umpteenth-generation Xerox of Jaws, you find yourself noting the insane dialogue, absurd plot developments, and, of course, the pastiche of effects work that brings the titular shark to life.

While you can’t really overlook Jaws’s influence on the skeletal outline of the film’s plot, it’s perhaps more pertinent to acknowledge what a scrambled, brain-damaged riff The Last Shark is. Familiar pieces are in place: James Franciscus is the Brody analogue (although he’s an author named Peter Benton), Vic Morrow is the Quint stand-in (named Ron, which will never not be hilarious for some reason), and Joshua Sinclair is the skeptical mayor, who doesn’t want to cancel the annual regatta because it might hinder his gubernatorial campaign. Besides, he offers, maybe an ill-fated seafarer was actually blown up by a grenade, you know? Moments like that work in conjunction with the familiarity to create an uncanny effect, kind of like listening to someone drunkenly karaoke through one of your favorite songs: you admire the audacity but mostly take pleasure in hearing how much they mangle it.

Eventually, though, The Last Shark grows beyond that sort of trainwreck intrigue, to the point where you’re genuinely enraptured by how insane this movie is. Enzo Castellari is a hell of a filmmaker with many noteworthy titles to his name, like The Inglorious Bastards, Heroin Busters, Cold Eyes of Fear, and Keoma. The Last Shark might not exactly rank above those, but it does represent one of Castellari’s more impressive efforts all the same: when saddled with the enormous task of ripping of Jaws with a fraction of the resources that were at Spielberg’s disposal, he at least leans into the schlock of it all, doing his best to deliver as much shark action as possible, no matter how ill-advised that may be. It perhaps doesn’t help that the script features absurd sequences, like an ill-fated attempt at helicopter shark-hunting and an entire subplot where the mayor’s kid decides he and his buddies should kill the beast to uphold his old man’s good name.

Or maybe it does help, because it’s a hoot watching Castellari try to patch this rickety script together on a shoestring budget that has him reaching into every bag of tricks imaginable to deliver some killer shark action. His end result is an absurd pastiche of stock footage and lo-fi practical effects, including a rigid, plasticine shark and an assortment of mannequins frequently subbing in as victims. In most cases, Castellari isn’t even trying to hide these shortcuts, especially when realizing the more over-the-top scenes, like when the shark surfaces and sends someone flying straight up into the air. He captures it all in slow motion, giving the audience plenty of time to take in the gag and note just how fake it looks. If there’s any doubt that he’s in on the gag, look no further than the opportunistic news anchor looking to exploit the shark attacks for a ratings bonanza: when his cameraman asks him what to do if he can’t get a good shot, he casually insists that he’ll just use stock footage since nobody will be able to tell the difference.

You might look at this wink to the audience as Castellari’s excuse to make a joke out of the whole thing and wonder if it’s not pretty much the same approach most recent filmmakers have taken with this genre. I’m not sure you’d be exactly wrong: even though Castellari does orchestrate some genuinely eerie moments (the scene where the shark breaks through the ocean netting is stunningly haunting), The Last Shark is mostly ridiculous. No matter how many tearful monologues Franciscus delivers, it’s hard to take this any more seriously than you’d take, say, Sharknado or whatever.

It’s still easier to stomach than that ilk, though, mostly because it’s not a complete farce. Plus, it also just has a more palpable texture: The Last Shark might be the perfect example to illustrate why shoddy practical effects are preferable to shoddy CGI effects. Both are bad, yes, but the former has an inherent charm and is simply more aesthetically pleasing: I know that’s not really a solid argument, but that’s just how my eyes and brain see it. I would definitely rather watch this nearly lifeless animatronic devour mannequins than see a collection of hastily rendered pixels whirled together into lazy digital carnage.

On that note—and this is going to be a recurring theme with this article—The Last Shark definitely appeals to me more now by default: in the wake of that SyFy/Asylum deluge, just about every shark movie already in existence has nudged up the ladder of relative quality. What was previously sort of a disappointment is a revelation now that I’ve seen how much this genre has degenerated. To paraphrase LL Cool J, my grading curve is like a shark’s fin, and The Last Shark benefits mightily from it—even if I still maintain that my beloved Cruel Jaws deserves to be just as infamous.

Shark Night (2011)

Shark Night is a movie I didn’t quite appreciate enough back in 2011, if only because I underestimated how rough these shark movie waters would become in the following years. Per my original review, I apparently held out hope that it—and the early batch of SyFy/Asylum nonsense—heralded a turning tide that would at least embrace how silly this genre can be. Obviously, I was blissfully unaware of just how misguided this turn would be, as so many filmmakers took it as a mandate to churn out the utter bullshit that’s made this such an exhausting genre in recent years. What I figured was that something like Shark Night would be the baseline for this sort of thing: strikingly competent, knowing camp, helmed by a filmmaker unafraid to indulge schlock impulses (within constraints of a PG-13 rating at least). What I know now is that it’s actually still the best this particular strain of shark movie has to offer, and I’d gladly take ten of them in place of the junk we usually endure each summer on SyFy.

Conceptually, Shark Night isn’t that far removed from its SyFy brethren. Even though it doesn’t envision some absurd mutant shark hybrid, it’s still not exactly aiming to deliver much beyond the cheap thrills of feeding college students to a bunch of ravenous sharks. Sure, there’s a faint pretense of character development, but the entire setup feels like someone trying to tell a serious story through a barely stifled giggle. The story—such as it is—mostly involves Tulane student Sarah Palski (Sarah Paxton) returning to her backwoods, Bayou stomping grounds for the first time in three years. Her friends describe her as somewhat cagey, almost as if she’s carrying some unknown trauma. A run-in with old flame Dennis (Chris Carmack) provides a clue, and creates the impression that Shark Night might be about something.

Well, if it weren’t totally goofing around every other step of the way, of course, broadly sketching an assortment of college kid clichés surrounding Sarah in the process: the “nice guy” who secretly pines over her (Dustin Milligan), a couple of horndogs (Joel David Moore & Chris Zylka), the more outgoing girl (Katharine McPhee), the jock (Sinqua Walls), and his girlfriend (Alyssa Diaz). As you watch these kids fulfill every passé expectation in the genre playbook, you really have to wonder if Shark Night is being serious at all about Sarah’s traumatic ordeal—or anything at all, really. The answer comes soon enough, and definitively so: eventually, Sarah reveals that she left home because Dennis was so upset with her decision to go to college that he nearly allowed her to drown. After surviving the ordeal, she whipped a boat propeller into his face, dropped him off at a nearby hospital, and never looked back.

You might think that this does sound like serious business, and, you know, maybe it would come across that way in any other movie. But right around the time Sarah makes her tearful confession, Shark Night also hatches a scene where the aforementioned jock—who has already lost an arm to a shark—fashions a spear and treads into the lake to slay the beast that killed his girlfriend. It’s at this point that David R. Ellis can’t contain his giggles and just launches into fucking hysterics and begins unhinging Shark Night with each new plot development.

Seasoned viewers familiar with Ellis from the likes of Final Destination 2 and Snakes on a Plane would expect as much, of course, and he delivers with a wild yarn that ultimately involves Sarah’s ex conspiring with local yokels (including the sheriff, played by Donal Logue!) to kidnap unsuspecting vacationers and feed them to sharks for a paying audience. Citing both Shark Week and Faces of Death as an inspiration, Logue’s sheriff delivers a spiel about moral relativism that confirms Shark Night is totally, completely fucking with you. No, this movie’s not really about a survivor overcoming her trauma in any deep, meaningful way—it’s mostly about a bunch of redneck psychos terrorizing college students with sharks, and it (mostly) rules.

Obviously, the big difference between Shark Night and the usual SyFy tripe is the level of investment involved. While its status as a major studio picture ensures a level of production values its TV contemporaries could never dream of, it (perhaps more importantly) results in performers that actually give a damn. After enduring so many of those lesser entries, I’ve come to realize that it’s really the performances that grate more than the meager budget: almost none of them have found the right pitch, as the actors either come across as bored or overly campy. Shark Night finds a decent middle ground: at no point do these characters really feel like actual people, but they’re also not a complete waste. In fact, I appreciate how all of the kids are perfectly nice, decent folks, something I almost never say about one of these things.

Of course, those production values do help quite a bit, too: that Shark Night looks like something approximating a real movie instead of some elaborate tax write-off helps you take it as seriously as you possibly can. The shark effects are most crucial here, naturally, and Ellis utilizes a nice blend of CGI and animatronics; the former can be dodgy at times, but they never consistently sink to the ultra-cartoonish depths of their contemporaries. In fact, the climax—which finds Sarah terrorized by a great white while confined in a shark cage—is downright harrowing because the beast is actually believable. I’m not sure why anyone ever thought it’d be a fun joke to make shark movies where the creatures intentionally look like shit because Shark Night is a solid reminder that these movies can work with even decent effects.

Just about the only thing holding Shark Night back from true trash movie greatness is the PG-13 rating, an albatross that doesn’t allow Ellis to have as much fun as we know he was capable of. In a better world, this would have been Final Destination with sharks, allowing Ellis to orchestrate an unhinged splatter show like only he could. Sadly, Shark Night was his final film ahead of his untimely death in 2013, cutting short an eclectic career that saw him bouncing between stunt coordination, second-unit work, and assuming the director’s chair himself. He left behind a short but deliriously entertaining legacy as director, as his filmography was largely defined by Ellis’s unabashed enthusiasm for leaning into silly concepts and wringing out their rollicking potential.

Shark Night is no different: at the time of its release, I backhandedly complimented it by deeming one of the top five shark movies ever made, where it still might be had the likes of Bait and The Shallows not been released since. Instead, I guess it’ll have to settle for being a top ten shark movie—but most definitely the absolute best where the entire cast raps during the end credits.

Stay tuned throughout the year as Slashbacks revisits more titles reviewed during OTH’s first 10 years.
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