Written by: Jeffrey Reiner and Tommy Lee Wallace (screenplay), Richard Fernicola (book)
Directed by: Jack Sholder
Starring: Colin Egglesfield, Mark Dexter, and John Rhys-Davies
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Based on the terrifying true events that inspired Jaws.
Jaws famously brought the saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis into the cultural consciousness; indeed, Robert Shawís haunting account of that horrific ordeal at sea endures as one of cinemaís great monologues, and is cited as one of the most captivating scenes ever filmed. But Speilbergís blockbuster masterpiece also provided another, much more brief history lesson with Chief Brodyís passing reference to the 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks. This historical chapter--particularly the local authoritiesí blasť reaction to it--served as some inspiration Jaws but wouldnít earn its own movie until Jack Sholder brought it to the small screen with 12 Days of Terror for Animal Planet in 2004. Even with the intriguing talent involved, itís not the most auspicious platform for such an ambitious project. Donít get me wrong: weíre not exactly in SyFy territory, and Sholder and company took the project seriously--itís just that such a small scale and an obviously low budget wasnít capable of doing this story the justice it really deserves.
But itís serviceable enough, as a lifeguard named Alex (Colin Eggesfield) serves as narrator and protagonist. He introduces 1916 New Jersey as kind of an otherworldly haven, shielded from the polio epidemic and the World War raging across the globe. With the advent of recreational beach-going, this area became a hotspot for folks just looking to get away from it all. In doing so, they unwittingly served up a smorgasbord for the sharks lurking in the nearby waters, as several swimmers were injured and killed during a 12-day period. For Alex, it becomes a personal matter: not only is he witness to some of the attacks, but the sharks eventually claim his best friend, inspiring him to take to the seas in search of revenge.
Thatís the gist of it, anyway: 12 Days of Terror is rather episodic, and I almost wonder if it wouldnít have been better served as a miniseries to give certain plot points and character development more room to breathe. As is, itís a languid but breezy recounting of events that never quite grips the way it should, mostly because everything just feels so flat. The photography (from longtime Sholder collaborator Jacques Haitkin) is dull, the script (co-written by Tommy Lee Wallace, making this an all-star roster of unsung genre vets) goes through the motions with its tepid drama (Alex broods over losing his best girl to his best friend in a subplot that really goes nowhere) and rote story developments (youíll never believe it, but the authorities donít want to close the beaches). Some of this canít be helped--it is a historical account, of course--but it all just feels a little too mechanical and by the numbers. I hate to just dismiss something by calling it boring, but I struggle to find a better word for 12 Days of Terror. Simply put, itís the most basic, Cliffís Notes version of this story imaginable, with a little bit of manufactured drama ladled on top to almost no effect.
Event the stuff that should be exciting, like the shark attacks, are pretty dull. To the filmís credit, it tries to minimize outbursts of cheap effects, keeping to unsightly CGI confined to a few shots here and there. Unfortunately, Sholder doesnít do much to liven up this action to make it more horrific or suspenseful. The best scene involves a shark terrorizing some boys in a nearby creek, and even it mostly amounts to shots of the shocked actors reacting to a fake fin prowling the waters. Thereís just a plodding sense of inevitability to the action in 12 Days of Terror, almost as if Sholder assumes you already know the story and just want to see it unfold as unfussily as possible. It gets in and gets out without much so much as raising its own pulse.
This approach the horrific aspects might work out if the drama could do some of the heavy lifting. But despite so much going on in 12 Days of Terror, the dramatic stuff never grips, either, even if it does make for a fascinating portrait of how little America has changed in the face of crisis during the past 100 years. Not to make everything about the current COVID-19 situation, but itís not hard to see a connection between it and what unfolds on the Jersey Shore here. Authorities donít want to acknowledge the danger because itíll undermine profits; in fact, they go so far as to deflect the blame to German U-Boats supposedly lurking in the era. Shit, they even try to build an ineffective wall to keep the sharks out instead of actually trying to deal with the problem. Donít even get me started with how the movie insists that families worried about polio flocked to the beaches because of the clean air.
Maybe the most damning stretch of the movie comes when everyone just decides the crisis is over. John Rys-Davies basically plays the movieís Quint, an old salty dog sea captain who befriends Alex; like his counterpart in Jaws, he sounds the alarm early but to no avail. Nobody wants to hear that thereís a shark terrorizing the place. But instead of resisting this, he eventually falls in line, going so far as to string a shark up on his boat and insist that itís the one thatís been chewing up folks in the surf. For a nickel, spectators can even come and gawk at it. Itís one of the few aspects of 12 Days of Terror thatís kind of interesting because it feels so believable, especially now that weíve witnessed first-hand how so many people just gave up in the face of a crisis. Thereís apparently something in the American culture that simply doesnít want to confront problems because this kind of stuff isnít supposed to happen here. Better to just keep your head down and maybe even make a buck off of it if you can.
A better movie might have been more engaging with this stuff. 12 Days of Terror, however, barely feigns interest in it: predictably, it crafts a redemption arc for the sea captain when he escorts Alex to the ocean for the filmís climactic confrontation. Even more predictably, this climax eventually involves three men doing battle with the beast; less predictable is that this takes about ten minutes. Forget reserving a more substantial chunk of the movie, lending an epic, almost mythological quality to the showdown like Spielberg did in Jaws; hell, this one doesnít even show the men slay the beast, as it cuts away to their arrival back at the shore with it in tow. Few movies have ever been in such a hurry to just get its shit over with.
Ironically, weíre left with a weird, full circle fate for the Jersey Shore shark attack: somehow, the story that inspired Jaws essentially got its own lukewarm Jaws rip-off. Itís disappointing considering the talent involved (it remains the last movie Sholder directed before going off to become a film professor) and does little justice to the source material. Granted, I appreciate that 12 Days of Terror does its best to take it seriously (I shudder to think what this movie would have looked like a decade later), but this story deserves a bigger investment. Hopefully somebody revisits the idea at some point because thereís a fascinating story lurking within it, one that seems doomed to be eternally resonant unless we finally get our shit together and learn that ignoring a crisis always bites us in the ass. Memo to America: stop being the mayor from Jaws.
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