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Spawn of Jaws: The Great Shark Movie Rip-Offs

JawsThis June sees the re-release, in selected cinemas across the UK, of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). It’s a film that pretty much set its director on the road to fame and fortune while at the same time making a huge amount of money for Universal. Jaws was such a success that it generated a whole franchise of sequels – films familiar to all those of us who, at one time or another, have found ourselves in front of the television happy to watch any old disaster movie featuring large angry living things. You know the films I mean – there’s the one where the shark eats the electric cable (Jaws 2), the one with the shark in the water park in 3D (Jaws 3D) and the one where the shark fights Michael Caine (Jaws 4: The Revenge, although even enthusiasts may have chosen to give this one a miss).

Making vast amounts of money does not go unnoticed in movie-land, and Jaws was responsible for launching something other than the subsequent stellar career of its director – namely the crap shark rip-off film. In the rather good documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed, Roger Corman admits that when he saw Jaws he realised that Spielberg had made a Corman-type picture better than he ever could have. Although that didn’t stop him from weighing in quickly with some aquatic-themed rip offs of his own. Without a doubt the best of these was Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978), in which lower budget fish menaced much lower budget stars in an enjoyable well-written (by John Sayles) romp that generated sequels and remakes and rip offs of its own. This includes Antonio Marghereti’s Killerfish (with Lee Majors), and the recent and utterly dreadful Piranha 3DD. Roger’s Up From The Depths (1979), directed by Charles Griffith, will be mentioned here simply because if you do stumble across it the monster in question is particularly terrible, being little more than a large rubber head with chompy teeth that according to Joe Dante was apparently too heavy to float. Consequently Griffith had to cut away from it very quickly every time because as soon as it was put into water it would start sinking, nose-first.

Roger Corman Revival

Roger has had a bit of a renaissance of late. In fact, he must be the only producer around who has consistently been making films from the 1950s to the 2010s. Whether this is because he loves filmmaking or because efforts like Galaxy of Terror and Humanoids from the Deep didn’t turn out to be quite the pension plan he was hoping for is a matter that can probably be endlessly debated. His latest projects have been shot on video, but still display the same sense of cheerful or ludicrous exploitation as did rubbish like Creature From the Haunted Sea and the rather better Attack of the Crab Monsters (one of my favourites, by the way) all those years ago.             One of the most recent productions from the Corman stable is Sharktopus (2010). In Sharktopus a genetically engineered cross between (you’ve guessed it by now I hope) a shark and an octopus that’s apparently going to be used to chase drug runners breaks free from its military experimentational bonds, loses the camera that’s been welded to it, and heads off to cause some Jaws-inspired mayhem off the coast of Mexico, where it was cheaper for Roger to shoot. Eric Roberts stars as the increasingly wobbly mad scientist in charge of this one. He may be top dog as far as daft military experiments are concerned but his attempts to stay hydrated in the hot climate by consuming vast quantities of scotch suggests he’s misread the handbook on fluid replacement. All the requisite elements are in this one, including a low-rent ‘hunky’ hero, a heroine who doesn’t take her bikini top off because, well, this IS for TV you know (actually the SyFy Channel – where did they get that spelling from?), a sassy-but-actually-annoying reporter, and the hero’s Mexican sidekick who happens to be a gunrunner on the side which comes in handy for the explosive climax. Sharktopus is eminently missable and Dinoshark (2010) is only slightly better in that it has a scarier monster but otherwise is pretty much the same. Where these films can perhaps be forgiven is that they were made on shoestring budgets for television. Shark Night (in 3D if you’re very unlucky) received a cinema release and was directed by David R Ellis. The usually reliable Mr Ellis blots his copybook a bit with Shark Night 3D. Having previously demonstrated a remarkable understanding of the Roger Corman school of exploitation with the deliriously entertaining Snakes on a Plane and a couple of Final Destination sequels (2 & 4), Ellis gets everything wrong with this dreadful tale of rednecks implanting cameras into the heads of sharks that have found their way into a local lagoon following a high tide, or something. A group of bright young things end up in the hairy hands of the locals and the not-so-hairy fins of the sharks. What made the film all the more disappointing for me was that Mr Ellis should have been able to have fun with this material. “We were inspired by Faces of Death and the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week” says one bewhiskered, beer-slugging, dentally challenged gentleman at one point, and a film that’s based on that premise should be a lot more entertaining than this load of frankly rather dull rubbish. Apparently the film’s studio-enforced PG13 rating is the reason for the absence of any gore and the titillation remaining strictly of the bikini-clad type, but I’m not sure that even vast amounts of blood and nudity could have redeemed this one.

I’ve had enough of these motherfucking sharks

Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea (1999) has the benefits of a decent budget and actors, Saffron Burrows, Stellan Skarsgard and Samuel L Jackson among them. It also had a promising original idea by screenwriter Duncan Kennedy, whose inspiration for the script was apparently a recurring nightmare of being trapped in a passageway and being pursued by sharks who could read his mind. This came to him after he witnessed the remains of a shark attack victim washed up on the beach near his home. Unfortunately his idea gets translated to the screen as mad Saffron the scientist attempting to cure Alzheimer’s disease by implanting human neurones into shark brains and then slapping a bit of illegal genetic engineering in there for good measure. Of course that wouldn’t be so bad except that an exploding helicopter turns the marine research facility where all this is happening into a bit of a disaster area and the film becomes a bit like The Poseidon Adventure With Sharks before we get to the climax. LL Cool J is in this as a chef, apparently because Jackson’s agent quite reasonably said that the role wasn’t good enough for Mr Jackson, who then had another part specially created for him. Sadly he doesn’t get to say that he’s had enough of these motherfucking sharks in this motherfucking research facility but I’m sure anyone who watches the film these days fills that in for him. I was also delighted to see at least one good old-fashioned exploitation film principal being exercised in Deep Blue Sea, namely Harry Alan Towers’ rule that you must kill off the most expensive actors first. I won’t spoil the plot but now when you watch the characters dying you can also appreciate the money being saved at the same time.

Any more? Goodness me, yes, but time and space prevent me from saying much more other than Shark in Venice was not as good as I hoped it would be, and that wasn’t very good to begin with so I heartily suggest it’s avoided. Other even more suspect rubbish includes Tintorera (1977), a Mexican-British Jaws rip off with some sexy British ladies (Susan George and Fiona Lewis) and some terrible Italian actors (Hugo Stiglitz strikes again, with extra close-ups of his beard for the ladies!) directed by Rene Cardona, the man who brought us Night of the Bloody Apes and Survive! The sharks are stock footage, but the music is by Basil Poledouris and that’s probably the only reason for catching this one. Enzo G Castellari’s The Last Shark is a virtual carbon copy of Jaws with Vic Morrow doing his best Robert Shaw impersonation and a large piece of styrofoam trying hard to be the shark. I’m afraid I cannot comment on the 2005 Jeffrey Combs -starrer Hammerhead about a half man-half shark monster, nor on Lamberto Bava’s seminal load of old Italian rubbish Devouring Waves as neither of these has yet to arrive through the post. Anyone keen to see what I eventually think of those are directed to my House of Mortal Cinema review site, where no doubt my thoughts, like so many bits of the Italian extras in these films, will surface in due course. Meanwhile, dodgy fish-based movie afficionados can relax safe in the knowledge that while Jaws will be showing on UK screens, Roger Corman’s Piranhaconda will be premiering on the SyFy Channel on the 16 June, to be exact. I think I’ll stick with the shark.

JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT

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3 comments

  1. Danny Rhodes

    Nice article. Of course Spielberg ‘ripped off’ ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’ (1954 Jake Arnold)…or paid homage…

  2. Danny Rhodes

    As this clever promo demonstrates…

  3. Ray

    I love Jaws and I return to the film quite often, though I’m not a fan of the sequels. That said, some of the rip-offs aren’t bad as long as you remember that’s what they are! Shark Night, for example, was good popcorn-munching fun.

    I wonder if it would be shameless to plug my story ‘Shark! Shark!’ coming soon in the next issue of Black Static…

    Probably. But I’ve done it anyway.

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