Between THE SHALLOWS opening last Friday and the annual Shark Week event happening over on the Discovery Channel, it’s a pretty solid moment to be a fan of sharks in pop culture. In that spirit, here’s this week’s question (and strap in cap’n; this one’s pretty epic):
What’s your favorite shark movie or JAWS knock-off?
Original art by Andy Vanderbilt!
BRETT GALLMAN: As this is a topic near and dear to my heart, picking just one was a somewhat agonizing process. How could I not mention the various Italian Jaws knock-offs, especially Bruno Mattei’s CRUEL JAWS, an incredible, almost galling testament to that would-be maestro’s complete and utter disregard for intellectual property. But at least Mattei’s hackwork was built on the foundation of other, actual films, whose footage was lifted to form some kind of bizarre crazy-quilt killer shark ouroboros; meanwhile, all Zac Reeder and company had at their disposal for GREAT WHITE (1998) was a Sony Betacam and a willingness to go really big. Where most backyard filmmakers were content to produce shot-on-video splatter epics, this ragtag bunch made a killer shark movie.
Quite possibly the most (painfully) earnest JAWS rip-off imaginable, GREAT WHITE finds a great white shark terrorizing a small river town, much to the disbelief of everyone except a college professor who spends the whole movie trying to convince the authorities to do something about it. With its resources understandably limited, it coasts on the low-budget charm of its inherent silliness: there is schlock to be found, but it pales in comparison to the ridiculous character interactions, all of which are overcooked by amateurish, wooden performances. Our current killer shark landscape is full of intentionally bad movies that don’t try hard enough; if anything, GREAT WHITE tries too hard. It’s disarming in its sincerity, as any attempt to mock it is undercut by its willingness to entertain by any means necessary — well, so long as it’s within the shoestring budget.
ANDY VANDERBILT: This was a bizarre one I found on bootleg at “Horrorbles” in Berwyn. It seems to be trying to copy the way JAWS provided some comedy along with its horror, but it doesn’t do either one very well… yet there’s something fascinating about it. One memorable scene comes from when the besieged resort’s owner offers a reward for the killer fish’s head, and one of the contenders is an older Japanese man who takes to the sea in a small makeshift canoe wielding a katana… you know, because that’s how you do it.
JEREMY LOWE: I’ve never been one to go to the beach or ocean, therefore never found shark or sea monster movies that interesting. It wasn’t even until recently I watched the original JAWS. I will have to admit that in 2003, I was reluctant to watch OPEN WATER. I try to stay away from anything with too much hype. My boyfriend at the time brought it home one day, and fuck, am I glad he did. OPEN WATER is one of the most intense films I’ve ever seen. Even in a wide open space like an ocean, OPEN WATER felt claustrophobic, and the lack of soundtrack really helped to keep me glued to the screen. I felt for these characters. I wanted them to survive, and I never want people to survive in horror movies. Everything about OPEN WATER is so unnerving. I’ll stick to the land, thank you very much!
DOUG TILLEY: Look, JAWS is the best shark movie. Anyone who says differently is just being a contrarian. But in terms of my own favorite example of a severely misguided — but strangely lovable — aquatic horror, I’m going with 1977’s ORCA (also known as ORCA: THE KILLER WHALE).
It is, as you might expect, ludicrous — though there’s a speckling of memorable scenes throughout (including the rather heart-wrenching — and gruesome — first twenty minutes). It’s also a truly bizarre movie, with Bo Derek getting her leg bitten off by a vengeful whale remaining one of cinema’s true high points.
But it also features a pretty terrific Richard Harris performance at its center, some lovely photography of Newfoundland, and one of Ennio Morricone’s most underrated scores. Certainly beats the hell out of any of the 100 straight-to-SyFy shark-related campfests that have come out over the past decade.
ANDY VANDERBILT: I think ORCA kind of comes off as the darker JAWS. Whereas JAWS ends with the hero defeating the shark (still one of the best finales ever, in my book) ORCA is more about the “monster” seeking justified revenge at any cost. There is no “hero” which is actually kind of ballsy for a movie like that. I have a soft spot for ORCA because I feel it could fit in well with the original idea for the JAWS series, of branching off into stories about other aquatic threats. I feel the same way about TENTACLES. One that’s actually pretty awful in general (it was featured on MST3K as “DEVIL FISH“) but I think the interesting thing here is that it’s far more memorable and less idiotic than SyFy’s insulting ‘masterpiece’ SHARKTOPUS, despite it featuring the same creature.
Speaking of which: Long before Roger Corman became synonymous with garbage schlock like his recent SyFy run, he gave birth to the film that Spielberg himself liked enough that he stopped a lawsuit from halting it, and even has been quoted as saying it’s “the best of the JAWS ripoffs.” Having since been remade not once but twice, PIRANHA takes JAWS more inland and throws in some super-science to create killer fish that can survive in an enclosed river system, which gives the film some reasoning as to why the characters would be ignorant of the killer fish attacks. The movie also raises the stakes by having a summer camp in the line of sight, which leads to a really tense scene which enough horrific imagery to make someone leery of going into the water. To me, the real hook of PIRANHA is the fact that it’s not just one monster — it’s a swarm of ravenous eating machines, which creates a much more problematic situation than just one big one that could be more easily destroyed.
Lots of carnage, a likable cast including a sleazy official who is more worried about the twin boat regatta than the safety of people,(even an appearance by a JAWS arcade machine early on) — PIRANHA has all of these things and also a truly unsettling ending. It would have a sequel which took the fish mutation further, but it is often swept under the rug: James Cameron directed it but generally tries to ignore his involvement. The real treat would come in 2010, when PIRANHA 3D hit theaters and really took the idea and ran with it. Gory, brutal, fast-paced, and even featuring a cameo by Matt Hooper himself complete with a JAWS reference, along with a really good cast, PIRANHA 3D approached the idea with a serious yet playful tone that was unlike anything in theaters at the time. Best review of the movie came from Mike and my father: “If you’re a 13 year old boy, PIRANHA 3D might be the best movie you’ve ever seen.”
RYAN CAREY: My favorite JAWS knock-off is William Girdler‘s GRIZZLY. Seriously, the story is more or less exactly the same, substitute a bear for a shark and the forest for the ocean and that’s about it. Plus, it’s really pretty good, isn’t it? I mean, it doesn’t have the same level of tension as JAWS, but it’s a pretty reasonable facsimile. It’s one of those flicks that seems to find its way into the ol’ DVD player every few years or so, and you know what? I enjoy it every time.
MIKE VANDERBILT: A small town sheriff on the east coast teams up with a scientist to battle a seemingly unstoppable beast, the mayor won’t cancel his party despite warnings of inevitable casualties, plenty of vomit inducing sex scenes, and one really bad perm… oh, wait, that’s not JAWS, it’s Don Dohler’s 1982 classic NIGHTBEAST.
NIGHTBEAST has the distinction of not only nicking the plot of Spielberg’s original summer blockbuster, but also being a knock-off of Dohler’s own THE ALIEN FACTOR. Dohler pretty much made the same alien on the loose film five times (THE ALIEN FACTOR, FIEND, THE GALAXY INVADER, ALIEN RAMPAGE) but arguably, NIGHTBEAST is the best of the bunch. As far as comparisons to JAWS, George Stover very well may be the Richard Dreyfuss of Baltimore and the only thing that would improve the adventures of Brody, Hooper, and Quint would be an appearance by town bad boy, Drago. It’s also worth noting that J.J. Abrams, who composed some of the music for NIGHTBEAST, would go on to work with JAWS composer John Williams in 2016’s MESSAGE FROM SPACE rip-off, THE FORCE AWAKENS.
As far as the WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK style of “Jawsploitation,” 1993’s gem, MAN’S BEST FRIEND features a genetically altered Tibeten Mastiff named Max who wreaks havoc on Sierra Madre, California. A mixture of horror and sci-if, MAN’S BEST FRIEND has a lighter touch than the gruesome CUJO and healthy doses of gallows humor, such as a sequence where Max attacks a mailman. MAN’S BEST FRIEND would largely be forgotten if that scene wasn’t being enjoyed immensely by Johnny Witherspoon in FRIDAY. While certainly owing quite a bit to JAWS, MAN’S BEST FRIEND also has a touch of HALLOWEEN in its genetically altered DNA, with Lance Henriksen portraying a much more sinister Dr. Loomis hunting down his “patient.” The film is also notable as it features special effects work from genre favorite Kevin Yager.
However, if we’re going by strict rules of “Jawsploitation,” one need look no further than 1980’s ALLIGATOR. Written by indie film favorite John Sayles — who also penned Spielberg’s favorite of the JAWS knockoffs, PIRANHA — ALLIGATOR may not be as well made as JAWS, or as slickly executed, but Lewis Teague’s (who would go on to work with killer animals — and children — again in the aforementioned CUJO and CAT’S EYE) trashy rip-off swings for the fences around every corner and is plenty fun. The film features all of the core, “Jawsploitation” elements: a beleaguered police, the scientist, obstinate public officials, and a big, bad, killing machine. Robert Forster is all rough-and-tumble charm in a leather Member’s Only jacket as a Chicago cop who does battle with Ramone, an alligator the size of an El Dorado loose in the Windy City’s sewer system. Along the way he teams up with a plucky scientist played by Robin Riker, and has to deal with his skeptical chief, genre favorite Michael Gazzo and his eyebrows. Henry Silva is terrifically sleazy as a booze pounding pseudo-Quint who doesn’t stand a chance against Ramone. Being set in Chicago, just about every authority figure is corrupt and the penultimate alligator attack on a high-class suarez gives a literal display what it means to “eat the rich.” Sayles’ script features slick satire, clever dialogue, and a sly take on the classic urban legend of what happens when baby alligators that kids won at carnivals are flushed down the toilet. Teague’s direction is full of tension, but his light touch allows for plenty of laughs, mostly at the absurdity of the proceedings. The alligator effects are pretty top notch, particularly for low-budget schlock and there is an abundance of scares and gore to drive the movie along.
PATRICK SMITH: Lord knows there are enough JAWS knock-offs swimming around to fill up Sea World, but my favorite doesn’t come from the deep — it comes from the scorched American desert. Of course, I’m talking about THE CAR.
Looking at it from purely superficial terms, the two flicks don’t seem to have much in common, but THE CAR‘s main conceit is completely the same, in that a small town finds itself under attack from a perfect killing machine, ultimately going head to head with a sheriff. Swap out THE CAR with a shark and structurally, they’re practically the same movie.
Now, director Elliot Silverstein doesn’t have Spielberg’s chops, to make THE CAR pop the way JAWS does, but he makes up for it by giving THE CAR one hell of a mean streak. For all its monstrous enormity, the shark of JAWS is just an animal looking to eat, THE CAR is just cruel for cruelty’s sake, and there’s a real danger to the scenes where it’s chasing innocent townspeople down, along with one legitimately bombastic kill involving the car driving straight through a house to kill a woman that taunted it earlier. Plus it ends with a bigger explosion — what’s not to love?
JON ZILLA: I think it’s telling how definitively JAWS looms in the cultural imagination that we have to keep going outside the territory of killer sharks to get at the knock-offs. Great white shark stories are in the popular domain, but it’s almost like filmmakers steer clear as if that franchise has the species on lock. Killer-shark movies are rare, killer great-white movies are rarer. THE SHALLOWS is an exception, not a rule. You all are so right to pick up on JAWS‘s influence on other genres (which isn’t really so weird if you’ve seen DUEL.) Anyway: Since ORCA and ALLIGATOR — two longtime favorites of mine — have already been covered, I think I’m gonna go with CHAWZ, which is a Korean movie about a giant killer pig, but don’t let that mislead you: It’s virtually a remake of JAWS.
Let me back up before I go forward.
For the rest of SHARK WEEK AT DAILY GRINDHOUSE, see below…
Latest posts by Jon Abrams (see all)
- [THE BIG QUESTION] WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE ENSEMBLE IN MOVIES? - July 22, 2016
- [IN THEATERS NOW] THE BOY (2016) - January 24, 2016
- Cult Movie Mania Releases Lucio Fulci Limited Edition VHS Sets - January 5, 2016