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Jumping
the Shark
(Part 1)


Ask anyone to name a film about sharks and they will almost certainly say Jaws. Ask them to name a dumb film about sharks and there was a time when they would have said Jaws: The Revenge, the film which implied that a shark was deliberately targeting members of the Brody family as vengeance for the events of the first two movies. But if you ever thought Jaws 4 was cheesy and ridiculous, well it’s almost a National Geographic documentary in comparison with 21st century shark films. In the past few years, the Dumb Shark Movie has become a genre in its own right. Last month I promised you a canter through the field, and never let it be said that I don’t deliver.

      Jaws and its sequels inspired the expected roster of cut-price rip-offs around the world, including Shark Kill, Mako: The Jaws of Death, Tintorera, Cyclone, Up from the Depths, Great White, The Last Shark and Devouring Waves. Most of these were thinly-disguised clones of the Spielberg classic, but with sharks that were larger, fiercer and even more rubbery than ‘Bruce’ (or more obviously stock footage from nature documentaries).

      It was in the late 1990s that the shark film boom really began as CGI became available to filmmakers. A shark is almost perfect for creation in a computer: a fairly straightforward geometric shape without any awkward limbs or difficult fur. Renny Harlin cottoned onto the possibilities and made Deep Blue Sea in 1999, in which Saffron Burrows is a doctor who believes she can develop a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease by breeding mako sharks with genetically-enlarged brains. This magnificently dumb premise leads to large, super-intelligent sharks hunting down Burrows and love interest Thomas Jane as well as colleague Stellan Skarsgard, investor Samuel L Jackson and chef LL Cool J. Because every crazy genetics lab in the middle of the ocean needs a staff canteen.

      That same year, cut-price Cannon spin-off Nu Image also dipped its toes into shark-infested waters with Shark Attack, starring Casper Van Dien and Ernie Hudson. This was a pretty shameless rip-off of Deep Blue Sea, the only real difference being that the unethical experiments to develop a cure for a disease by making sharks larger and smarter happened off the coast of Africa. Nu Image was always keen to bang out a sequel before anyone realised how cheap the first film was and Shark Attack 2 came along one year later. Pinching ideas from Jaws 1 and 3, this was set in a marine park which captures a great white as a star attraction, little realising that it’s one of the super-deadly genetic creations from the first movie. In lieu of Casper Van Dien and Winston from Ghostbusters, Shark Attack 2 could only muster some guy who starred in daytime soaps. But all was not lost because Shark Attack 3: Megalodon brought back a minor character from the first film, played by John Barrowman!

      This was a few years before Captain Jack Harkness, when Barrowman was still doing West End Musicals and occasional small roles in Chucklevision. As the sub-title indicates, Shark Attack 3 left the genetically-engineered great whites aside and instead told of the discovery of a surviving Megalodon, an 18-metre prehistoric shark which died out 2.6 million years ago. The crazy thing is that this film ripped off a blockbuster that never actually got made. Meg, based on a pulpy but popular novel by Steve Alten, was expected to be directed by Jan de Bont, with Guillermo del Toro producing. The project fell apart but has continued to surface regularly over the years, with in fact an announcement only last month that it was back in active development. Meanwhile Shark Attack 3 continues to resurface in endless repackagings, to the fascination and embarrassment of Barrowman fans.

      Nu Image made another three shark films, all directed by Danny Lerner who had produced the first trio. Shark Zone involved a search for sunken treasure and featured a dream sequence of a great white emerging from a swimming pool on a luxury yacht. The biggest name in the cast was a woman who pointed at things on The Price is Right. Raging Sharks came next. (Can sharks rage? Is that even a thing they can do?) The surprisingly name-heavy cast here included Corin Nemec, Vanessa Angel, Corbin Bernsen and Todd Jensen, any one of whom could headline this sort of tosh on their own (and frequently do). The movie starts off with an alien spaceship exploding, probably leading many viewers to eject the disc, thinking they’ve made a mistake. But no, this is indeed a Dumb Shark Movie. An alien something hurtles through space before eventually landing on Earth, hitting a Russian ship in the Bermuda Triangle. And that’s why, several years later, all the sharks around Corin Nemec’s undersea research base are a-raging and a-roaring. (Did I mention that Nu Image sharks roar like dinosaurs?)

      Lerner’s last trip to the stock footage library was 2008’s Shark(s) in Venice, an example of the second type of Dumb Shark Movie. Type 1 is sharks that are bigger and/or smarter and/or fiercer due to some crazy scientist messing with things man was not meant to know – whereas Type 2 takes a regular shark but puts it somewhere that it shouldn’t be. Shark(s) in Venice recycles the buried treasure schtick from Shark Zone except this time it’s Crusader gold hidden among Venetian canals, where assorted gangsters looking for it get chomped by a great white that has somehow wandered into town. The cast is led by a minor Baldwin brother and the best one can say about the film is that it is at least not quite as offensively stupid as the infamous Venice sequence in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

      Recurring dumbness in the Nu Image pictures includes characters who are able to speak clearly to each other while scuba diving, mismatched nature doc stock footage, recursive recycling of footage from all the previous Nu Image DSMs – and of course, roaring sharks. The company made one other Dumb Shark Movie, a Type 3. That’s a picture that says sharks alone aren’t scary enough so creates a whole new monster: part-shark, part-something. Hammerhead aka Sharkman stars fan fave Jeffrey Combs as a crazy scientist whose attempt to cure his son’s cancer has resulted in said offspring somehow transmogrifying into a half-man, half-shark monstrosity. Earlier Type 3 DSMs include Bob Keen’s notorious Proteus (pretty much the only British entry in the sub-genre) and Creature, a 1998 mini-series adaptation of a novel by Jaws author Peter Benchley.

      In 1995, the original Jaws was given a big publicity push for its 20th anniversary (SFX was sent a promotional inflatable shark which we hung from the office ceiling), resulting in some pretty unsubtle marketing. Tonino Ricci’s Night of the Sharks was released in some territories as Jaws Attack while Bruno Mattei’s Cruel Jaws was actually sold on US laserdisc as Jaws 5 and credited Peter Benchley as the source author!

      The piscinely-named Matt Codd is a concept artist whose credits include blockbusters like Transformers and The Amazing Spider-Man. He was given the directorial reins of something called Shark Hunter in 2001 (the same year that he worked on one of the best-ever undersea features, Disney’s magnificent Atlantis: The Lost Empire). This was another take on Megalodon, actually pipping Shark Attack 3 to the shelves of Blockbuster. Antonio Sabato Jr stars as a research scientist whose parents were killed by the prehistoric fish and who has now constructed a super-sub capable of tracking and destroying the creature. Because marine biologists are often happy to render rare species extinct if it satisfies their personal lust for vengeance…

      The third in the new millennium’s flurry of Megalodon films – Type 4, I guess we’ll call them – was simply entitled Megalodon, with a screenplay by (and on-screen role for) make-up effects legend Gary J Tunnicliffe (whom I once met on the set of a Pumpkinhead sequel). A drilling platform off Greenland breaks through into a subterranean ocean teaming with prehistoric life, or at least teaming with a single giant shark – which then proceeds to swim around and around, occasionally gobbling up mini-subs.

      Dark Waters was the last directorial work by D-movie slugger Philip J Roth whose company, UFO, has produced so much generic crap (including Shark Hunter) that it makes Nu Image look like Warner Brothers. This 2003 feature is a Type 1 DSM starring DTV legend Lorenzo Lamas (whom we will meet again later…) as a marine biologist who discovers his dad is helping the US Navy develop super-deadly sharks for military use. Not to be confused with Red Water, starring Lou Diamond Phillips, original Buffy Kristy Swanson and bad hair day rapper Coolio – proving that it takes three regular B-movie stars to equal one Lorenzo Lamas. Phillips and Swanson are looking for oil in the Louisiana Bayou, Coolio is a low-life criminal trying to retrieve some stolen money from the river bed. Actually, Red Water isn’t too bad. Eschewing the usual reliance on great whites, makos and Megalodons, the fish here is a pissed-off bull shark (played by a surprisingly good animatronic), and the notion that it’s way up-river isn’t as outlandish as you might think because bull sharks can survive in fresh water. This is actually one of the better shark movies out there. But still: Coolio.

      From Red Water we move to Blue Demon – not the Mexican wrestler but a 2004 Type 1 DSM from the writer of Prom Night II and III, and the only directorial credit for the executive producer of Terror Train. With Dedee Pfeiffer and Jeff Fahey topping the cast list, how could this be anything less than must-see crap? She’s a scientist genetically modifying sharks to be radio-controllable so they can protect America against terrorists. He’s a cigar-chomping military commander trying to deal with what happens when some of them escape. And the movie is a PG-13 lame-o-fest in which almost no-one gets eaten.

      Shark Attack in the Mediterranean sounds like it should be a Type 2 DSM but actually shark attacks in the Med are far from uncommon with more than 40 species present including great white, mako, tiger and bull sharks. In fact it’s a Type 1/4 hybrid since the giant predator that killed the hero’s wife and is now back off the coast of Mallorca is a genetically-engineered Megalodon! This cheesy but fun German film, also known as Shark Alarm, stars the mighty Ralf Moeller (a really nice guy with a useless publicist) who played Conan in a one-season TV series. From the Med we move to Florida and some tiger sharks attracted to a man-made reef just off a coastline where vast numbers of beer-swilling jocks and bikini-clad bimbos are partying hearty. Yes, it’s Spring Break Shark Attack – a title and concept that surprisingly took until 2005 to be used. Sadly, most of the film is twentysomething teenagers in beachwear sorting out relationships but the sharks do eventually appear and the film is refreshingly short of CGI.

      Marina Monster is a mega-obscure 2008 picture, written and directed by Christine Whitlock whose previous film Sharp Teeth was a mutant fish movie. It’s another ‘bull shark up the Mississippi’ story, but this time shot on a cheap camcorder for about 20 bucks and claiming to be a comedy, although that’s debatable. And finally this month, at the other end of the budget spectrum is Shark Swarm, a lavish Hallmark mini-series starring Daryl Hannah, Armand Assante and F Murray Abraham. Assante is a greedy condo developer who tries to drive out hard-to-shift locals by dumping toxic waste in the bay to kill off all the fish. Well, it kills the bony fish but not the cartilaginous ones, ie. sharks. It just makes them angrier – and hungrier because all their prey has disappeared. With great whites, tiger sharks, bull sharks, makos, hammerheads and more, this is almost a greatest hits package for DSM lovers.

      Those were all the Dumb Shark Movies released up to 2008. Be back here in a month’s time for Part 2, covering 2009-2015, including Megashark vs Giant Octopus, Two-Headed Shark Attack, Sharktopus and – of course – Sharknado!

 

 

 

 

 

 

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.