Jaws is the best film ever made. Because of this, everyone and their cousins were inspired to make a shark movie. Some were either courageous enough or stupid enough to actually get their shark movies made. There are A LOT of shark movies. In spite of all my poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’, I am going to watch them all. I don’t know what will be left of me afterwards.
In the words of one of my twisted teenage movie idols, “Greetings and salutations.” I’m Drew and this is my new bi-weekly column, Fin Flicks. Every two weeks, I’ll be bringing you a shark-themed piece of cinema to chew on. If sharks are in it, it’s up for grabs. I have a long list of hidden gems, craptacular classics and downright shit sandwiches that are waiting to make their way into your educated eyeballs (only smart people read CHUD. It’s my first entry, I have to butter you up, don’t I?). While I have plenty of options already on the back burner, I am always on the lookout for new chunks of chummy goodness to devour, so please post your suggestions in the comments. In fact, post anything in the comments: questions, criticisms, jokes, and at this point I’ll even take some good old-fashioned trolling! While I want this column to be amusing and maybe even the tiniest bit educational, what I really want is just to converse about this wacky sub-genre of film with you.
Before we get into our inaugural entry, I wanted to take a moment to get a little personal. If you can’t stand any mushy mumbo-jumbo, scroll down past the poster below to get to the article. For those of you who are still here, I’m using this opportunity to do some geeky gushing. I’ve been a reader of CHUD since before my puberty kicked in. It was the first movie site I found on the web (through the annals of Creature Corner) that felt like it was tailored towards my evolving cinematic tastes and sense of humor. It was through CHUD that I found the opportunity to be in a micro-budget horror flick, earning me my sole IMDb credit. I discovered movies through CHUD I probably never would have come across in any other way, I learned to look at films from different viewpoints, and in regards to writing about film, this site was my 101 class on how to do it right.
CHUD’s editorial columns have always been one of the highlights of the site, and it’s an honor to not only join those ranks, but to do so at a time when some truly excellent ones are happening. Nick’s 100 Best Movies Ever is guaranteed to end up copy and pasted in my “CHUD Lists” folder, where I check off a title every time I’ve watched one of these mandatory movies. Let’s not forget Weird Watching, which made my co-workers think I was a werehyena because I was laughing so much at The Keep and Godzilla entries. Ryan Covey’s Doomsday Reels continues that classic CHUD tradition of talking about interesting films that no one else seems to be talking about, while turning me onto flicks I’m now eager to see (or never see again *cough*Left Behind*cough*). Movie Curiosities by williamb is necessary if you want to see how to do criticism and film examination correctly. Danielle Ryan’s Dark Side Cinema helps remind me of the stuff that made me the weirdo I am today, and manages to give me new fuel to add to my freak fire. Jared Rasic’s Crossing Streams is the only way to navigate the sea of endless choices that our brave new world of entertainment ingestion provides us with. Travis Newton’s Sounds Like CHUD has made me realize how ignorant I am of one of the most important components in the art of cinema, and has made me delve deeper into the world of film music than I ever have before. And Joshua Miller’s Franchise Me is undeniably some of the best film analysis and commentary to ever hit the Internet. To have even the most tenuous of connections to these columns is kind of surreal and humbling to me.
I want to thank fellow Steve Alten character Nick Nunziata for creating this site and giving me this incredible opportunity, and I want to thank Travis Newton for initially approaching me with the chance to create this column. If I’m ever fortunate enough to meet these fine gentlemen in corporeal form, the drinks are on me. Most of all, I want to thank you for reading. All I’ve wanted out of life is to write and have people find enjoyment out of my mad ramblings. If I can do that while talking about some shitty (and not so shitty) shark movies, all the better.
OK, I’ll stop before you accuse me of having “city hands” and counting money all my life. Let’s dive in…
The Flick: The Last Shark a.k.a. Great White (1981)
The Chum: James Franciscus, Vic Morrow, Micaela Pignatelli, Joshua Sinclair (actors), Enzo G. Castellari (director)
Species of Shark: Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias)
The Meat of the Movie: Since all shark movies following Jaws are forced to stand in the shadow of Spielberg’s masterpiece, I thought it would be appropriate to open this column with the only shark film to actually get taken to court for being such a blatant ripoff of the greatest movie ever made. That’s right, The Last Shark (originally titled Great White during its brief U.S. theatrical run) was successfully sued for copyright infringement by Universal Studios. Jeremy Smith (a.k.a. Mr. Beaks) wrote a bit about the backstory behind the lawsuit, which you can read about here. While I won’t get into all the reasons that Universal had a pretty strong case against this particular Italian ripoff, suffice to say that this film re-purposes so many elements, plots and characters from Jaws that it was even billed as a sequel to Jaws in some parts of the world. In defense of The Last Shark, while Jaws may have one of the most iconic opening scenes of all time, it sure doesn’t have one of the catchiest opening songs of all time:
That funky slice of cheese plays while showing off our first victim, windsurfing snack-to-be Mike. After Mike gets Chrissie Watkins-ed (in a more bombastically silly way by being rocketed off of his windsurfing board), we are introduced to Peter Benton (James Franciscus, looking a lot less Charlton Heston-lite since I last saw him in Beneath the Planet of the Apes), who is half a last name away from being Jaws author Peter Benchley. Wait, Benton is a writer himself? Oh, The Last Shark, I’m already loving your brazen disregard for originality. Still, Franciscus is perfectly serviceable in the film and even gets one or two moments of so-bad-it’s-good scenery chewing. Later in the movie, when his daughter is in the hospital and comatose after getting one leg chomped off by the shark, he recalls a moment when she fell off of her bicycle as a child, and it is soapy monologue gold.
Benton’s daughter happens to be one of Mike’s friends, which we find out when she tells her dad that Mike “disappeared.” Benton takes his boat out to investigate and runs into his best friend and local Quint lookalike, Ron Hamer (a pre-headless Vic Morrow). Morrow is certainly the most entertaining actor in the ensemble, grinding through an accent that sounds like Scottish by way of Krakozhia and dressing like the Party City costume version of Robert Shaw in Jaws. He’s just as unenthusiastic as everyone else in the cast, but at least his character is dopey enough to keep you giggling through his every appearance.
Since this is a Jaws ripoff, we also get a conniving mayor who doesn’t want to close the big windsurfing regatta *cough*4th of July celebrations*cough* coming up. However, unlike Mayor Larry Vaughn, Mayor William Wells (Joshua Sinclair) actually listens to the protestations of Benton and Hamer (a buddy cop sitcom title if there ever was one) and puts up protective metal netting around the regatta area. Too bad our shark rips through that like tinfoil, which gives us our first good look at the man-eater. Gaze into the face of adorable terror:
The regatta kicks off and we’re treated to a montage of celebratory events, my favorite being a wannabe Bob Dylan dressed in American flag colors, shilling for Mayor Wells’ gubernatorial campaign. As the windsurfing race begins, the shark shows up and starts knocking participants off of their windsurfing boards left and right. Though none of the contestants actually get attacked, the mayor’s right hand man does get turned into bait after experiencing that same skyrocketing superpower the shark displayed in the opening against Mike. Seeing a dummy shot into the air is always a fun time at the movies.
I should take this moment to note that this film manages to crunch the first two acts of Jaws into a single act, leaving almost no time for any serious character development. This can be taken as a slight if you’re judging the film on a highly critical level, but if I’m going to survive most of the shitty shark films I plan to digest, I have to be able to grade these things on a curve. Character development and impacting performances are going to have to take a backseat to pacing and pure entertainment, and The Last Shark is exceeding expectations in regards to those criteria. Also, it has some wonderfully idiotic looking shark puppets, including the smaller one pictured above and the larger one seen here:
Now that the shark is out in the open, it’s time for Benton and Hamer to go a-huntin’. After strapping on some dynamite (which definitely won’t be showing up when the climax rolls around), they manage to find their way into the caverns of a coral reef formation before encountering the shark. It turns out that this shark predates the unnatural intelligence of the shark in Jaws: The Revenge, and he displays this by consciously sealing our heroes within the innards of the coral reef. Good thing they brought that dynamite with them!
Unfortunately, the mayor’s brain-dead son and friends have decided to steal Wells’ boat to hunt the shark themselves. The shark shows off more of its bizarre tendency towards strategy by placing itself under the propeller of the boat, allowing it to be horribly injured in order to get one step closer to munching on some filet of dumbass. Benton’s daughter happened to come along on this fool’s errand, which is how she ends up with “Stumpy” as a nickname. She’s rescued by her father and the mayor helicoptering in to save the day.
Once Benton’s daughter is at the hospital, Mayor Wells promptly bitch-slaps his son and hops back on the helicopter to… okay, this is the best part. I’m not exactly sure what his plan was, but he and the helicopter pilot fly out over the water and just dangle some meat on a rope, hoping to attract the shark. Were they going to fish him out? They don’t seem to have any weapons, so this seems like the most logical deduction of their illogical endeavor. Well, it turns out that the shark has also seen Jaws 2 and yanks the helicopter down into the sea, but not before biting Wells’ legs off as he frantically hangs from the bottom of the helicopter.
Benton and Hamer have a little tiff about who gets to kill the shark, and their repressed romance towards each other is brought to the fore when Benton smirks and tells Hamer, “Sometimes, you can be a real pain in the ass, you know that?”, and then helps Hamer get suited up. Also, to be overtly profane and over-analytical, their names are BENT-on and Hamer (pronounced “hammer”). …Moving on, Hamer investigates the sunken helicopter, only to get tangled up in some rope which the shark uses to drag him off into the depths. This shark is seriously giving the one in Jaws: The Revenge a run for its money.
Meanwhile, a mustache-twirlingly evil news reporter has set up some spare ribs on the side of a pier in order to lure the shark and capture the animal’s demise. If some people get turned into lunch as well, he’s totally okay with it! He brings in a badass cowboy to kill the shark, but the shark just rips the pier off with everyone standing on it and ends up eating the not-so-badass cowboy. Keep in mind, this all occurs in the last ten minutes of the film! They introduce this awesome hunter as if he’s a big deal, and he’s almost immediately turned into shark food. I kind of love this. Also, everyone who has used bait to entice the shark has had success in having it show up (Wells’ son and his friends, Wells himself and now the reporter), but Benton and Hamer never consider doing this? Instead, they always dive into the water, putting them at greater risk of death by mastication!
Anyway, the shark kills both the cowboy and the reporter’s cameraman (he gets bitten in half, but it’s a cop out since we don’t actually see the shark do any gnawing) before Benton shows up to retrieve the survivors still stranded on the floating pier. In order to make the final showdown a one-on-one between Benton and the shark, he stupidly steps off of the boat and onto the pier, just in time for the shark to grab a rope (he’s consistent!) and tug the pier away into the middle of the ocean. When shoving a 2×4 into the shark’s mouth does absolutely nothing of consequence, Benton sees Hamer floating towards him and grabs the only man he’s ever loved.
Taking a second to reenact the Pietà (there’s even a sad piano-y love theme that plays!), Benton then has Hamer taken away from him by the toothy impertinence of the shark. With a vengeful and Hestonesque “Damn you!”, Benton detonates the dynamite belt around Hamer’s waist, exploding the shark in the process. Returned to dry land, Snidley Whiplash (the reporter) begs Benton for a comment. Benton replies with a solid right hook to the reporter’s puss, and then drives off into the sunset as “Love Theme for Benton and Hamer” plays over the credits.
Best Meal: Mayor Wells getting un-legged while doing his “Henry Silva in Thirst” impression.
How the Shark Gets Sushi-ed: Explosion, due to Vic Morrow and his dynamite belt giving the shark serious indigestion.
The Mindless Eating Machine: Lots and lots of real shark footage, some of it which is used more than once during the film, and some that includes sharks that are clearly not great whites. There’s also the delightful puppets seen above.
Shark Stupidity: Plenty of contenders, but I’ve gotta give this to the scene where the shark purposefully causes a cave-in, trapping Benton and Hamer. It even pushes the boulders into the opening of the cave with its snout! Sharks really don’t like having their snouts touch things.
Hilarity Factor: Pretty high. Besides all of the usual goofiness that comes with the territory of Italian ripoffs (obvious and often bad dubbing, choppy editing, cheap-looking production and slumming actors), every scene with the shark puppets are a guaranteed chuckle.
Sink or Swim?: This one gets a Swim, not only for its novelty value to film history, but because it’s a pretty breezy film with very little filler. It might be terrible, but it’s hardly ever boring. There’s lots of stupidity on display, but it’s all rather charming and never comes off in any kind of offensive way (I’m gazing into the future and looking at you, Sharknado). It helps that the film is shot and composed well, and I know that is going to end up being an issue in later entries. The cast leaves a lot to be desired, but they’re never groan-inducing to the point of complete disinterest, and the main players all get at least one scene where they are sincerely pleasant to watch. And as I stated above, the practical shark effects are just too preposterous not too take genuine pleasure in. Considering that almost every Fin Flick is going to pickpocket aspects of Jaws in some way or another, it’s intensely refreshing that the one movie that ripped it off wholesale is pretty enjoyable in its own right.
Next Time: I have something lined up (hint: it’s much more modern and better known than this entry), but if I hear a suggestion I really like and I can hunt down a copy of the movie, I’m listening!