Blood in the Water: The History of Shark Movies

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Sharks are perfect movie villains: they’re ruthless, calculating, merciless, efficiently lethal, and look like total badasses, all sleek and cold and sharp. Sharks have no emotions, they rely on no rationale other than to fulfill three primal needs, as famously noted by Richard Dreyfuss’ Matt Hooper in JAWS: “swim and eat and make little sharks.” Sharks are the living embodiment of the food chain, a serious contender for deadliest apex predator in the game, and could be the absolute pinnacle of evolution: they have no natural predators, are one of the only species that don’t develop cancer, and no one really knows how long they can live, meaning it could be fucking forever.

Sharks are the closest thing you can get to a monster in real life, they’re almost supernatural in their ability to frighten, maim, and kill. For the love of god, they employ “exploratory bites.” You know what that means? Means if they don’t know what something is, they bite the shit out of it to find out. That’s kinda like me meeting you for the first time and stabbing you right off the bat. Except way worse. Ever seen SOUL SURFER? That girl lost an arm. Exploratory bite.

Bottom line? Sharks are scary as hell, which, again, qualifies them as perfect movie villains, and which is why their particular well has been revisited by filmmakers time and again starting in the 1960’s and continuing up to this very summer, where THE SHALLOWS has emerged as the sleeper hit of the season. In between there have been many strange and perhaps unnecessary stops that make for a fascinating evolution of the shark movie, one that I in my careful analysis have broken down into four basic eras: the JAWS era, the SEQUELS & IMITATORS era, the RESURGENCE era, and the BAT-SHIT CRAZY era.

In the interest of full disclosure, I feel I should mention I’m not just tracing the history of the shark movie, I’m also in a very, very small way a part of it. I’ve contributed to three shark movies you might have been duped into watching on the SyFy channel some Saturday night or another: I wrote the screenplays for 2-HEADED SHARK ATTACK and SHARK WEEK (a.k.a. SHARK ISLAND), and I have a story credit for MEGA SHARK VS MECHA SHARK. This is mentioned to assure you I have done ample research into the genre, too ample, if my friends, family and two out of three psychologists are to be believed. Every movie here mentioned I’ve seen at least three times – I know, I know – and the same goes for several unmentioned. Just so you know where I’m coming from.

THE JAWS ERA

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Let’s be perfectly clear about something before we go any further: JAWS is absolutely the best shark movie ever made. This is not up for discussion. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is either a liar or an idiot, and you shouldn’t be associating with either. JAWS single-handedly created the killer shark genre, like Kong did the monkey-amok genre, and like that hairy trailblazer, JAWS is King. But it wasn’t the first in the genre. That honor technically goes to Jerry Hopper’s THE SHARKFIGHTERS from 1956. It’s a story with echoes of the real life tale of the U.S.S. Indianapolis – itself the subject of two movies and the best monologue in JAWS – about a Navy project to find a shark repellant to protect shipwrecked sailors. The film, which stars Victor Mature (KISS OF DEATH), features a few surprisingly effective action scenes involving actual footage of tiger sharks, making this the first man vs shark film of note.

If there was a problem with THE SHARKFIGHTERS, it’s that it didn’t spawn any similar features. It would be 13 years before another shark-centric film hit theaters, and this one, called simply SHARK and starring Burt Reynolds, would be an utter and complete disaster from pretty much every standpoint. First off, it wasn’t really a shark feature as much as it was an action-thriller that featured sharks. Secondly, the director Sam Fuller, one of Hollywood’s best, quit the production after – get this – one of the stuntmen was killed by a white shark and the studio used his death to promote the picture; the final edit was done without Fuller’s involvement and when he saw the released cut he wanted his name taken off it but the studio refused. Thirdly, SHARK just isn’t good. It’s a terribly hackneyed story and Burt Reynolds seems to be confused as to what he’s doing there. But the shark footage is amazing and was truly dangerous to capture, so there’s something to be said for it. Needless to say, though, no one was chomping at the bit to make another killer shark picture after SHARK, nor was anyone too excited when six years later in 1975 a young director name Steven Spielberg set out to make not just a killer shark movie, but a giant killer shark movie. They were even less excited when production woes threatened to sink the picture, literally, at every turn. But when it was finally released, JAWS earned a kajillion dollars at the box office (adjusted for inflation), infected American culture like an incurable virus, solidified Spielberg as a major new filmmaking talent, and single-handedly invented the summer blockbuster, making it one of the top three most influential films of all-time, at least from an industry perspective, alongside STAR WARS and CITIZEN KANE. With JAWS came killer shark fever, and one film alone wasn’t going to cure that. Which brings us to the second era in the history of shark movies…

THE SEQUELS & IMITATORS ERA

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It would be three years until JAWS 2 hit theaters in 1978, but between the release of the original film and that, there was no shortage of fast, cheap, and out of control killer shark flicks to entertain the bloodthirsty masses. MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH – see what they did there? – was the first one out of the gate in 1976, followed closely by the TV movie SHARK KILL, then Mexican director Rene Cardona Jr. filled the remaining gap with a pair of his own features, TINTORERA: KILLER SHARK in 1977, and CYCLONE the next year. These films were the first to suffer from the same malady as most shark movies, excluding JAWS: they put the emphasis on the sharks, not the characters. As a result, these films are nothing more than kill-fests short on plot other than whatever exposition it takes to get their characters in the water. Audiences got a bit of a reprieve from this mindlessness when JAWS 2 finally opened, but after that it would be a long, long time before a shark flick of true quality came along.

In fact, though JAWS 2 was a financial success, the genre was all but exhausted by the knockoffs, and in the next decade besides JAWS 3(D) and JAWS THE REVENGE, there were only a few other big shark features made: THE LAST SHARK by original INGLORIOUS BASTARDS director Enzo G. Castellari, which came out in 1980 between JAWS 2 and 3, then Treat Williams in NIGHT OF THE SHARKS – which was more in a SHARK-vein than a JAWS-vein – and lastly MISSION OF THE SHARK, which is one of the films based on the U.S.S. Indianapolis (the other, U.S.S. INDIANAPOLIS: MEN OF COURAGE, starring Nic Cage, opens later this year.). These two latter films, both released after JAWS THE REVENGE definitively killed the franchise, signified a shift in the genre. The problem with shark movies is, as killers go there’s not a lot you can do with them. They have one weapon, one way to use it, and surprise is their go-to attack method. So after nearly a dozen movies in as many years, the well was dry. It didn’t help that during the same period the supernatural-slasher pic was born. With Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger and their ilk coming up with myriad inventive ways to kill scores of coeds each picture, who could expect audiences to still be entertained by the swift chomp of a great white? These latter films, then, represent the aimlessness of the shark genre after the tragedy of JAWS 4. The former, NIGHT OF THE SHARKS, tried to use sharks as exotic props in an adventure flick, while the later, MISSION OF THE SHARK, attempted to make them the villains an historical drama. Neither made much of a dent in the box office or the cultural consciousness other than as knells signifying the seeming death of a genre. But the shark film wasn’t dead, though for almost a decade there wouldn’t be a major feature made about the creature: it was only hibernating. And when the next wave of screenwriters managed to crack the shark-movie nut, they would do so in a way that would open the floodgates irrevocably.

THE RESURGENCE ERA

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By this third era, which began around 1999, filmmakers had figured out there had to be more to a shark movie than “people go in the water, shark’s in the water, shark eats the people.” Those days were done and exhausted; no one wanted to see a regular old monster shark eating folks, it was passé. The dynamic had to change. So then the thinking went, if one shark was terrifying, two sharks or more would be terrifying to the Nth degree. And then what if all these sharks showed up places they weren’t normally supposed to be? Not to mention if said sharks were scientifically modified to be, say, faster, smarter, more lethal, or all of the above. For the next ten years shark movies would rise to their highest popularity through the use of these narrative templates on their own or in combination, but while the quantity went up, the quality, perhaps predictably, for the most part went down.

If there is a single film that spearheaded this resurgence and its particular take on marine biology, it would be Renny Harlin’s DEEP BLUE SEA, which is an exception of the era and a legitimate contender for second-best shark movie ever. In DEEP BLUE SEA, Alzheimer’s research leads to some genetic tinkering that creates supersharks who then bust out of captivity and stalk their captors. The result is akin to ALIEN in its ability to create suspense in a confined space, and its effect on the shark genre was to present a seemingly limitless range of possibilities for those willing to meddle with nature. As a result, you get movies like BLUE DEMON, DARK WATERS or HAMMERHEAD in which genetic alchemy has augmented the sharks into even more efficient killing machines. If that didn’t work for you, there were always “shark pack” movies like SHARK SWARM, SHARK ZONE, or RAGING SHARKS, where more sharks meant more opportunities for more gore. Then lastly there were the “sharks out of place” films like RED WATER (freshwater river), SPRING BREAK SHARK ATTACK (spring break) and SHARKS IN VENICE (Italy, not California), which took their unique terror from having sharks pop up where no sharks should be. This is all happening in the DVD and cable-TV era, when for the first time theatrical releases were no longer a filmmaker’s only avenue to an audience. Therefore most of these films were cheaply and swiftly made, but by placing their distinctiveness on scenario – who made the science and why, how did all these sharks come together, how did a shark get here – they weren’t just kill-fests anymore, though certainly the bar for murderous inventiveness never lowered. These scenarios dictated an attention to character shark movies hadn’t had since the early JAWS films, and though none of these films came close to living up to those, they did find a way to entertain besides jump scares and gallons of dyed corn syrup.

And entertain they did. Audiences ate these films up like, well, sharks. They loved the new sub-genres, to the point it felt like every week there was another film released. Furthermore, old sub-genres like the classic giant-killer-shark movie saw a resurgence in films like the SHARK ATTACK trilogy, MEGALODON, SHARK ATTACK IN THE MEDITERRANEAN and SHARK HUNTER, as did the true shark story in films like 12 DAYS OF TERROR, based on the 1916 shark attacks off New Jersey that were the inspiration for JAWS, and OPEN WATER, which is the second-best film of the era behind DEEP BLUE SEA.

OPEN WATER is the horrifyingly true story of a pair of scuba divers abandoned in the middle of the ocean by their boat and left to contend with the sharks who call that part of the ocean home. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for anyone but the sharks, except maybe the audience, who made OPEN WATER one of the most successful independents of the decade and helped secure the shark movie’s place in our collective pantheon of nightmare fodder.

By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, on the backs of the Resurgence-era films, the shark movie was the most popular kind of creature feature in moviedom. So naturally, that’s when everything went bat-shit crazy.

THE BAT-SHIT CRAZY ERA

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With the genre being beat to death at every turn, screenwriters – again, full disclosure, myself included – had to result to absurd perversions of science, nature, logic, taste, and sometimes even decency to come up with new ways to skin a shark. Or rather, have a shark skin you. So in 2010, a company called The Asylum, for whom I wrote and who with the SyFy channel is largely responsible for this most-recent, still-ongoing era, released MEGA SHARK VS GIANT OCTOPUS. On the surface it seemed like just another sea-based creature feature, but inside it was a hilarious display of over-the-top shark antics the likes of which had never been seen in the genre. In JAWS THE REVENGE, the shark pulls Michael Caine’s four-seater plane under the water, and it’s pretty ridiculous; in MEGA SHARK 1, the titular creature leaps from the depths of the ocean and climbs to the cruising altitude of a 747, then eats that 747, and it’s pretty fucking outstanding, as well as being super-ridiculous.

But it worked.

Producers began realizing that if you wanted to change the shark movie at this stage of the game, you had to change the shark itself. So you mate it with a prehistoric reptile (DINOSHARK), or another sea creature (SHARKTOPUS), or you give it two heads (2-HEADED SHARK ATTACK), or three (3-HEADED SHARK ATTACK), or you make its death irrelevant (GHOST SHARK), or give it the ability to travel on land (SAND SHARKS, SNOW SHARKS) or really anything else you could think of (SHARKNADO). With new sharks came new and exaggerated ways to kill, and very quickly the shark genre turned into a sort of one-upmanship of death, the way each new FINAL DESTINATION movie has to get a little more nuts than the last. In 2-HEADED, I wishboned a few people, took out a married couple at the same time, and even interrupted a menage a trois with a shark attack because it fell in line with the gimmick. As a writer, it was pretty liberating. I’ve killed at least 50 people by shark attack; it’s not easy to get inventive with your standard shark. But when the laws of science and nature went out the window, that all changed. However so did the timbre of the shark movie. For all the increased gore and hilarity, a lot of seriousness and real-world terror inherent to the genre was depleted, a lot, and shark movies started getting a reputation that was campier than frightening.

While there are big-studio, higher-quality, less-absurd films made during this era – DARK TIDE, SHARK NIGHT, THE REEF, BAIT, THE SHALLOWS – largely the present belongs to the absurdist shark movie, as perfectly represented by the SHARKNADO franchise, another Asylum creation, whose fourth installment – that is not a typo – drops this summer. Just the fact that there is a movie called SHARKNADO 4 is the most absurd thing to ever happen to cinema, let alone a genre.

I’d be a fool to try and predict where the shark genre goes from here. Likely it will just keep swimming along, going where the food directs it, following the chum of audience dollars into either legitimate or absurd waters, but one thing that seems certain beyond a shadow of a doubt is that like the creature it vilifies, the shark genre is a survivor. You can mythologize it, antagonize it, amp it up or dumb it down, but you can’t kill it, not really, that just puts more blood in the water.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist