Deepest Bluest, my sharksploitation love is like a…shark’s fin?
47 Meters Down, starring Mandy Moore and Claire Holt as sisters trapped in a shark observation cage on the ocean floor, hits theaters this weekend. I plan to be in the front row, ready for church. My loves for low-budget ventures and independent genre films are earnest. However, I have some singular tastes, one of which is that black-eyed juggernaut: the sharksploitation sub-genre. You got a shark movie I haven’t seen? I’ll give it a look. And, I do mean any shark movie. There are many of you right-thinking, fun-loving shark nuts out there. This one is for those of you who haven’t discovered the joys of the sharksploitation film.
Jaws is an all-time favorite. It isn’t a stretch to say it’s in the conversation for some of the greatest films ever made. It turns forty-two next week and is still inspiring knock-offs and homages. While not the first shark movie, it’s the best there ever will be. Since that summer, we’ve had wave after wave of films either outright ripping it off or playfully romping in the sub-genre it spawned. Heck, plenty of the flicks don’t even use sharks. Joe Dante’s outstanding 1978 film Piranha is a parody of Jaws, where piranhas take the place of doll-eyed villains. Tremors, with its subterranean graboids swimming through the sand, is also clearly inspired by Spielberg’s film. Same for Lake Placid.
“When your Titanic sinks I’m the one you gon’ meet.” — LL Cool J
A sharksploitation film has several key elements. Obviously, it has to have sharks. The non-shark films I mentioned follow along so closely with the key requirements of the genre that I consider them cousins, maybe even siblings. The genre plays a lot with the creature feature tropes which have been around forever. Let’s be clear, I use the term “shark” loosely. It can be a dinosaur shark, an octopus shark, a robot shark, or even a ghost shark. It can live in water, ice, snow, or sand. But, it’s got to be a shark. Let me rephrase. It must feature some monstrous, meat-eating concoction of science-nonsense and FX magic (or not so magical FX) the filmmakers lovingly call “shark”.
Nowhere is this truer than in Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws, a micro-budget delight out of New Zealand. Their “shark” is exactly what the title promises: a goddamn ghost shark. It manifests in any state of water to murder its victims. Ghost shark can swim through water, and he can swim through the ice. “Goddamn motherfucker can even swim through steam.” You may have heard of a movie called Ghost Shark. This is not the sequel to that film. The filmmakers deliberately jumped straight to sequel tropes. As ridiculous as the nature of this “shark” sounds, the characters in the film take the threat seriously. Ghost Shark has destroyed the characters’ lives and cost them the ones they love. Just because it swims through steam or spilled water doesn’t mean we can’t respect the danger it poses or the lasting consequences of loss. This shark kills.
Skepticism is essential. At least one character, ideally an authority figure or the general public, must practically mock the threat. That’s a big part of my joy with the genre. These stories should play a bit like a modern interpretation of the Cassandra myth. Our heroes must be able to see the hidden danger and our other characters must be utterly resistant to the concern. The reasons they refuse or cannot see the truth can vary wildly, but that dilemma has to exist. We talk about dangers lurking beneath the surface in many facets of our everyday lives. The terror of what we can’t see coming is very real. We don’t know what we don’t know, and that has disastrous consequences. We want so badly to find safety for ourselves, but we routinely ignore the experts pointing out the high-risk nature of many of our everyday activities. Sharksploitation films play with that idea in great big chomps.
Deep Blue Sea stars Saffron Burrows, Thomas Jane, and features Samuel L. Jackson in a classic performance. LL Cool J costarred and provided the theme song for the flick, Deepest Bluest. The lyrics on that song are bananas. Movies need more film-specific raps. The central plot? Burrows’ character has discovered a cure for Alzheimer’s in the brains of sharks. The problem? Their brains are too darned small to harvest the required amount. Frankenstein’s solution? She genetically engineers sharks to have super-sized brains. This makes complete sense when you have your own research platform in the middle of the ocean. Things go terribly wrong when a storm hits and the sharks decide to do some engineering of their own.
I dig about the (on-the-nose) way it works with fear of the unknown and skepticism, especially hubris. The characters are skeptical of the dangers posed by these deep, blue Frankenstein’s monsters, and they pay the price. All the while, the goal is finding a cure to stave off the most real embodiment of our fear of not knowing, Alzheimer’s. Hubris in the face of real terror. And it will destroy everything.
“You don’t really want it, I ate your ancestors, The ocean is haunted.” — LL Cool J
The danger to the characters must be sincere. This is necessarily intertwined with the skepticism. The jeopardy may be silly, but the characters have to both be in danger and at least some of them must be willfully unaware of the peril. When I say silly, I do mean it can be utterly absurd, but in a sharksploitation film it must come back to one fundamental truth: suckas gotta get chomped. Who must be on the chopping block?
Last year’s The Shallows starring Blake Lively captures the spirit of genuine tension. She’s stuck in the shallows being stalked by a shark for most of the film. She is alone, seriously injured, and she is out there for quite a bit of time. As she experiences stress, you will experience the stress. And you will worry for her safety as it becomes very clear that no one is guaranteed to live. This is essential for you to equally experience her joy as she cleverly solves a problem. A good sharksploitation film does not forget that while the shark is the star, it’s ultimately only as real as our human characters make us feel it is. And that shark in The Shallows is menacing, mean bastard.
As a small aside, if you watch enough shark movies and you start to realize the ocean is pretty tough to shoot in an interesting or captivating way. Jaume Collet-Serra (Director) and Flavio Martinez Labiano (DP) made this flick look gorgeous. It’s filled with amazing surfing shots and is tremendously well-edited to create that sweet, sweet feeling of peril.
These are the essential elements. Which, not coincidentally, happen to the major elements of the success of Jaws. Without that film, we would not have this beautiful, gonzo subgenre. If you’re looking to explore the genre, I’d suggest starting with a rewatch of that. If you haven’t seen it, correct that immediately. However, if you’re looking to explore the genre a little further, I stand by all the films I mention here as great examples. Explore, and do not be dissuaded by budget. These movies don’t need money to be great. It helps, but they don’t need it. Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws was made for practically nothing, and that is a joyous celebration of the shark film. So, put on a little LL Cool J. Dip your toes in the water. It’s fine. Get on the sharksploitation groove.