Sharksploitation: Film and Our Fear of the Deep

In which we revisit the early days of sharksploitation films and ponder our fear of the ocean.

Well, The Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week is winding down, 47 Meters Down should be disappearing from theaters any minute now, and Sharknado 5 is still a week away. Fret not, though. Thanks to Jaws, we fans of Selachimorpha still have plenty of sharksploitation out there to keep us up to our gills in our fang-toothed finny friends.

Sharksploitation? Absolutely. You see, after Spielberg’s breakout hit made its big splash (bwah ha ha… ha… ha… heh… sorry, I won’t do that again) in 1975, movie makers the world over did what they do best… they saw a chance to make a fast buck. Immediately, from all corners of the earth, Jaws rip offs began to inundate  the big screen. The age of sharksploitation was upon us.

But let’s face it, not everybody who steps behind the camera is a Spielberg. So instead of offering up iconic imagery or characters you could care about, the rip offs simply ramped up the exploitative elements by increasing the amount of bloody shark attacks, decreasing the amount of clothing worn by the actors, and throwing in arbitrary subplots requiring lots of guns and explosives. You know, the “fun” stuff. And it doesn’t get much more fun than some the genre’s original offerings.

Jaws of Death

MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH (1976)

Director William Grefe is notorious for such celluloid atrocities as The Wild Rebels, Sting of Death, and Death Curse of Tartu, so it’s no shock to find his name on this turkey. Mako: The Jaws of Death bears the distinction of being one of the first movies to try and cash in on Jaws, and little else. Well, that’s not quite true. It does surprisingly turn the tables and make the sharks the innocent victims, at least in the beginning. That may sound like an odd choice to those who’ve watched their fair share of sharksploitation, but according to an article at howstuffworks.com, humans are actually more of a threat to sharks than the other way around. As the piece notes, “The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that roughly 800,000 tons of shark are caught and killed every year overall, with 18 different countries hauling in more than 9,000 tons each. Shark meat is eaten; fins are the key ingredient in the Asian delicacy shark fin soup. Other body parts are used in everything from lubricants, makeup and paint to soap, fertilizer and acne treatments.” Which is all very interesting, but not really the stuff sharksploitation films are made of. That’s why it isn’t long into Mako: The Jaws of Death that a telepathic animal rights activist shows up and mentally commands the put upon fishies to kill, kill, KILLLL! Now, that’s more like it!

Great White (The Last Shark)

GREAT WHITE – THE LAST SHARK (1981)

Except for a surprising lack of nudity (we are talking about an Italian B-movie after all), Great White, aka The Last Shark, pretty much epitomizes sharksploitation. There are multiple exploding sharks, untold numbers of severed limbs, and enough property damage to give insurers cardiac arrest for years to come. And yet, like Jaws itself, Great White was rated PG when when it swam its way into theaters. Go figure. Great White so blatantly rips off both Jaws (Vic Morrow plays a weird amalgam of Quint & Hooper, plus there’s a conflicted mayor) and Jaws 2 (the teenage surf sailing rally and the helicopter attack) that Universal sued to have the film removed from theaters. Personally, I think they were just embarrassed that Jaws 3-D and Jaws The Revenge were in the pipeline and even this piece of schlock was better than either of those movies.

Devilfish

DEVILFISH aka MONSTER SHARK (1984)

Most MSTies out there are probably already familiar with this bit of cinematic water torture, but for the uninitiated, Devilfish is basically Sharktopus without the cool name. For that matter, it’s pretty much absent any of the other handful of things that made Sharktopus barely watchable. Trust me, folks, there’s a reason Lamberto Bava directed this one under a pseudonym. Still, it’s interesting to note that there are at least two movies out there featuring a shark/octopus hybrid. Fortunately, real world genetic tinkerers haven’t quite gotten around to being able to splice together such a creature. They have managed a few hybrid fish, though, the most notable being the Wiper. This manmade cross between a striped bass and a white bass is apparently a $12 million industry. Who knew? Still, the bass hybrid’s success in the business sector probably wouldn’t translate to box office gold like the sharktopus has. After all, who’s going to buy a ticket to a movie called Devilwiper?

Shark Hunter, The

THE SHARK HUNTER (1979)

And finally we have The Shark Hunter. Now, it’s only fair to issue a warning to all you ladies out there. If you are the least bit fertile, whatever you do, don’t watch The Shark Hunter. As played by Franco Nero, the original Django himself, the shark hunter is the kind of guy who is so manly, so full of machismo, so bursting with testosterone, that when he spots a shark while parasailing, he immediately drops from the sky onto the back of the beast in order to do battle. I’m explaining this beforehand because I don’t want to be held responsible for any female reader popping this movie in and accidentally finding herself impregnated by exposure to the shark hunter’s overpowering virility.

Well, that’s as good a note as any to end our exploration into the early days of sharksploitation. It’s odd, isn’t it, our continued fascination with a subject matter that so terrifies us? We keep watching these kinds of movies, even though it’s widely believed that media is the main cause behind most cases of Galeophobia. That factoid shouldn’t be shocking, though. It’s well established that after the release of Jaws, beach attendance dropped dramatically, and the movie continues to bother people to this day.

And why shouldn’t it? “Thinking about Jaws when you are in the ocean, in a way, is a rational response.” says Professor Joanne Cantor, who has been studying the “Jaws effect” for over 30 years. She attributes the reaction to Jaws as a natural inbuilt one. As Prof, Cantor explains, “Fear, as an emotion, was intended to keep us alive. Fear tells us we are in danger and you better protect yourself or you’re going to be eaten by the predator… when our brains see Jaws for the first time our fear response kicks in and it kicks in before our conscious brain can start telling us that, ‘It is only a movie, it is only a movie, it is only a movie.’”

According to the good professor, such an experience, even one caused by watching a film, sticks with a person for the rest of their life. It’s part of a primal, evolutionary defense system that activates anytime we encounter a situation that reminds us of that first fright. That means, when you stick your toes in the ocean, it’s perfectly reasonable to hear those ominous two notes (or possibly three) from the Jaws theme playing inside your head. So keep watching sharksploitation and keep staying out of the water. It’s the natural thing to do.

(This post was adapted from an earlier article published at The B-Movie Catechism.)

Thanks to Jaws, we fans of Selachimorpha still have plenty of sharksploitation out there to keep us up to our gills in our fang-toothed finny friends.
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