In 1975 Steven Spielberg’s film Jaws was released and a new genre of film, sharksploitation, was created. Certainly, sharks had turned up in films prior to that, but they were a secondary plot element, something to get in the way of Burt Reynold’s quest for sunken treasure in Shark or Jim Brown’s escape from an offshore prison in I Escaped from Devil’s Island.
And in more mainstream films you had multiple James Bond films whose villains kept a few sharks around to dispose of enemies and disloyal henchmen, as well as the steel-toothed hitman named Jaws. But now sharks were front and center, not just supporting players but the stars of the show.
Writer/director Stephen Scarlata whose credits include writing the non-shark related genre films Final Girl and Beyond the Gates as well as serving as a producer on Frank Pavich’s epic documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune looks at the phenomena from multiple angles. He goes back to the shark in folklore and art as well as early films that wouldn’t classify as sharksploitation, films like Shark, and the Bond films I mentioned earlier.
He also interviews biologists who talk about sharks and the roles they play in nature and what can drive them to attack humans. And on a more alarming note, the fact that the shark population has declined by over 50% since 1970.
But Sharksploitation’s main focus is, of course, on films. Scarlata actually gives a fair amount of attention to the 1971 documentary Blue Water, White Death before moving on to Jaws and the hysteria it inspired. The novel’s author Peter Benchley is seen in archival footage and his widow Wendy is interviewed. Joe Alves, who built Bruce the Shark, and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb all turn up on camera talking about it. But the most ironic moment in the film may be Glenn Campbell, responsible for all the CGI sharks in films from The Asylum such as Shark Season and Swim talking about Jaws’ mechanical shark.
For me, the most interesting part of the phenomena was all of the various rip-offs and cash-ins that Jaws inspired. By the time I saw it, several years after its original release I’d heard about all the best scenes so I didn’t find it particularly scary. Films like Tintorera, Mako: The Jaws of Death, and even Tentacles were another matter, however. And it was those films, as well land based variations such as Grizzly, whose ad refers to it as “Jaws With Claws” and The Car that still interest me.
We do get to hear about the unmade National Lampoon film Jaws 3, People 0 which would have been directed by Dante from a script co-written by John Hughes. And, speaking of funny, we find out how THAT line got into Megalodon: Shark Attack 3.
Fans of The Asylum will be happy with the amount of coverage they get along with various SyFy Originals and Roger Corman’s Sharktopus. And then of course there’s the Sharknado franchise and how Twitter helped turn the first film into a sequel spawning phenomenon. And then, full circle, Sharksploitation covers recent serious films like 47 Meters Down, The Reef, The Shallows, and of course The Meg. and then there’s a bit more factual information about sharks to end out the film.
What makes helps to make Sharksploitation stand out from too many genre film documentaries out there is just how entertaining many of the talking heads are. People like James Nunn who worked on 47 Meters Down before helming Shark Bait and Rebekah McKendry who, apart from making Glorious and All the Creatures Were Stirring has a Ph.D. in film history and an infectious energy when talking about the genre.
I would have liked to have heard more from Mark Polonia on his school of no budget shark films and more behind the scenes stories from the Italian shark fests, Lamberto Bava’s Devil Fish for example doesn’t even get a mention despite predating Sharktopus by 26 years. But there’s only so much you can fit into an hour and three quarters, and Sharksploitation does a good job of it.
Sharksploitation will debut exclusively on the streaming service Shudder on July 21st