Italian Horror Spotlight: The Last Shark (dir by Enzo G. Castellari)


Chances are this is going to sound familiar to you.

The 1981 film, The Last Shark (a.k.a. Great White), takes place in a small seaside community.  A teenager goes out in the water, doesn’t pay enough attention to the surroundings, and ends up getting eaten.  Local civic leader named Peter Benton (James Franciscus) wants to shut down the beach.  A crusty old shark hunter named Ron Hammer (Vic Morrow) says that he can take care of the problem.  However, Mayor William Wells (Joshua Sinclair) refuses to even admit that there’s a shark in the water.  After all, sharks are not only bad for business but also could potentially keep him from being President someday!

However, the shark attacks continue.  After his son is nearly eaten by a shark — a great white, to be exact — even the mayor is forced to admit that something must be done….

If you think that the plot of The Last Shark sounds like it has a lot in common with Jaws …. well, you’re right.  And you’re not alone!  Universal Pictures though that The Last Shark borrowed a bit too much from Steven Spielberg’s seminal film as well.  In 1982, Universal filed a lawsuit to block the film’s distribution in the United States.  Though the film played for a month (and grossed 18 million dollars) while the case worked its way through the legal system, a federal judge eventually ruled that The Last Shark was too similar to Jaws and, as a result, The Last Shark was not only yanked from theaters but it also didn’t even get a proper video release until 2013!  Because of all this, The Last Shark has developed a cult following.  It’s literally the film that the major studios didn’t want people to see.  Of course, The Last Shark was neither the first nor the lat film to rip-off Jaws.  It was, however, one of the few to make a good deal of money and I imagine that was the main motivation behind Universal’s lawsuit.

Interestingly enough, The Last Shark actually has more in common with Jaws 2 than with Jaws.  Just as in Jaws 2, a bunch of stupid teenagers make the mistake of going after the shark themselves.  Also, much as in Jaws 2, the shark manages to bite down on a helicopter and pull it under the water.  A quality shark movie always features at least one helicopter getting destroyed.  That the original Jaws become a classic despite not featuring any helicopter destruction is a testament to Steven Spielberg’s ability as a director.

As for The Last Shark, it’s a thoroughly shameless and undeniably entertaining film.  Director Enzo G. Castellari (who directed several Franco Nero films and might be best-known to American audiences for directing the original Inglorious Bastards) keeps the action moving at steady pace and even manages to give us a few striking images of shark mayhem.  (The scene where a man gets bitten in half manages to be both shocking and ludicrous at the same time.)  James Franciscus appears to be taking himself far too seriously in the role of Peter Benton but Vic Morrow seems to be having a good time as the ill-tempered shark hunter.

A few other thoughts on The Last Shark:

Mayor Wells, who has presidential ambitions, also has a mustache and a haircut that makes him look like a 70s porn actor.  (In fact, with the exception of James Franciscus, nearly every adult male in this movie has a mustache.)  Whenever Mayor Wells walked through a scene, I found myself expecting to hear a lot of bass and plenty of wah wah on the soundtrack.

Secondly, it would appear that the best way to track down a shark is to drop a steak in the water.  At least, that’s the lesson I learned from watching The Last Shark.  There are actually a handful of scenes of shark hunters announcing that they’re about to go hunt for the shark and then holing up a steak.  Forget about using blood or noise to attract your prey!  Instead, just toss some spare ribs in the ocean and wait for the shark to show up!

Anyway, Italian filmmakers were always fairly shameless when it came to ripping off successful movies.  In fact, one reason why I love Italian cinema is because of that very lack of shame.  Whatever its flaws, The Last Shark is a film totally without shame and, for that reason, it’s more than worth viewing.

Horror Film Review: Jaws 3 (dir by Joe Alves)


So, this is a strange one.

As the title states, this 1983 film is the third sequel to the Jaws.  As I pointed out in my reviews of the first film and Jaws 2, the first two films all starred Roy Scheider and took place on Amity Island.  In fact, it can be argued that Amity Island was almost as important to the success of the first two films as the shark.  When Martin Brody conquered his fears and got out on the water, it wasn’t just to destroy a shark.  It was also to protect a community under siege.

Well, there’s no such community like Amity Island in Jaws 3.  And there’s no Roy Scheider either.  Instead, our hero is Martin Brody’s son, Mike.  Mike is all grown up and working as the senior marine biologist at SeaWorld Orlando.  Mike is now played by a very young and very bearded Dennis Quaid.  This leads to an interesting situation where Mike — who grew up in New England and whose father was a former New York City cop — has a very pronounced Texas accent.  That’s not a complaint, of course.  I’m from Texas so I’m always happy to see (and hear) a fellow Texan in a movie.  Plus, Dennis Quaid’s a likable actor.  Still, it somehow seems appropriate that the third installment of the Jaws franchise would feature a New Yorker growing up to be a Texan.  I mean, if we’re going to accept that the same outlandish event can keep happening to the members of the same family then I guess anything’s possible.

The other Brody son, Sean, is also featured in the film.  Sean is now played by John Putch and, when he first shows up to visit Mike, he’s dressed like he just got off work at the rodeo.  You have to kind of wonder if maybe the trauma of nearly getting killed in Jaws 2 led to both of the Brody boys rejecting their New England roots and embracing the ways of the west.  Say what you will about Texas and all the states in between El Paso and Los Angeles, we’re pretty much shark free.

Anyway, this is a Jaws films so you can guess what happens.  A big shark ends up getting loose in SeaWorld and Mike tries to close the park down, just to be overruled by the park’s manger, Calvin Bouchard (Lou Gossett, Jr.).  Meanwhile, a hunter named Philip Fitzroyce (Simon MacCorkindale) announces that he will personally track down and kill the shark.  As you might guess just from the fact that his last name is Fitzroyce, Philip is arrogant and speaks with a posh accent.  Mike takes an immediate dislike to him but I was happy whenever Philip showed up, mostly because Simon MacCorkindale gave a performance that was so over-the-top that it was fun to watch.  Whenever MacCorkindale and Gossett got together in the same scene, the film stopped being about the shark and instead became a contest to see who could overenunciate their dialogue with the most style.

(In the end, MacCorkindale won, but only narrowly.  A few years after Jaws 3, Gossett would co-star in The Principal and would go on to secure his spot in the Overenunciation Hall Of Fame by pronouncing the word “drugs” in such a way that I first thought he was talking about druids.)

One of the reasons why Jaws 3 seems odd when watched today is because it was originally released in 3-D.  (In fact, the film’s original title was Jaws 3-D.)  As a result, there’s a lot of scenes of people either walking towards or pointing directly at the camera.  Whenever anyone holds up a pole or a harpoon or anything similar, you know that they’re going to end up pointing the end of it straight at the viewer.  At the start of the film, when the shark bites a fish in half, the fish’s head ominously floats closer and closer to the camera.  There’s a lot of scenes that were obviously designed to make audiences says, “Oh my God!  I feel like I could reach out and touch it!” but, in the non-3D version, those scenes are just weirdly paced and slightly out-of-focus.  (At one point during the film, the picture was so blurry that I actually checked to make sure I had my contacts in.)

Add to that, there’s more than few scenes where it’s obvious that the shark has been superimposed into the action.  If the first two Jaws films featured big sharks, Jaws 3 often seems to feature a cartoon shark.  In short, what may have been impressive in a theater in 1983 to an audience wearing special glasses is far less impressive when you’re watching the movie at 3 in the morning on AMC.

The other weird thing about this film is that it was actually filmed at SeaWorld Orlando.  I’m going to guess that the film was supposed to serve as a 99-minute advertisement and a lot of time is devoted to people talking about how much they love SeaWorld.  At the same time, this film also features the park’s manager refusing to shut down the park and basically putting everyone’s life in danger.  If anything, the film’s main message seems to be, “If you go to SeaWorld, you’ll die.”  You have to wonder if some executive lost his job after Jaws 3 came out.

Anyway, Jaws 3 is a silly movie that never quite comes to life in the way that both Jaws and, to a lesser extent, Jaws 2 did.  Yes, the shark’s ruthless and we get to hear the familiar music and there’s some cute dolphins but otherwise, the movie itself is just kind of bland.  Rumor has it that Jaws 3 was originally going to be a comedy called Jaws 3 People 0.  That probably would have made for a more memorable movie but, at the same time, I got some good laughs out of the scene where the tourists in an underwater tunnel realized that a shark was watching them so, in the end, everything worked out for the best.

Film Review: Jaws 2 (dir by Jeannot Szwarc)


The 1978 film Jaws 2 poses a question that has been asked many times under many different circumstances:

When will people learn?

Seriously, you would think that after everything that happened during the first Jaws, the people of Amity Island would be a little bit smarter when it comes to sharks.  I mean, did Ben Gardner, the Kintner Boy, Quint, and Chrissie Watkins all die in vain?  If I lived on Amity Island, I would be so paranoid about another shark attack that I would probably move to Manitoba.  At the very least, I would demand that the beach be closed if there was even the slightest chance that another great white shark was somewhere out there, eating anyone foolish enough to get back in the water.

It’s just common sense!

But no.  In Jaws 2, when another shark shows up and eats two divers and a water skier before blowing up a motor boat, no one is even willing to consider shutting down the beach.  Even after Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) insists that another shark has shown up, no one is willing to listen to him.  “I know something about sharks!” Brody insists but the town council just shrugs him off.  Maybe they think that Quint and Hooper did all the work the last time and that Brody was just along for the ride.

Of course, Brody does bring some of his problems on himself.  Brody spends a lot of this film sitting in the dark, brooding about sharks.  When he sees a shadow in the ocean, he runs down to the beach and starts shooting at it.  “It’s just blue fish!” someone yells while Brody looks a little confused.  How shocked can we really be when the town council fires Brody?  He was a loose cannon.

Before he gets fired, Brody orders his teenage son, Mike (Mark Gruner) to stay out of the water.  Of course, Mike doesn’t listen.  He goes sailing with his friends and his younger brother, Sean (Marc Gilpin).  That’s a big mistake, of course.  As soon as Mike and company are a good distance away from Amity Island, the shark attacks and leaves them all stranded at sea.  Mike is knocked unconscious.  Sean is trapped on a boat all by himself.  One of the teenage girls, Jackie Peters (Donna Wilkes), totally freaks out while her older sister, Brooke (Gigi Voran), suggests that they all play charades to pass the time.  Everyone dismisses her idea but you know what?  I have it on very good authority that sharks love charades.  I think Brooke was on to something…

Jaws 2 is a strange, strange movie.  It’s really two films in one.  Jaws 2 starts out as an almost by-the-book remake of Jaws.  True, Quint’s dead.  And Richard Dreyfuss had just won an Oscar so there’s no way Hooper was going to come back.  But Brody’s back and he’s once again an island police chief who is afraid of the water and who can’t get anyone to listen to him.  Just as Jaws started out as almost a small town comedy, Jaws 2 has an early scene where Brody has to deal with the quirky citizens of Amity Island. (Unfortunately, Harry and his really bad hat don’t make a return appearance.)  A scene where a dead killer whale washes up on the beach is shot to remind us of the scene in the first in which Hooper and Brody examine a dead shark.

But then, halfway through, Jaws 2 turns into a totally different movie.  Suddenly, the teenagers are trapped out in the middle of the ocean and the shark is circling them and Brody is searching from them and the whole movie just goes insane.  Roy Scheider abandons any attempt at subtlety as he becomes as obsessed with shark as Donald Pleasence was with Michael Myers in Halloween.  The shark turns out to be incredibly sneaky.  He’s never around until you stick your hand in the water and then suddenly — SHARK!

How powerful is this shark?  He’s so powerful that he eats a freaking a helicopter!  Seriously, a coast guard helicopter tries to rescue the kids and ends up getting eaten by the shark!  That scene alone is worth whatever’s led up to it.  (I think Jaws 2 might be the first film to feature a shark eating a helicopter.)  The film only gets crazier from there, with Brody eventually reduced to verbally taunting the shark while clutching onto a power cable.

Now, admittedly, those stranded teenagers aren’t the most developed characters in the world.  There’s a lot of them and it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of who is who.  Fortunately, this is a 70s films and that means that Jaws 2 is all about the hair.  You may not know their names but you’ll never forget their hair:

Check out some of the members of the Jaws 2 hair club:

Jaws, come out to play…

(Okay, Luther wasn’t actually in the movie but just imagine if he had been!)

Anyway, Jaws 2 cannot begin to hold a candle to the original Jaws but it’s still a lot of fun.  Admittedly, there are a few parts, especially during the first hour, that drag in a way that Spielberg, the consummate story teller, would not have allowed.  I could have done without some of the lengthy scenes where Brody tries to convince the city council that there’s another shark in the water, if just because we already know that the shark’s there and we can guess that the beach isn’t going to be closed.  (After all, if the beach was closed, there wouldn’t be a movie…)

But once the teenagers are stranded in the ocean and the shark is eating the helicopter and Brody is calling it a bastard while hanging onto a power cable, there’s no way that you can resist the charms of this sequel.  Jaws 2 isn’t exactly good but it’s just so entertaining!

Jaws 2 frequently shows up on AMC so keep an eye out for it!

And, for the love of God — stay out of the water!

A Big Screen, Some Popcorn, and JAWS (Universal 1975)


cracked rear viewer

Dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun…..

This past Wednesday night, I went out to New Bedford’s Zeiterion Theater to watch a screening of the summertime classic JAWS. The Z, as we locals call it, began life as a vaudeville palace in 1923, and five months later changed its name to The State and ran the latest silent movies. The State operated as a movie house until the late 70’s, with the historic building refurbished in 1982 and retro rebranded as the Zeiterion, hosting concerts, plays, dance, and other performing arts. The city (which now owns and operates the Z) recently purchased a state-of-the-art high-definition digital projector and, after an absence of almost a year,  movies are back in New Bedford! They kicked off a “summer series” of films with Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster scarefest, filmed not far from here (just a fast ferry ride away aboard the Sea Streak) on Martha’s Vineyard.

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat!”

And…

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4 Shots From Horror History: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jaws, Carrie, The Omen


This October, I’m going to be doing something a little bit different with my contribution to 4 Shots From 4 Films.  I’m going to be taking a little chronological tour of the history of horror cinema, moving from decade to decade.

Today, we continue with the 70s!

4 Shots From 4 Films

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, dir by Tobe Hooper)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, dir by Tobe Hooper)

Jaws (1975, dir by Steven Spielberg)

Jaws (1975, dir by Steven Spielberg)

Carrie (1976, dir by Brian DePalma)

Carrie (1976, dir by Brian DePalma)

The Omen (1976, dir by Richard Donner)

The Omen (1976, dir by Richard Donner)

Lisa Reviews An Oscar-Nominated Horror Film: Jaws (dir by Steven Spielberg)


JAWS_Movie_poster

There’s little that is more intimidating than trying to write a review of the 1975 best picture nominee, Jaws.

I mean, seriously, what’s left to be said about this film?  Jaws is one of those movies that everyone has seen and everyone loves.  And, even if someone somehow hasn’t seen the film, chances are that they still know all about it.  They know that it’s a movie about a giant shark that attacks Amity Island, just as the summer season is starting.  They know that the town’s mayor refuses to close the beaches, because he doesn’t want to lose the tourist dollars.  They know that the final half of the film is three men (Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw) floating around in a boat, searching for a shark.  And they certainly know that, whenever you hear John Williams’s iconic theme music, it means that someone is about to get attacked.

Jaws is such a part of our culture that probably not a single day goes by without someone saying a variation on “we’re going to need a bigger boat.”  Did you know that, on twitter, Ben Gardner’s boat has its own account?  And despite getting pretty graphically dismembered about halfway through Jaws, poor little Alex Kintner has an account as well!

What’s amazing about Jaws is that, even though everyone’s seen it and it’s been parodied a few thousand times, Jaws remains incredibly effective.  I still find myself cringing whenever the shark catches Alex Kintner and that geyser of blood explodes out of the ocean.  I still jump whenever the shark suddenly emerges from the water and scares the Hell out of Roy Scheider.  I still laugh at Richard Dreyfuss’s hyperactive performance and I instinctively cover my ears whenever I realize that Robert Shaw is about to drag his nails across that chalk board.

And then there’s that music, of course!  Even after being used, misused, and imitated in countless other films, the Jaws theme still fills me with a sort of existential dread.  The mechanical shark was notoriously fake-looking and was rarely seen onscreen as a result.  The camera and the music stand in for the shark and it works beautifully.

The one unfortunate thing about Jaws is that it’s been so critically acclaimed and so embraced by audiences that I think people tend to forget that it is primarily a horror film.  Mainstream critics tend to look down on horror as a genre so, rather than admit the obvious, they claim that Jaws is more of a thriller than a horror film.  Or they talk about how it’s actually meant to be a political allegory or an environmental allegory or an examination of male bonding.

So, let’s just make this clear.  No matter what the elitist critics or even Steven Spielberg himself may say, Jaws is primarily a horror film, with that relentless killer shark serving as a prototype for such future horror fiends as Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and both of the Ghostface and Jigsaw Killers.  (Jaws even opens with a stereotypical slasher movie death, as a nude and stoned swimmer is suddenly attacked by an unseen killer.) If not for Scheider, Shaw, and Dreyfuss floating in the endless ocean, you would never have had films — like the Blair Witch Project — about people being lost and stalked in the wilderness.  And when that shark attacks and graphically rips apart its victims, how different is it from something you might find in a George Romero or Lucio Fulci zombie film?

On the basis of Jaws and Duel, I think it can be argued that, if Steven Spielberg hadn’t become America’s favorite director of crowd-pleasing, Oscar-contending blockbusters, he could have been one of our best horror directors.  Sadly, Spielberg has pretty much abandoned horror and I doubt that Jaws would be as effective if it were made today.  (I suspect that the temptation to resort to a cartoonish CGI shark would be too great.)

But that’s all speculation.

What matters is that Jaws remains one of the greatest films ever made.

And it’s a horror film!