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.