An Ode to the Lowliest (Deepest?) Horror Subgenre: Shark Movies

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An Ode to the Lowliest (Deepest?) Horror Subgenre: Shark Movies

Imagine for a moment that you’re a nubile teenager once again, in the midst of a glorious summer beach vacation filled with sun-soaked days without end. Only now it’s not day—it’s a moonlit seaside evening, and you’re bobbing in the surf with a member of the opposite sex, intoxicated and reveling in the bloom of youth, which clearly stretches out ahead of you like an eternity. Truly, nothing could spoil the perfect scene. And then, from below, a moment of unease … did something just brush against your leg? I’m sorry to report that the chances are excellent you’re about to become a victim of the film industry’s most stubbornly prolific horror subgenre: The Shark Movie.

Ah yes, the shark movie—bone-crunching, blood-frothing, teeth-baring and, so often, budget-lacking, it’s a corner of the horror/thriller world that seems to possess a type of self-sustaining momentum seen nowhere else, except perhaps in the zombie genre. But where zombie cinema has been used over the decades as an inroad to numerous clever dialogues on topics such as class, race, romance, economics or entropy itself, the shark movie aspires to no such allegorical heights. In almost every instance, they are no more and no less than the title “Shark Movie” would imply—films that are full of sharks. Sharks that bite things. Sharks that eat people.

Since Jaws in 1975, in fact, one could argue that the genre has barely evolved in any substantive way—just weeks ago, we saw the U.S. release of Australia’s Great White, in which the passengers of a downed seaplane fight off hungry great white sharks in a battle for survival. The film’s title has unsurprisingly been used before, as this Great White is just recycling the legendarily bad 1981 Great White from Italy, which was pulled from U.S. theaters after only a few weeks thanks to a court ruling that it was directly ripping off—what else—Jaws. This ouroboros of fish-eats-fish recycling is ultimately perfectly fitting as a reflection of sharks themselves, perfectly evolved underwater predators that are virtually unchanged from the ones that swam in our oceans 100 million years ago. Sharks themselves have never changed, so why should the movies?

Although I suppose that’s not entirely fair, is it? Shark movies have changed over the years in at least one prominent way, as they became an impetus that propelled low-budget quasi-horror in an increasingly absurd direction. How did these films take on the mantle of “dumbest in the horror genre?” Well, it actually started with Jaws, funny enough—or more accurately, the Jaws sequels.

In the years that followed the critical acclaim and blockbuster receipts of the original Jaws in 1975, the franchise went through what would eventually be cited as a very conventional, genre-defining devolution. Each subsequent Jaws film that was released is significantly worse than the one that preceded it—a 45 degree angle of descending quality. This actually means that Jaws 2 is a pretty serviceable shark movie, nowhere near as compelling as the original but perfectly competent. 1983’s Jaws 3-D, on the other hand, is truly a mess, featuring a nonsensical story and effects that were laughably bad even for that era’s abortive 3-D cinema boom. But even Jaws 3-D pales in comparison to the abominable Jaws IV: The Revenge, which manages to not only feature a vengeance-seeking shark with a psychic link to police chief Martin Brody’s widow, but also a shark that:

1. Audibly roars like a Tyrannosaurus, and

2. Inexplicably explodes after being impaled by the prow of a sailboat during the big finale.

I defy you to even follow what is supposed to be happening in the below clip of the shark’s death, in which the most legible footage is the stuff they literally just re-used from the 1975 original, including the bloody carcass sinking beneath the waves. They couldn’t even be bothered to sink their own bloody shark.

This level of abysmal quality eventually cast a pall over the idea of “shark movies” in general, which not even the occasional quality effort (Deep Blue Sea, Open Water) could dispel. The moviegoing public slowly but surely came to think of shark films as bottom-of-the-barrel fodder, and studios began increasingly producing them as such, catering only to the most inveterate creature feature junkies or ironic viewers still consuming this dreck. This set the stage for the era of crappy direct-to-video (and then VOD) shark movies that has persisted to this day, starting with the infamous likes of Shark Attack 3: Megalodon or Raging Sharks in the early 2000s. Preposterous as they were, however, these films were at least still trying to market themselves as half-legitimate horror movies or thrillers at the end of the day. Shark films didn’t truly ascend to their current level of absurdity—effectively jumping themselves, as it were—until one prominent moment in 2009.

That moment was the release of a trailer for the film Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, and truly, shark movies have never been the same in the 12 years since. This was the final abandonment of any kind of pretense of horror or suspense in the shark genre, and the embrace of complete camp and bad-on-purpose absurdity. Courtesy of the mockbuster specialists at The Asylum, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus exploded into the Very Online cultural consciousness with the image of a giant shark leaping into the air to snag a passing jet airliner, and it returned to the sea dragging whatever small scraps of remaining dignity one might have associated with the genre of Jaws. Finally unmoored completely from reality, like Skynet achieving sentience and then immediately emptying its nuclear arsenal, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus was all the invitation needed for horror’s silliest subgenre to take its final step toward wanton dissoluteness.

Quickly, the floodgates opened. Most famously, it was Sharknado (also The Asylum) that capitalized hardest and made the splashiest impact, first slipping the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of god in 2013. But Sharknado and its many sequels were only the most prominent of the incredibly stupid shark films of this still-ongoing era, many of which explored new boundaries in what could accurately be labeled as a “feature film.” There were the sharks who refused to stay where they were meant to be, such as the titular Shark in Venice, or those who began taking to land, as in Sand Sharks or Snow Sharks. There were the sharks that merged with other creatures, like Sharktopus or Dinoshark. Some grew additional heads, as in 2-Headed Shark Attack, 3-Headed Shark Attack and 5-Headed Shark Attack, which hilariously skipped the expected title progression. There were quasi-exploitation films like Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre and supernatural twists like Ghost Shark, Zombie Shark and even freaking Shark Exorcist. Personally, I’m partial to the complete shamelessness of House Shark, an ultra low-budget film about a two-story, three-bedroom suburban abode that is stalked by a deep sea killer. You couldn’t ask for a shark-related premise that gives less of a fuck. Clearly a believer in that old filmmaking maxim: “Never let the fact that you have only a single weekend to shoot stop you from making a shark movie in your brother in law’s house.”

shark-posters-inset.jpgI love that they used a nicer house in the House Shark poster than they could afford in the actual film.

It does beg the question, though, of how the genre has managed to persist and maintain such an outpouring of generally terrible content for so long. Who are the people still mainlining shark movies each weekend? Why do they fascinate us so? Do films like House Shark see higher viewership data in states where recreational cannabis has been legalized? At least that would make sense.

In all honesty, I believe the reason why shark movies somehow remain compelling to some, despite more than a decade of unflinching absurdity, is that “sharks” do represent a realistic, if unlikely, real-world danger that a human being could legitimately encounter at some point of their life. When you step into the water, you are indeed taking your life in your hands in some way, acknowledging the unknowable nature of the depths beneath you. It’s logical to be concerned when stepping into the water where large or aggressive sharks might be present, in a way that doesn’t make sense to worry about make-believe boogeymen or mythological monsters. It is us, in fact, who are encroaching on a shark’s turf when we slip into their domain, and there’s no moral stance one can take to demonize a shark for taking a bite out of a swimmer who ventures too close. They’re only doing what they’re biologically programmed to do, after all, and what is instinct to them is terrifying to us.

I also believe that these films persist as part of a cultural mythologization of sharks that flourished in the 1980s and 1990s, especially in the early days of programming such as Discovery’s Shark Week. Whereas the Shark Week of today tends to have a strictly environmentalist tone that goes out of its way to avoid sensationalizing specific instances of shark attacks on humans, the 1990s were an entirely different story. I still vividly remember a Shark Week program called Shark Attack Files that was literally just one reenactment after another of people being either wounded or killed by sharks, complete with grisly, gory images of their mangled bodies, splashed across the screen like crime scene photography. Programs like that one ran in the middle of weekday afternoons on basic cable in the 1990s, searing themselves into the brains of kids who witnessed them. It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s the people who witnessed imagery like that for a decade who still make up the presumed shark movie demographic today.

There have been occasional attempts in the last few years to instill some sort of legitimacy back into the “shark movie” world, from the more realistic approach of The Shallows to the big-budget bombast of The Meg and its upcoming sequel. For every bigger budget or more serious treatment, however, there’s twice as many instances of pure shlock—I particularly enjoy the premise of the upcoming Alphas, in which Sam Worthington must train a pack of juvenile Orca whales to do battle with evil great white sharks in order to save the seas from a sharky menace.

In fact, as if to truly nail the point home, I became aware this week of the imminent release of what is sure to be hailed as a new classic: Sharks of the Corn, from director “Steven Kang.” And with that, I think it’s safe to say the shark film has discovered a new nadir.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.

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