Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Spawn of JAWS

   I feel no need to review the movie JAWS. I think Ken Begg already provided the perfect summation. I will say that few films have proved so influential, and I might add few age so well. I generally try to meet a movie on the terms of the era in which it was produced. Watching JAWS, I find I seldom think of the 70's. The film is so fresh and crisp that it never seems a part of another time than right now. It's an all-around great movie, and is required viewing whenever you feel your child is old enough to see it.

   Whatever can be said about JAWS, though, the most true is that it changed the movie landscape for years to come. The film was a smash hit, ushering in the era of the Summer blockbuster and numbered sequels. It was imitated and ripped off by so many movies that it practically created it's own genre. There were so many of these films, in fact, that I'll have to make a quick pass as I did with my beach-monster article. Consider this the sequel to that piece.

   The most obvious place to start in discussing the copies of JAWS, the film's own direct sequel has a polish missing from many of the knock-offs. JAWS 2 is a mixture of good and bad. JAWS was so special that trying to tie another story onto it is folly from the beginning. Still, the kind of coin such a picture promised Universal made the film's reality inevitable.

   Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back In The Water...

   JAWS 2 returns us to the island community of Amity, where we find another giant shark has come to feed! Roy Schieder returns as Sheriff Brody, and he's the only one convinced that a new shark has come to town. Although it has some good moments, the script is pretty sloppy. This one does deliver what it promises, though, and that's plenty of shark attack action! Infamously, this is the one where the shark burns it's face. I always thought this was to make it distinct from the first shark, but apparently someone involved in production thought it might make the killer shark scarier! Oh my!

   Whatever the film's faults, JAWS 2 does succeed on a level few of the knock-offs were able to. In general, the shark effects are top notch and the acting solid. The shark's demise is probably the most unique dispatch in the genre. In all, a fun movie (though it could be a half hour shorter), provided one compares it to the rest of it's genre, and not it's parent.

   The Third Dimension is Terror....

   A bit better was JAWS 3-D, in which a monster shark attacks a marine park during opening day. Sheer amusement park ride thrills this time around, and it makes for a supremely fun picture. Challenging all odds of the universe, the shark menaces the sons of Sheriff Brody, one of which is now working for SeaWorld! One of the great delights of my recent history was to discover that JAWS 3-D had (presumably by accident) been released in 3-D on DVD! Track down the collection that houses all three sequels. It's worth it for this alone! (Upon closer examination, the disk isn't truly 3D, but the underwater scenes in particular retain the stereoscopic effect when viewed with 3D glasses, moreso than any other flat presented 3D film I've seen.)

   In a sense, the film is very much a disaster movie (if one that comes a few years after the genre had bottomed out). Strong casting and good production values help, and the thrill-ride aspect of the show make it different, and therefore fresher than JAWS 2 had been.

   That would've been a nice place to end the series, but....

   This Time It's Personal. Huh?

   What does one say about JAWS, THE REVENGE? Words fail me. I think the film can be summed up in noting that in this one, boats bleed when bitten by the shark. Really. That happens. 

   The plot for the film finds the widowed Mrs. Brody grieving the death of one of her sons by the latest killer shark that has hit Amity. The seemingly supernatural shark has some sort of psychic link with Mrs. Brody and follows her down to the tropics to further menace her family. That this bizarre mess tries to connect itself to JAWS is beyond absurd. Really, it's a strange movie. Worse, it's also terrible.

   JAWS, THE REVENGE (This Time it's Personal! Ads actually said that....) killed the series -although there was an Italian TV movie that actually claimed to be the 5th JAWS entry! Water-based killer animals, though, would never die. The stray killer shark movie would still pop up, but not until the success of 1999's DEEP BLUE SEA did the subgenre resurface in full force. 

   That was much later, though. Back in the wake of the original JAWS....

   One of the first cash-ins to hit screens was THE JAWS OF DEATH (aka MAKO, JAWS OF DEATH). This one I haven't seen yet, aside from a silent 8mm digest of which I remember very little. I hope to see the film soon, though. The movie's preview indicates the film is partly a psycho-killer-who-uses-deadly-animals movie like same director's STANLEY

   WILLARD, about a disturbed young man who develops a bond with rats he later uses to kill his enemies, was a similarly popular horror movie, and it presented a template that other producers could copy.  STANLEY was one of a number of such films based around snakes -see also FANGS

   In THE JAWS OF DEATH, Richard Jaeckel plays a man who has a bond with sharks, and apparently sets them upon his enemies. 

   By far the best JAWS copy was Bill Girdler's GRIZZLY. This may largely be because the film is basically a direct copy of JAWS, just set in a National park! Richard Jaeckel is in this one too, joined by Andrew Prine and Christopher George. Although rather blatant as a copy of another film (infamously, it even casts Susan Backline -Crissy Watkins of JAWS- as an early victim of the bear), GRIZZLY is actually a really good thriller that stands up on it's own legs. 

   The near perfect 70's drive-in movie, it put Film Ventures International on the map. FVI had enjoyed success as a distribution company, but now decided to jump into actual production. This paved the way for several beloved films, although company head Edward L. Montoro would prove to be one of the most crooked producers ever seen! 

   Director Girdler used Jaeckel, George, and Backline again for his next killer animal movie, SOMETHING IS OUT THERE. More popularly known as DAY OF THE ANIMALS, this all-star drive-in disaster/nature's revenge epic should have a much better reputation than it has. GRIZZLY is generally regarded (despite itself) as a classic, though.

   From one of the best films on the list, we now move onto one of the worst! ORCA, THE KILLER WHALE was one of Dino De Laurentiis' attempts to copy JAWS (reportedly, even his disastrous version of KING KONG was partly in answer to JAWS), and it's probably the goofiest of the lot (which is a pretty impressive statement, truth be told). In this one, Richard Harris attempts to capture a killer whale and kills it (and it's unborn calf) in the process. The whale's mate then marks him for retaliation and follows him about to knock off his crew one by one. Seriously, that's what the film is about. Dino reportedly wanted to do a sequel (!) as well. Supposedly, he even considered a team-up picture to star Orca and Kong!

   Now here's one that should be a super-fun drive-in movie. Dig that cast! And a giant octopus is a natural selection for a JAWS-a-like. The problem is that TENTACLES, despite having everything going for it, is terrifyingly dull. Seldom have I seen a film so un-involving. I've seen it a time or two, and have very little memory of it! One thing I do recall is that much of the monster footage uses a real octopus. A big rubber prop would've gone a long way in making this more exciting (as the lobby still below promises).

   As noted in my previous article, the late 70's was a good time for lake monsters. And, since I mentioned such films there, there's really no need to go into more detail here....

   THE CRATER LAKE MONSTER may not've been as much a JAWS copy as it was a sort of throwback to the monster movies of the 50's. Still, it falls within the range of our topic.

   As noted last time THE "LEGEND OF DINOSAURS" was a Japanese copy of JAWS set in a lake near Mt. Fuji. The flesh-hungry water monster carries most of the picture, but the pterodactyl pictured above probably kills more people on the beach than any other movie monster. This is thanks to a scene in which a fleeing crowd takes shelter behind a stack of depth charges (being used against the water dinosaur). A rifle goes off and the charges explode as the bird does a victory bank in the skies above. Never mind that depth charges don't work that way...

   Though fitting somewhat loosely into our category, the Japanese-American co-production THE LAST DINOSAUR qualifies as a JAWS-a-like. Seen State-side as a TV movie, it follows the story of Richard Boone's Great White Hunter/industrialist discovering, and mounting an expedition to, a Lost World near the Polar cap. Once there, the group is hunted down and generally menaced by the monarch of the jungle, a giant Tyrannosaurus. By virtue of being a big rubber dinosaur movie, this one saw a ton of TV play for decades! 

   For bonus trivia sake, the Tyrannosaurus suit was re-purposed for a bizarre Japanese kiddie show in which intelligent, talking dinosaurs (played by guys in suits) emerged from the center of the Earth to terrorize Japan (played by miniature sets). Human beings (played by cartoon animation) fight back with Gerry Anderson-type flying machines (played by models). This delirious mixture was imported to the States in the 80's as a feature film for video called ATTACK OF THE SUPERMONSTERS!

   Now we're talking! THE CAR was more or less a version of JAWS set in the desert. An evil, supernatural car drives into a sleepy community and begins running down the citizenry until the local Sheriff fights back. I know how that might sound, but the flick is actually really good and it has my full recommendation. There were a number of killer car epics in the late 70's and into the 80's. This one was easily the best of that breed.

   De Laurentiis gave us a much better knock-off in the form of THE WHITE BUFFALO. A western take on the subject, this one had Wild Bill Hickok and Indian Chief Crazy Horse hunting down a monstrous albino buffalo! JAWS in the snow might be the rough translation, but there's a bit more here than that. Easily Charles Bronson's most unusual oater. 

   Off topic, but another good Bronson epic is BREAKHEART PASS. The two films might make for a neat double bill.

   On it's surface, PIRANHA is a cheap, exploitative cash-in on JAWS (and to an extent, that's exactly what it is without any claims to the contrary). A solid script, good direction, and fine cast rise it far above those initial borders, however. The film similarly influenced any number of following B horror pictures. 

   Mountain man/scientist Bradford Dillman finds himself teamed up with professional snooper Heather Menzies in searching for a lost couple. Thinking the bodies might be in a pool at a seemingly abandoned research facility, they drain the pool only to discover that they've unleashed special hybrid super-piranha into the local waters. They try to warn people, but plenty of red water is in store before it's over...

   This was one of the first movies to use the theme of a monster being purposefully created by the authorities as a biological weapon, in this case all-devouring killer fish that could be released into waterways and keep the VC occupied while our forces moved in. This concept was subsequently used by nearly every B monster movie that came along -and has flourished even more in the direct-to-video era. A tip to any wanna-be movie makers out there: don't use this ploy anymore. It got old by 1980.

   As I was saying, though, PIRANHA proved to be a surprisingly decent effort. Director Joe Dante went on to become one of the industry's top men. Shockingly, the same would happen to the man who helmed the sequel film, James Cameron. I say it that way only because Jim's first film as a director is terrible.  

   PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING concerned killer flying piranha fish that get loose near a resort beach. How on earth do you make a movie with that concept and manage to make it completely non-entertaining? Cameron somehow managed to do it. He was also fired from production and snuck into the editing lab to put his name back in the titles! I know a first directing credit is a big deal, but I've never understood why any human being would want documented credit for responsibility of this mess. Of course, the bar could be set even lower. PIRANHA 3-D may best be summed up by the scene in which the audience is thrown up on -in 3-D! Painfully, the film did well enough to get another quickie sequel.

   PIRANHA was also remade in the 90's for one of the cable movie channels, using the very same fish footage.

   BARRACUDA is another one I haven't seen, although it sounds intriguing. Reportedly, the film combines the usual JAWS trappings with the then-popular political thriller. I have a hard time imagining such a thing!

   UP FROM THE DEPTHS, about a prehistoric fish that menaces Hawaii, somehow manages to be even duller than TENTACLES. Seriously, how do you make a boring movie about a giant prehistoric fish that menaces Hawaii??? And from a crew that frankly I expected better of.

   GREAT WHITE is another one I haven't seen yet. Also known as THE LAST SHARK, the film was Italian in origin and stars James Franciscus and Vic Morrow. FVI's Edward Montoro brought the film over for release and spent a fortune on advertising. When one of his posters too closely mirrored an advertisement for JAWS 2, Universal sued. Universal won the case and Montoro was forced to pull GREAT WHITE from distribution. (Footage of the prop shark would later turn up in that Italian "sequel" that I mentioned, CRUEL JAWS.)

   Montoro continued making movies for a short time (one of his last being the quite nifty MUTANT), while racking up a growing list of offenses with authorities. Before he could be officially charged and brought to trial, he stole cash from the company and fled the country. His whereabouts remain a mystery to this day! FVI was absorbed into another company.

   The early 80's found a rash of films about enlarged alligators and crocodiles. ALLIGATOR was the best of these. Though rather nasty at times, the film sports a good script and impressive cast. Based on the old wives tale about baby alligators continuing to live in the sewers, the film throws in some genetic tampering resulting in a car-sized gator that gorily chews up a number of screaming actors. The film would eventually sire a sequel: ALLIGATOR 2, THE MUTATION. This one wasn't bad either, aside from a cartoonish subplot about an evil real estate developer!

   CROCODILE was an extremely bizarre import from Thailand, in which a giant mutant crocodile (and a possibly supernatural one at that) goes about munching on seemingly hundreds of citizens. A scientist loses his family to the Croc, and sets out to hunt the thing down. Words can't describe the film. Scenes begin and end at random, sometimes footage is repeated, the editing seems to've been done by a maniac, and so on. Dialog is equally troubled, making it difficult to know exactly what a particular scene is about at any given moment. The titular monster changes size constantly from shot to shot, sometimes represented as a larger-but-normal-sized crocodile, other times it's nearly big enough to fight Godzilla, and then every size in between from dinosaur to building. The film blatantly copies the last act of JAWS, but throws in a new twist by introducing a character we've never seen before: a reporter who shows up at the last minute to annoy our heroes. Then, in the last of the movie, it's the reporter who kills the Croc by grabbing some explosives and letting the monster eat him! Wow.

   CROCODILE had a theatrical run in the States, but more people probably saw it via the VHS release that found it's way into just about every video store in the country. The film was released in scope on a DVD some years back, but reportedly the image jitters due to sprocket damage. I can't imagine that would be fun to watch at all.

   As noted, there were several other big gator/croc copies of JAWS, but I've not seen them yet. There was a killer gator in Tobe Hooper's early drive-in flick EATEN ALIVE, but that was really more of a psycho picture. (Nor was it very good, despite a nice trailer that indicated a more straight-forward approach to the subject.)

   Another one I haven't seen, RAZORBACK is reportedly the JAWS dynamic set in the Australian outback. This time a giant hog is the monster. Look out, Les Nessman.

   MONSTER SHARK was released under a number of different titles (it hit Mystery Science Theater 3000 as the heavily re-edited DEVIL FISH, for example). Another Italian film, this one told of a shark/octopus hybrid that was going to rule the seas for a mad scientist. Or some such. 

   One understandable complaint about these films is the superfluous human villain, when a giant monster should be menace enough to hold a picture. Here, as in a number of them, it's a convoluted subplot involving industrial espionage. This is another thing largely owed to PIRANHA (and the paranoid 70's in general), with it's subplot of the military being less concerned about human lives than the recovery of their mutant fish.

   As noted earlier, JAWS, THE REVENGE more or less killed the genre until DEEP BLUE SEA brought it back in 1999. However, DEEP BLUE SEA was also the last fairly decent one to be made. In it, an undersea lab is disabled and the staff hunted by super-intelligent sharks the lab has been growing in order to harvest shark brain tissue for a revolutionary new cure. Slick production values also give the film a superiority to it's followers, most of which have been made for video.  For the first time, computer animated killer sharks take center stage. The genre will never be the same.

   The new century has seen a real explosion in stupid shark "movies" that continue to draw crowds despite their obvious flaws and niggardly production standards. Computer generated sharks now menace idiot characters in countless rental outlet rejects. These films feature killer sharks, bioengineered super-sharks, prehistoric sharks, two-headed sharks, giant sharks, three-headed sharks, shark/octopus hybrids, incredibly massive sharks, flying sharks, incredibly massive flying sharks, mechanical sharks, and sharks in tornadoes.... Seriously, killer sharks in tornado funnels are a hot franchise these days. Depressing, isn't it?

   And thus we have the ultimate legacy of one of the best pictures of the 70's. JAWS, somehow, has ultimately spawned SHARKNADO 4... Or is it 5? A man could cry. 

   It also seems that Spielberg was a little more careful over the rights to his films after JAWS. After all, the sequel-happy 80's didn't manage to materialize such fare as CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE FOURTH KIND or E.T. PART 2: LONG DISTANCE CHARGES.

Good night, folks.