Sharks. I'm terrified of them. Always have been. Always will be. As described by Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws, sharks do three things: They swim. They eat. And they make little baby sharks. They're the perfect killing machine, and therefore, the perfect real life monster for horror films. My psychologist and I can work out why I'm so afraid of these swimming meat-grinders another time. Instead, in honor of Shark Week, I thought it might be fun to look at the history and evolution of the shark horror film...
...Aside from being a swimming, eating water demon, sharks are also a fascinating creature in that they are one of the few living things on earth that has evolved very little since prehistoric times. The shark film, however, has changed quite a bit since it first swam on scene.
Below are six films that became important points in the shark horror film timeline, as well as how they impacted the genre and the films that followed. In order to study how sharks in these films went from a slightly larger than normal Great White to a giant, ancient Megalodon, we might as well start from the beginning with...
Talk to anyone who was there when Jaws released in theaters, and they will tell you that at that time, they had never seen anything like it. Based off the book by Peter Benchley and directed by Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park), Jaws blew audiences away through a combination of action-adventure and sheer terror that so few filmmakers could have presented as masterfully as Spielberg. His use of of cinematography and John Williams' classic, foreboding score is a master class in tension building. Fresh off of his first feature, a horror film entitled Duel, and armed with an incredible cast comprised of Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss, Spielberg set out to make something that would truly terrify audiences and hopefully establish himself as a household name. What he got was so much more.
No one could have anticipated the impact Jaws would have. The film itself is responsible for the term "summer blockbuster". This is because Jaws pulled in around 260 million domestically. According to Box Office Mojo, the film ranks 7th in all-time adjusted gross. That's insane! And audiences immediately felt the impact. Not only did the film have everyone talking, it also had them staying out of the water. All across America, audiences were afraid to swim out into the ocean. Think about this: Before Jaws, the thought of being attacked by a shark never even occurred to people. Shark attacks are, after all, pretty damn rare, since they are, in reality, creatures that have zero interest in actually eating human beings. You have a better chance of being struck by lightning than you do being attacked by a shark. But that didn't matter.
What Jaws did so well is that it took something as common and "safe feeling" as the beach and summer fun and turned it into a dorsal-finned nightmare. Jaws opened up a Pandora's box that has never managed to close since. Yell shark at a beach, and people panic. Hum Williams' theme in the water, and watch yourself get smacked. People like myself can't even go neck deep in the water without their eyes constantly flicking back and forth, looking for the tip of a dorsal fin. Would Jaws have had the same impact if Bruce the mechanical shark had actually worked and Spielberg got to show it way more often, taking away the surprised screams at its few appearances? We'll never know. What we do know is that Jaws was such a hit that it remains an important part of film history to this day, more than forty years later.
It also inspired an array of knockoffs. And I'm not just talking about the obvious films like Piranha, Orca, and Alligator. I'm talking about deep sea terror in general. Films such as Leviathan and Deep Star Six. Just as Alien accomplished with space, Jaws showed studios that there was plenty of interest in deep sea horror. Some were even bold enough to be a flat out ripoff, like Enzo Castellari's The Last Shark, about a Great White terrorizing a beach. Universal decided to cash in on the craze with their own sequels, eventually leading to...
Jaws 3-D (1983)
Ah, what I would have given to grow up in the 80s. The music was loud. The cities bright. And horror was exploding in theaters thanks to more and more independent studios wanting to get in on the filmmaking game with the cheap, money-making genre. Horror went from the grisly grindhouse films of the 70s to fun, over the top, special FX ridden B-movies that were a blast to watch. Directed by Joe Alves (his one and only feature), Jaws 3-D was a true reflection of the decade. Set inside of a Seaworld park, Jaws 3-D sets up with a rather interesting premise, which involves the sons of chief Brody from the first film, (played by Dennis Quaid and John Putch), as they fight to protect Shamu whale-watchers after they become trapped in the park with a thirty-five foot Great White. Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), Jaws 3-D was not at all the summer blockbuster that the studio intended, due to various issues such as budget, resulting in the much maligned sequel it is today.
That being said, it is still a fascinating entry in the shark horror genre, most notably because of the new direction it took shark films. There were plenty of Jaws imitators, but none of them were the big-budget summer film that Jaws 3-D was supposed to be. But if Jaws was filet mignon prepared by the world's greatest chef, Jaws 3-D was bloody chum. The film is full of over the top (and often terrible) special effects like the one pictured above, and, knowing that there wasn't much left to do with the shark film, incorporated the use of 3-D, which was popular around that time, as a fun gimmick to bring in more crowds. While some of the kills are actually pretty great, the film overall is a ludicrous exemplification of 80s cheese. A lot of fans hate it, and with good reason, but over the years, I've come to love the film, because once you stop thinking of it as a sequel to Jaws and look at it as its own thing, its a fun B-movie that's good for a laugh or ten.
It also marked the decline of the shark movie, which received the final nail in the coffin with Jaws 4: The Revenge (1987), which is truly awful. If you thought a shark loose in Seaworld was bad, try buying the idea of a shark hunting Chief Brody's wife around the world to an island all so it can take revenge on her because...yeah, get the hell out of here with that. While this was the end of the shark film for awhile, Jaws 3-D did establish the genre as more over the top fanfare rather than realistic terror, paving the way for...
Deep Blue Sea (1999)
By the time the late 90's rolled around, horror had begun to lose a little bit of steam, and was beginning to focus on revivals and remakes of different sub-genres, most specifically slashers. One of those sub-genres also happened to be the shark film with Deep Blue Sea. Directed by Renny Harlin (A Nightmare on Elm Street 4), Deep Blue Sea takes its cues from Jaws 3-D by choosing to tell a similar story with a scientific edge, involving the study of sharks at a remote lab in the middle of the ocean. In trying to find a cure for Alzheimers, the scientists involved essentially make a trio of sharks "smarter", which of course allows the sharks to become so intelligent that they find a way to flood the lab and raise the water levels in an attempt to escape, all while being able to recognize guns and swim backwards and even open doors. Totally logical.
You have to remember, by this point, so many shark films had already been made, and there are only so many ways to make shark movies interesting. So what's left to do but make the damn things super intelligent so that you can design kills like snatching characters out of helicopters and throwing them at the glass windows of the lab in order to break through and flood it? The idea may seem laughable, and it is, but it was just another step in the evolution of the shark film, a step that you could argue was necessary, because it allowed the sub-genre to take some risks, instead of remaining stale. All in all Deep Blue Sea is a thrilling adventure ride that isn't particularly scary but is full of fun kills, self-referential humor from LL Cool J (a popular 90s trope), and an unforgettable scene with Samuel L. Jackson. Deep Blue Sea ended up being more of a last gasp for air than a resurgence. The shark film disappeared again for a few years before we got...
Open Water (2003)
This is what I like to refer to as the "Emo shark movie phase". Written/Directed by Chris Kentis (Silent House), Open Water is based on the true story of a pair of scuba divers who becomes stranded in shark infested waters after their tour boat leaves without them. As many of us can probably recall, horror took a more depressing route in the 2000s, focusing more on ultra realism and torture rather than the effects laden absurdity of nineties blockbuster horror.
Open Water is a reflection of that in the sense that film is painfully real. More than forty-five minutes of the film is spent up close and personal with the couple as they bob up and down in the water, surrounded by hungry sharks. Its a tragic story of companionship and survival that, at that point, had never really been explored in the sub-genre. What's more, the film was made with REAL sharks! Every shot you see of the divers surrounded by sharks is 100% real. Their terror is 100% real. And I think everyone involved with this was 100% crazy. The actors/actresses, Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis actually had to write up wills and sign forms saying they wouldn't hold the filmmakers responsible if anything happened, it was that dangerous of a set.
The end result is a terrifying, harrowing tale that further affirmed my will to stay out of the water as much as I could manage. It also led to a few other films that stressed the real horror of shark attacks, most notably The Reef, which is a highly underrated flick that doesn't get nearly the credit it deserves. It wasn't long though before we entered a new age of shark horror. An age that began with...
By the 2000's, something was beginning to happen with film. That something was digital filmmaking. Much like VHS in the 80s created a whole new market for cheap independent horror companies like Full Moon, digital equipment and inexpensive CGI left the door wide open for a new kind of horror market. Established in 2003, Asylum became one of the companies that took advantage by creating hundreds of horror and sci-fi titles for next to nothing, all of which were guaranteed to make some kind of minimal profit. One of those films was Sharktopus.
Directed by Declan O'Brien (Wrong Turn 3), Sharktopus is, well, pretty much what it sounds like: a creature that is half shark, half octopus, created by the military, terrorizing Mexico. This is where shark horror films go from over the top B-movies to just straight up losing their frenzied shark minds. The idea sounds like something a little kid would say as a result of their little kid brains not being fully developed and therefore not knowing what the hell anything is. Sharktopus is something I would've drawn while I was high and bored in high-school. Its not something I ever would've expected to spawn a whole series of mutated shark films.
While Sharktopus was one of the first to say "hey, how ridiculous can we make sharks?", it certainly wasn't the last, with such titles following such as Sand Sharks, Ghost Shark, Avalanche Sharks, and of course, the infamous Sharknado, which, by the way, it STILL blows my mind that that film became a mega successful franchise. But hey, if people love their tornadoes filled with sharks, who am I to say its dumb? You do you, America. The point is, there was no reason NOT to make these movies, no matter how ridiculous, because like the Roger Corman films back in the day, they cost nothing, had short shooting schedules/turnaround times, and were all well marketed with such laughable titles that they were almost guaranteed to catch fan's eyes. You can't tell me that you read the title Ghost Shark and aren't even a little curious to look it up.
Now, forty-three years later, the shark horror film has evolved into something that barely resembles Jaws, a sub-genre that has resurfaced again as of late with films like The Shallows, 47 Meters Down, and in just a couple of weeks from today...
The Meg (2018)
Based off of the book by Steve Alten and directed by Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure), The Meg tells the story of a 70ft megalodon that escapes the Mariana trench and wreaks havoc.
This is the film that actually sparked my interest in writing this piece, mostly because its so incredibly different from where the sub-genre began with Jaws. What started with a frightening, slow paced, award winning film has become the extreme, over the top, mega-budgeted mega-shark movie swimming into theaters on August 10th, riding a tidal wave of blood and cash. Theatrical films have largely become bloated, CGI-driven cash grabs that constantly try to be bigger and louder than anything else out there, and The Meg is no exception.
To be clear, I'm not complaining. I'm a big fan of Alten's book (which is much different and likely MUCH scarier, by the way), and as a fan of the shark horror genre, I've become accustomed to enjoying the outright insanity of these films. I mean come on, how is it not going to be fun watching Jason Statham action-punch his way through a giant shark film, in IMAX!? The Meg also fits perfectly fits into the current trend of capitalizing off of franchises and expanding universes. After all, The Meg is only the first of MANY books from Alten involving Jonas Taylor (Statham) and his battle against these enormous, prehistoric beasts, so don't be surprised if it sparks a whole new franchise.
The shark film has changed a lot through the decades, as have the sharks themselves. We're just a few years away from the next decade, so what can we expect as the next evolutionary step? Here's a prediction: With the popularity of superhero films, why don't we just say fuck it step out of the primordial pool into trippy lunacy with shark people? There's even some pretty good source material out there with the nineties cartoon Street Sharks...just saying.
By Matt Konopka
What are some of your favorite shark films? How do you feel about the upcoming "The Meg"? Post your thoughts below!