GREAT WHITE, The Great JAWS Rip-Off

Jeremy Smith from AICN on some of the most memorable knock-offs in cinematic history. 

In the summer of 1975, an Italian-American horror flick called Beyond The Door slipped into U.S. theaters and rang up a tidy $15 million at the box office. The film centered on a pregnant woman’s grisly struggle with demonic possession, the kind that induces projectile vomiting and literally makes one’s head spin in circles -- i.e. the kind William Friedkin depicted two years prior in the massively successful The Exorcist. These similarities were not lost on The Exorcist’s producer-distributor, Warner Bros.; given that the studio had a sequel to Friedkin’s blockbuster gearing up for production, they weren’t exactly pleased to find a low-rent knock-off satiating moviegoers’ hunger for their specific style of demonic possession two years in advance. So they sued.

The lawsuit was filed against Film Ventures International, an upstart distribution company located in Atlanta, Georgia, that was owned and operated by entrepreneur/filmmaker Edward L. Montoro. The company owed its existence to the runaway regional success of Montoro’s soft-core porn comedy Getting Into Heaven, which grossed twenty times its production budget in 1968. FVI’s early business model was built around the distribution of Italian Spaghetti Westerns and horror films, but Montoro was eager to finance his own productions -- a dream that would surely be dashed if Warner Bros. convinced a U.S. court to file an injunction against Beyond The Door.

The lawsuit ultimately failed when a judge determined there were not enough similarities between The Exorcist andBeyond The Door to constitute plagiarism. So Montoro was free to produce FVI’s first major film the following year, a Jaws knock-off called Grizzly that would go on to gross $39 million at the domestic box office, thus making it the most successful independent movie of 1976. Montoro had suddenly transformed FVI into a legitimate production company, and he was so delighted with Grizzly’s windfall that he decided to cut the director and screenwriters completely out of the profits. This prompted another lawsuit, one that Montoro did not win.

Despite Montoro’s highly questionable business practices, FVI was fast turning into one of the most successful film distribution companies in America. Their brand was exploitation (particularly horror and martial arts flicks), but if the company had a signature type of film, it was the animals-run-amok subgenre; Grizzly was the company’s biggest hit, and the goofy eco-horror throwdown Day Of The Animals wasn’t far behind. But Montoro was hunting bigger game. He wanted to hook the most feared/profitable cinematic beast of them all: the great white shark.

Ever monitoring the international marketplace for exploitable trash, Montoro finally found his man-eater in Enzo G. Castellari’s 1981 smash L’Ultimo Squalo. Castellari’s film was doing tremendous business abroad under a variety of titles, most of which brazenly promoted the picture as a quasi-sequel to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (in Japan, the film was called Jaws Returns). And this was fair because L’Ultimo Squalo was essentially a quasi-remake of Spielberg’s classic with bits from the sequel, Jaws 2, added in.

Working from a story by producer Ugo Tucci, screenwriter Mark Princi reshuffles characters, events and motivations from the 1975 blockbuster while adding an extra dollop of media cynicism. James Franciscus stars as Peter Benton, an author whose name is so close to that of Jaws novelist Peter Benchley that it feels more like homage than theft. Unfortunately, the rest of the film isn’t that affectionate in its reapplication of tropes and themes. Benton is called into action when a windsurfing friend of his teenage daughter goes missing in the ocean. When a chomped-off section of the young man’s board is discovered by a cantankerous shark hunter named Ron Hamer (Vic Morrow playing Robert Shaw playing Quint in Jaws), Benton pleads with Mayor William Wells (Joshua Sinclair) to close the beaches and cancel the upcoming regatta. Knowing a cancelled regatta would destroy his ongoing gubernatorial campaign (seriously, no one’s been this maniacal about a regatta since Richard Crenna inSummer Rental), Wells denies Benton’s request -- but, unlike Murray Hamilton’s cheerfully negligent mayor inJaws, Wells does rim the beach area where the windsurfing competition will be held with shark-proof netting. No maneater that’s extremely rare for these waters is going to postpone a regatta in William Wells’s town.

But when a gaggle of attractive windsurfers opt for a slo-mo frolic in the water on the eve of the regatta, the thirty-foot great white shark gets worked up and pierces the steel netting, setting the stage for disaster the following day. Benton and Hamer predictably join forces to hunt down the killer beast, but Castellari does work one interesting variation on the Jaws formula by having Wells attempt to rescue his political career by capturing the shark on his own. And had Wells thought of something more sensible than a helicopter dangling a side of beef stuck on a giant fish hook over the open water, perhaps he would’ve been the hero of this tale (spoiler alert: the shark eats more than that side of beef).

L’Ultimo Squalo is a lesser effort from the underappreciated Castellari (his SUPERB Eagles Over London plays like the World War II film Brian De Palma never made), but his visual skill places the movie far above the Asylum-style knock-offs of today -- even in a complete piece of garbage, style counts. The creature effects team does what they can with limited resources, but their shark is only capable of breaching the surface headfirst and sort of benignly bobbing along in the water.

After a profitable international run, Montoro bought the U.S. distribution rights to L’Ultimo Squalo, rechristened it Great White and sunk $4 million into advertising its March 1982 theatrical release. The film was an immediate hit, and was set to expand nationwide when Universal Pictures filed a lawsuit claiming Castellari’s picture plagiarized Jaws. Though Montoro had been through this before with Beyond The Door, and knew how difficult it was to prove copyright infringement, this time the similarities were too numerous to avoid an injunction. On April 22, 1982, a California district court decided in favor of Universal, and all prints of Great White were removed from U.S. theaters.

This injunction wasn’t the coup de grâce that struck down Montoro and FVI, but a costly divorce settlement combined with the failure of John “Bud” Cardos’s 1984 horror film Mutant drove the company into bankruptcy. Rather than fight to save FVI, Montoro pocketed $1 million from his failing company and vanished (possibly to Mexico). It was a clichéd end to a boldly unoriginal career. Neither he nor Great White has officially been seen in the United States since.

This was originally published in the September issue of Birth.Movies.Death. Jaws screens this month at the Alamo Drafthouse.

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