Much like no one can ever make a possession film without The Exorcist coming up every step of the way, it's pretty much impossible to watch any aquatic horror film without thinking about Jaws, the 1975 result of a troubled production that somehow yielded one of the few undisputed perfect films ever made (think Jaws 2 is a bad movie? That's fine, everyone's opinion is valid. Think the same about Jaws? No. You're just wrong). Steven Spielberg and "Bruce" the shark basically invented the idea of the summer blockbuster, as much like television is now, the season used to be a dumping ground for lesser films and re-releases; it's somewhat amusing to think that Mayor Vaughn's fretting about "summer dollars" could be seen as a meta joke about studios relying on summertime releases to generate enough revenue to carry them through the rest of the year.
The film's success, which is almost difficult to really comprehend to today's audiences who are accustomed to seeing records broken year after year (Force Awakens and Avatar sold fewer tickets, if that helps clarify), naturally paved the way for any number of ripoffs and "homages" in the forty plus years since. Even if you ignore the ones set on land (Grizzly, Razorback, even Of Unknown Origin is basically "Jaws but with a rat") - hell, even if you took out the "other water monster" movies like Orca and Piranha, you'd still have dozens of movies that likely would not exist if not for Steven Spielberg staking his career on a movie about three men hunting a killer white shark off the coast of Amity, Massachusetts. But while most of these horror ripoff trends tend to die out after a few years (remember "torture porn" horror?), killer shark movies have never really "gone away" for long, as Hollywood tends to produce one every couple years (or more) and the DTV/cable market picks up the slack in the interim.
And then some. At last month's horror trivia we were asked to pick which of the following titles was NOT a real shark movie: Sand Sharks, Snow Shark, Ozark Sharks, or Camp Shark. It was probably the most difficult question of the night for us, because across the six of us we were all sure we saw one or more of each title - it was the Mandela Effect on a very small, unimportant scale. As it turns out, Camp Shark was the only fake one (for now), but it just proves how much the home market has been glutted with ____ Shark titles, and no, it's not all Sharknado's fault. The likes of Sharks in Venice, the Shark Attack series (featuring this howler clip - NSFW!), 2-Headed Shark Attack, and the almighty Sharktopus all predate the Twitter-beloved franchise, and those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head. Hell, our own Andrew Todd even gave us an entry with his epic Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws (which is not a sequel to Ghost Shark); if I had the time I'd count for sure, but I'd be willing to bet there have been more shark movies made in the past five or six years than there were slashers in the early '80s.
Of course, most of them go direct to video or cable, because that's where the audience seems to prefer their blood-soaked beaches. In fact, only one killer shark movie has ever grossed more than $100m during its US domestic run, and I'm pretty sure you can guess what it is (it rhymes with "Jaws"). The second most successful of the bunch is, you guessed it, Jaws 2, which only took in about a third as much as the original (and cost a lot more to make), and the following sequels followed suit, ending with Jaws: The Revenge's pitiful $20m take (in terms of ticket sales, it was about 5% that of the original). Others, like Renny Harlin's Deep Blue Sea and 2016's The Shallows, performed well enough to end up in the all time top 10 sellers for such films, but neither was exactly a blockbuster; Shallows, for example, only finished 61st for the year. They might break even or perhaps end up in the black (water-set films tend to be expensive, which is probably why the Syfy type ones keep finding ways to be set on land), but the idea of a shark movie ever coming close to Jaws' success seems to be forever at bay.
What I find interesting about it is that most of the movies seem to acknowledge the master and give it a tip of the hat, almost as if to say "We know we're not Jaws, and we love it too." Deep Blue Sea had one of their sharks toss up the same license plate that Matt Hooper found in the innocent tiger shark, and the Sharknado films have gone so far as to name characters after the Brody family (Open Water went a little less obvious, going with Kintner and Watkins - the surnames of two of the film's victims). Even the non-shark ones get into the fun, with Orca (one of the first wannabes) opening on a shark being eaten by its titular killer whale, as if to show its dominance (hah!), and Piranha 3D went ahead and cast Richard Dreyfuss as Hooper for the film's opening sequence. While lots of cash-in and ripoff types try their best to keep you from thinking about the (likely superior) film they were aping, most Jaws wannabes seemingly are just hoping to be your second favorite killer shark movie.
I think that's actually why it tends to be a mostly enjoyable sub-genre - they embrace their inevitable runner-up position and just try to give you a good time. I don't have much love for the Sharknados and other Syfy kind of stuff, but damned if they don't entertain and hit the necessary marks. But I'm always excited for the big screen (read: big budget) types; this week, Warner Bros will finally unleash The Meg, a film that's been in development so long that 1999's Deep Blue Sea was actually a rival project at one point. Back then, The Meg was just Meg (based on Steve Alten's novel) and set up at Disney, who put the project in turnaround when Warner's Deep Blue Sea went into production and they didn't want to compete with what was, as shown, not exactly a lucrative sub-genre. The project changed hands several times over the following twenty years, so much that it's now a Warner Bros film itself, ironically directed by Jon Turteltaub, best known for his Disney films like the National Treasure series and Cool Runnings. If the movie's a hit, I hope it inspires one of those good ol' fashioned "inside Hollywood" books about its lengthy production, as it's probably as entertaining as the movie itself.
That's not a slight on the movie - it actually IS a lot of fun, and somewhat of a shame that they slotted it in August (not traditionally a blockbuster-driven month) instead of earlier in the season when people were still likely to show up in droves for popcorn fare like this. At one point Eli Roth was going to direct the film, and he reportedly walked after the studio insisted on a PG-13 rating, so I couldn't help but think about what kind of gore gags he would give us with a 75 foot prehistoric shark attacking a crowded beach, but there's still plenty of applause worthy moments. It helps that the cast is game, led by Jason Statham (who, like the shark film itself, has never been as big of a box office earner as you might assume) as a former rescue diver who is roped back into duty when his ex-wife and a pair of her colleagues are trapped at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
And by bottom I mean the WAY bottom, beneath the "bottom" that's currently accepted as the deepest point on earth. Some science guys, funded by billionaire Rainn Wilson (an inspired choice to play what's more or less Sam Jackson's role from Deep Blue Sea with a pinch of Mark Zuckerberg), believe that the bottom is actually a layer of ice, with another ecosystem underneath it. So they dig through and find out they're right, but also find out that a prehistoric Megalodon was down there and has just been given a ticket out. What follows is a series of sequences where they try to stop the thing before it reaches a populated area, though of course if you've seen the trailer you'd know they don't quite manage that. Again, the PG-13 rating limits the carnage somewhat, but the body count is still respectable (north of any Jaws film, for sure) and the cast seems to be fully aware that they're in, as one friend called it, a "$200m Asylum mockbuster".
It's also a solid 3-D entry, and I can't help but think Warner wanted to emphasize their dominance in that format by pairing it with Jaws 3-D at a free promotional screening in Los Angeles this past weekend (they also showed the 2D but still awesome Deep Blue Sea). 3-D tech has come a long way since 1983, of course, but even with the limitations of the era that movie is just a dud across the board, offering only a few worthy effects - that are also the only entertaining parts of what is in my opinion the worst of the Jaws movies (yes, I'll take the Brody-hating, GPS-enabled shark of Revenge over "some shark's MOTHER!"). The night before, we got to see Friday the 13th Part 3D on the same screen with the same cardboard glasses, and the difference was night and day (and, worth noting, Friday 3 was a year older and running on a smaller budget to boot). That film's 3D is well done and adds to the experience of what is still a decent entry in the series, as opposed to being the only reason to ever bother with Jaws' lone trip to the extra dimension. And showing it after Meg did it no favors, since that had people cheering instead of snoring.
I should note that Meg doesn't have to hit Jaws numbers in the US; as it is a Chinese co-production, they're counting on international box office to make this 20+ year journey worth all the effort. The very diverse cast (all six names on the poster hail from different countries) should propel it to healthy grosses around the world, and since it's the rare blockbuster that's actually worth seeing in 3D, that should help its bottom line as well (if available, you can even 4D it in certain locations, and get lots and lots of mist blasts for this very waterlogged movie). And frankly, even if it's a dud I suspect there will be another shark movie from one of the majors by 2020 at the latest. The allure of living up to Jaws, while seemingly impossible, is just too exciting an idea for any exec to pass up - and I'll always be happy to see them try.
This article is part ofB.M.D. Guide To: SHARKS!!!