Jaws has a lot to answer for. In the 36 years since Spielberg’s seminal summer blockbuster, movie screens (well, mostly TV screens, actually) have been clogged with low rent ripoffs in which paper thin characters do battle against an increasingly improbable and needlessly gory parade of killer sharks. For a while, it seemed that this franchise was just about eating its own tail, as movies like Shark Attack 3: Megalodon (starring the mighty talent that is John Barrowman) seemed to be the thin end of the wedge.
But lo, then came the advent of cheap CG, and B movie producers everywhere saw that it was profitable. In the last few years, killer sharks are very much back. But now they can be as insanely big, or mutated, or just downright silly as the CG will allow. Perhaps one of them could stand as the next Republican party Presidential candidate, it might have a good chance…
At the forefront of this revival in ultra-cheap tat is cable TV channel Syfy (formerly the less stupidly named Sci Fi Channel). They’ve been producing a line of intentionally dumb but guiltily enjoyable TV B movies for a few years now, including SS Doomtrooper, Locusts: The Eighth Plague, and the unforgettable Pterodactyl, which starred no less a talent than Coolio.
All these films have certain things in common: they’re shot somewhere cheap (Romania, Mexico), they star D list actors that you might just have seen in a commercial once (Corin Nemec, say), and they have a budget of about $100, all of which seems to have been spent on less than convincing CG. But they’ve given a boost to the once flagging genre of killer shark movies, and now it’s cheap as chips to have a boatload of nubile tourists devoured by a badly composited fishy predator.
In the interests of objective criticism (and because they were in a cheap special offer on Amazon), I recently subjected myself to three of these neo-classics and can now report on them. In order:
We start with one of the more bonkers ideas. Sharktopus, as the DVD cover proudly proclaims, is “50% shark. 50% octopus. 100% deadly.” And a zillion per cent dumb.
This is one of the Syfy offerings, but for added B movie cred, it’s produced by schlock veteran Roger Corman, who’s been making ultra cheap monster flicks since the dawn of time. Roger clearly clocked the ‘popularity’ of another recent schlockfest, Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, and thought, “wouldn’t it be even more scary if both those things were.. one thing?” And so the terror that is Sharktopus was born.
The titular creature has, for some unfathomable reason, been created as a genetically engineered weapon for the US Navy. Quite what use they think they’re going to get out of it is hard to tell, but their nefarious scheme is immediately established as we see a high ranking naval officer enter a top secret research establishment (depicted as a small windowless room with some old computers in it) and witness a test of the beastie, under the auspices of its creator, Dr Sands.
The typical mad scientist (would a sane one create a half-shark half-octopus hybrid?), Sands is incarnated by Eric Roberts, the closest this production could get to a star name. Roberts, brother to megastar Julia, has been condemned to this sort of dreck for most of his career; it’s telling that his highpoint was probably his ultra-camp portrayal of the Master in the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie.
Dr Sands has a glamourous daughter, who is also Dr (Nicole) Sands, and is played by Sara Makalul Lane (who she?). It’s a common trend in these movies for the female lead to be a scientist these days – cause women are empowered now, see? But it’s also common that these ‘scientists’ physically resemble the standard bikini clad nubile wenches of yesteryear, and their attempts to portray scientific scrutiny look like a combination of constipation and having sat on a vibrating washing machine.
Of course, the test all goes horribly wrong as Nicole’s incompetence causes the creature’s ‘kill switch’ to fail, and before you can say “WTF?”, it’s off on a tourist devouring rampage in Mexican beach resort Puerto Vallarta. Nicole is forced, against her father’s better judgment, to call in hated ex-colleague and hunky beach bum biologist and fish hunter Andy Flynn, and the chase through holiday locations begins.
Andy and Nicole are one step behind Sharktopus all the way, as it begins to chomp its way through the more attractive and mostly female holidaymakers. Only a cameoing Roger Corman (because he’s male and old) is safe. As they chase, Andy expresses his frustration at their failure by opening his shirt and flexing his abs a lot. Meanwhile, the body count rises; as Sharktopus has tentacles, it can rise out of the sea and walk on land to stalk its prey (just go with it; if you can accept fusing an invertebrate cephalopod with a fish, that’s not too hard).
Also converging on Sharktopus is a local TV crew, intent on exposing the madness of creating the creature. This doesn’t end well for them, as first cameraman and then intrepid reporter Stacy Everheart (no, really) are devoured by Sharktopus. Luckily, our heroes corner the beast at a local water park (though it’s not in the water) and manage to shoot it with an electrocution gadget that makes it explode. Cue many shots of Andy looking hunky with shark blood running down his immaculately sculpted abs.
CG creature: nice design, but very badly composited into picture. Obviously beyond the bounds of any scientific credibility, but if you’re worrying about that, you’ve come to the wrong film.
Male lead: Model (but definitely not actor) Kerem Bursin is nice eye candy as Andy Flynn, but should never be allowed to open his mouth onscreen again.
Female lead: Sara Makalul Lane (really, who?) looks good in a bikini and can say the lines written in the script (just about). But you won’t believe for a moment that she’s any kind of scientist.
Quotable line: “This is your captain speaking. We’re getting more reports of this half shark, half octopus creature that’s terrorizing the coast, but please don’t panic.”
It’s that man Corman again, and he’s bringing us another of his weird hybrid beasties. Dinoshark, as the name implies, is half shark, half dinosaur. This is visualised as a creature with the body of a shark, but the scaly skin and head of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Because Jurassic Park and Jaws were scary, so a creature combining the two is scarier than ever, right? Of course it is.
The movie opens with a sobering comment on climate change, as we see shelves of ice melting into the ocean near Alaska. But the social comment is soon forgotten, as the crumbling ice releases … things into the ocean. Scary things. But they look small, so that’s ok, right? And…. “Three years later”.”
Dinoshark introduces himself to the world by leaping out of the ocean to devour a luckless fisherman before sinking his entire boat. Yes, unlike Sharktopus, Dinoshark is entirely confined to the water; but fortunately, he can jump very, very high. But there’s a short supply of bikini clad lovelies near Alaska, so Dinoshark must head south… winding up yet again at the unfortunately monster prone Mexican resort of Puerto Vallarta. At this point, I began to suspect Roger Corman shot these two movies mainly to give himself a free holiday.
In Puerto Vallarta, we meet our hero, boat-captain-for-rent Trace McGraw. Despite having a girl’s name, Trace is incarnated by the hunky Eric Balfour. Immediately you can tell they’ve put more thought into the casting; Balfour isn’t just hunky but can (sort of) act, as you may remember from such movies as Skyline and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remake. Minus points, however, for Eric’s facial hair; his usual goatee wildly varies in length from shot to shot, often disappearing altogether in between lines. Continuity!
Trace is a bit of a lad, and has a bunch of similarly laddy beach bum friends, accompanied by their nubile, bikini-clad girlfriends. One of said girlfriends, it becomes clear, will be our heroine for the duration. Yet again, she is a scientist; Dr Claire Brubaker is a massively qualified marine biologist who for reasons of audience titillation has come to Mexico to lead a girls’ water polo team in a skimpy bikini. Iva Hasperger out of TV’s General Hospital imbues Dr Claire with all the scientific gravitas of an infomercial.
Meanwhile, Dinoshark is chomping his way through the local holidaymakers in the familiar pattern, but is a bit more inventive than Sharktopus. Having devoured our heroes’ best mate Rita (found on a beach with her legs buried to make it look like she’d been bitten in half), Dinoshark also manages to eat a local fisherman and two members of Mexican Search and Rescue before eating their boat. At this point, Trace’s suspicions are aroused, and he goes on the hunt.
Claire, meanwhile, has been doing some ‘research’ on the internet, while wearing a lip-chewing vacant expression presumably meant to convey concentration. Finding a picture of something like what Trace described, she’s obviously had a breakthrough. So naturally, she decides to take her top off.
After doing this, though, she contacts said website’s owner, who is varyingly described as ‘Dr Reeves’ or ‘Dr Reeve’ throughout. Dr Reeves (or Reeve) turns out to be Roger Corman himself, and is actually a better actor than most of the cast. He also has a supercomputer (it looks like an ordinary Dell) which can “extrapolate the DNA” of the creature from a sample of its stomach acid, and from this, produce a realistic picture of it onscreen and tell him that its one weakness is its unarmoured eye. That’s some computer.
Trace’s continuing beastie hunt is being hampered by local police chief Calderon, doing the ‘disbelieving authority’ bit from Jaws. But even Calderon has to admit they might have a problem when Dinoshark literally leaps over his head, eats one of his officers, and pulls his CG helicopter into the sea. He can always draw another helicopter, I suppose…
In the meantime, Dinoshark has eaten a whole bunch of people (most of whom seemed to deserve it for their stupidity). And yet, despite the fact that the local police chief has actually seen the creature eat a helicopter, he’s neglected to advise people to stay off the beaches. This is fortunate for Dinoshark, as nothing is quite as tempting as a young girls’ water polo team.
Having eaten as many as he could manage, he finally heads into the bay to consume a handy jetskier and a man on a para sail who’s filming the whole thing for posterity (and Roger Corman). Leaping pointlessly into the sea, Trace grabs the jetski and it all goes slo-mo as he leaps into the air… Dinoshark leaps towards him… he throws a grenade (no, really)… boom!
But a grenade’s not enough to kill Dinoshark. Fortunately, Dr Claire has remembered what Dr Reeve (or Reeves) told her. She’s got a harpoon, and a hell of an aim. But before she lobs it unfailingly into poor old Dinoshark’s eye, there’s just time for a Schwarzenegger-style one-liner: “Welcome to the endangered species list!”
CG creature: Silly design, but better than Sharktopus. And might technically be a reptile, therefore not half fish after all, making it at least a bit scientifically plausible. A bit. The compositing’s pretty good, and the thing actually looks halfway convincing.
Male lead: Eric Balfour’s not much of an actor, but then this isn’t much of a part. But he’s quite charismatic, and definitely nice to look at. If only he could control his goatee.
Female lead: Iva Hasperger is so wooden she makes Keanu Reeves look like Gene Hackman. And her attempts to look ‘scientific’ and serious are incredibly funny, so points for that at least.
Quotable line: (Trace, talking about Rita) “She made me food. It was the first time I tasted food made out of love.”
Mega Shark Vs Crocosaurus
The ‘official sequel’ to Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus (would anyone produce an unofficial sequel to that?), this is the first film in my troika not to have been produced by Roger Corman or Syfy. Rather, it’s been churned out by ripoff factory The Asylum, who specialise in straight to DVD ‘homages’ to upcoming big budget Hollywood productions. They also have nice sideline in cheap ‘giant monster’ things, including the even more bizarre Mega Piranha, starring Tiffany (yes, that one).
In the original movie, as you’ll doubtless recall, the west coast of America was plagued by a gargantuan shark while Japan had some problems with a similarly scaled octopus, until ‘scientist’ Debbie Gibson (yes, that one) had the bright idea of luring them into a fight to the death. But as it turns out, no one saw Mega Shark die, and the US Navy are still on the lookout for it – so that’s where all those taxpayer dollars get spent.
But they’re right to be cautious, as in the first five minutes Mega Shark reappears. More ambitious than Sharktopus or Dinoshark, Mega Shark is big enough to sink an entire US destroyer. Which he quickly does, leaving irritating ‘hero’ Lt McCormack (Jaleel White, best known as TV’s Urkel) as the only survivor. McCormack is burning for revenge, and has the way to do it; he’s pioneered ‘underwater hydrophonic spheres’ which can lure sharks.
He is therefore sought out by the Navy department which spends billions of taxpayer dollars in case of giant sharks, represented by Sarah Lieving as the glamourous Special Agent Hutchinson. More serious than other crap shark movie heroines, Hutchinson doesn’t appear to even own a bikini. She takes McCormack to a special shark hunting ship captained by ‘star name’ Robert Picardo (you may remember him as the holographic Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager). This fearsome ship is represented by a stock footage exterior and a dimly lit windowless room full of computers, as usual.
On the other side of the world, it’s time to meet the other contender. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (somewhere in Southern California, apparently), we see an attempt at social comment, as miners for blood diamonds are brutally crushed by a VERY big crocodile which erupts out of the rock for no clearly explained reason. Enraged by the loss of profits, the mining company hire caricature English big game hunter Nigel Putnam (only Englishmen are called Nigel) to chase it down. Nigel is incarnated by British boxer (and, improbably given what he looks like, model) Gary Stretch, whose accent veers from South African to Australian to cockney, while never losing its essential Scouseness.
Nigel captures Crocosaurus by the unusual expedient of letting it eat him then tranquilising it while he’s in its mouth (I’m not making this up). He then decides to transport it, still alive, to the US in a King Kong-style attempt at showmanship. Unfortunately, his plans are somewhat derailed when the ship Crocosaurus is on is sunk by Mega Shark, and then, it’s on, baby!
Joining forces with McCormack, Hutchinson and the Navy, Nigel watches with a cynical smirk as Crocosaurus levels Miami and Orlando (which suspiciously contain the same buildings as each other) before facing off with Mega Shark, who for some reason wants to eat Crocosaurus’ eggs. That might have been the end of it, but for a fruitless attack from some CG warplanes, so an attempt is made to trap the giant beasties in the Panama Canal. This of course doesn’t work, as they’re fighting again, and lurch over onto the city in the process (“They’ve destroyed Panama!”).
Later, our heroes discover that Mega Shark has an appetite for Crocosaurus’ eggs when it swallows a nuclear submarine carrying one (I’m really not making this up!). But McCormack has a plan – he’ll lure the squabbling beasties to an undersea volcano which his ‘hydrophonic spheres’ can set off (somehow). Somewhat surprisingly, this actually works, and we’re treated to an especially cheap motionless silhouette of the two antagonist sinking into stock footage of lava.
This was more fun than the original Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus, as that was a bit stingy on the creature fighting moments and suffered from a misapprehension that we had some sort of interest in the ‘characters’. Of course, “better than Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus” is not particularly high praise.
CG creatures: The most unconvincing of the lot, they look like badly textured cartoons in the inept way they’re composited into the picture. Some credit for the sheer mind-boggling size of them, but that seems to vary from scene to scene. In one scene, Crocosaurus is described as “1500 feet long” by McCormack when it’s plainly not that big. When we first meet it, its foot is just about big enough to crush a luckless African miner, but later one foot is enough to crush a tank.
Male lead: I’ve never seen Urkel, but if Jaleel White was as irritating there as he is here, I never want to see it. And Gary Stretch as ‘Nigel’ is about as convincing as a big game hunter as any other boxer.
Female lead: Top points here; Sarah Lieving can actually act, and her character Special Agent Hutchinson is convincingly written as more than just a beach bimbo with a marine biology degree.
Quotable line: “They’ve gotta stop firing at the shark. It’s got a nuclear submarine inside it.”
And the winner is…
Let’s face it, these films are all very silly (intentionally, I’m sure) but enjoyable. But of all these Z-grade no-budget schlockfests, Dinoshark comes closest to being a good movie (it’s still not very close). Eric Balfour is a good lead, the creature looks good (and stays the same size between scenes) and there’s some genuinely good editing and camerawork in the climactic scenes with the parasail and the jetski.
Sharktopus comes a close second, let down by its wooden lead and less convincing creature. And last (and definitely least) is Mega Shark Vs Crocosaurus, for its actively annoying heroes, unconvincing and elastic creatures, and its implausible ability for ships to travel thousands of miles in a few minutes.
OK, so they’re terrible films, every one. But they’re undoubtedly guilty fun, and I guess that means there’s no end to them in the foreseeable future. I’m looking forward to Wolfsharkvampire myself…