Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Last Shark

What we got here is the last time Italy tried to rip off Jaws. As you know, the Italian exploitation film industry from the sixties through the eighties existed in a sublime state of not giving a fuck. If a movie made money, they’d have 25 knock-offs in theaters within a couple months. But when they tried that shit with Jaws, Universal Pictures sued the living fuck out of them, and The Last Shark (released in the States as Great White) got booted the hell out of America, never to return. So the Italians said fuck it and went back to ripping off Mad Max and Dawn of the Dead, whose creators at least had a sense of humor.

Normally, I’d be like fuck Universal. I mean, it’s not like you guys invented the fucking shark. Other filmmakers have to be allowed to tell shark stories without your legal department calling down the fucking thunder. The problem is, the Italians (principally director Enzo G. Castellari, a spaghetti western specialist also guilty of The New Barbarians and the original Inglorious Bastards) went and told the exact same shark story: gigantic great white stalks the beaches of a New England community, ruining tourism. It’s got it all: the crusty shark hunter (played by Vic Morrow, the guy John Landis killed), the disbelieving mayor who wears hideous blazers and refuses to close the beaches, the buoy that gets attached to the shark and inexpensively announces its presence, etc. It even sort of rips off Jaws 2 by having the shark eat a helicopter. Sadly, Jaws: The Revenge had not been made yet so there’s no way of telling whether this time it is, in fact, personal.

So yeah, it’s like a community theater version of Jaws, but the weird thing is, it still kind of works. For me, anyway. Your mileage may vary. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am a lifelong sharkaphobe. It’s not that I’m afraid that I’m gonna get eaten by one. I just hate looking at the evil sonsabitches. It’s like nails on the chalkboard for me, especially great whites. There is simply nothing scarier than seeing a Carcharodon carcharias pop its enormous head up out of the water, its black demon eyes gleaming lifelessly, its lips crinkling back over its pink gums that sprout row upon row of triangular teeth as big as restaurant-style tortilla chips, gnashing relentlessly and reducing a wad of flesh to wet, red ribbons. You ever see that Planet Earth documentary? They got this shot of a great white in super-duper slow-mo blasting up 15 feet out of the water, its whole body twisting and turning in midair with a thousand-pound sea lion in its mouth. It’s the fucking scariest thing ever, because that’s not movie magic. That shit exists. These mouthy motherfuckers are off somewhere doing that shit right now. For me, that’s what hell looks like: cold water, flexing gray cartilage, and a black chasm rimmed with serrated death.

That’s why The Last Shark freaked me out in a way that Jaws hasn’t since I was 12 years old and I forced myself to cowboy the fuck up and watch it all by myself in the dark. Now Jaws is one of my two favorite movies of all time, but let’s face it: Bruce the Shark never really looked real. Thanks to the preternatural filmmaking skills of a young Stephen Spielberg, its herky-jerk robotic movements and soggy rubber skin are extremely effective within the reality of the movie, but for someone with the shark fear, nothing can have the same kneejerk revulsion as the real thing. Jaws only has 15 or 20 seconds of actual shark footage in the whole movie, but The Last Shark skillfully edits dozens of shots of real great whites into its narrative. We are talking horrifying slow-mo footage of sharks as big as Cadillacs chomping the fuck out of sides of beef, their flailing fins whipping sea foam and blood into a frothy red meringue. I know this footage is from the seventies, but nobody knows how long sharks live, so those bastards could still be out there for all I know, slicing through the waves and leaving a trail of half-masticated chum in their wake. It’s not something I like to think about.

But the thing that makes The Last Shark such an entertaining blend of the terrifying and the ridiculous is that they only use stock footage about half the time. The other half, they alternate between this full-size shark puppet that can’t move its mouth—it looks like a giant rubber bath toy that would squeak if you squeezed it—and a ridiculously tiny little model that they obviously shot in a fishtank. Neither of the models have any motility at all; they’re just lifeless props that get wagged around by stagehands. While bad rubber monsters are an endless source of hilarity in my life, their presence in The Last Shark does nothing to alleviate my sharkophobia. In fact, it makes it worse. I can watch a nature documentary about sharks and get used to the sight of the ugly fucks after a few minutes, but The Last Shark never gives me the chance. You never know if the next shot is going to be of a preposterous latex armature or a petrifyingly authentic maneater. One second it’s a shot of a plastic fishy on the end of a stick getting poked at styrofoam rocks, and the next it’s a gory closeup of a real shark’s teeth sinking into actual cowflesh. Then the next shot is of a bloody mannequin leg hanging out of the full-size animatronic’s immobile mouth. The constant fear of the real shark popping up in the middle of all this cheesy effects work made me feel really fucking nervous for the whole movie.

For most of you, The Last Shark will just be a fun piece of campy trash. But for me, it’s the scariest movie I’ve seen in years. I’m not ashamed, though. Everyone has their weaknesses. At least I can say that mine is the most perfect killing machine ever devised and not some pussy shit like spiders or something. Arachnophobia was alright, I guess, but it’s not like a tarantula is gonna bite you in fucking half.

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