Haunted by a better idea

Ghost Shark

2013 | 87 min

Griff Furst

If you’ve ever seen competitive downhill skiing you know about the slalom. Skiers race down the hill while going in between a series of poles. The point is not to engage the poles, but to go around them. In Ghost Shark there are a bunch of good ideas and they are the poles in a slalom race. The filmmakers work hard to speed past all these good ideas without letting them affect their result.

Griff Furst’s film opens with a shark poaching a fish off some anglers’ line and the anglers avenging their lost catch by shooting the shark several times with a large pistol, a speargun and, finally, throwing a grenade in its mouth. The shark survives the grenade attack long enough to swim about a half-mile into a cursed cave where it dies. Some cave magic happens and from that point on it’s Shark’s Ghost vs. The People of Smallport.

The actual story isn’t worth going into much but we can hit some of the major points by lamenting what it could have been.

  • A shark needlessly killed is the hero avenging the violences against it? No, it’s still the bad guy.
  • The mass deaths via shark attack during the Middle Passage leave the sharks haunting the slavers’ descendents? Nope.
  • The violences inherent to settler colonialism that left, in this instance, also the early colonists who cursed the cave also dead haunt today’s settlers in the form of a shark? Nope. The early colonizers’ deaths are just a sad thing.
  • A man who murdered his wife and is never accountable haunts the town with his misogynist violence and sees a shark ghost everywhere? No, he’s just a sad drunk.

All of those would be much more interesting than what actually happens and could give a thin story depth. And the story actually touches three of the four but just breezes past them. Apart from the mediocre special effects the film is competently short and not boring visually. The performances are as good as the script allows apart from Richard Moll who overacts pretty badly at times. The big problem is that the film studiously avoids exploring any of the ideas or characters it presents (plus the one better one I added above lol). So nothing is ever fully developed and it just kind of goes through the motions of being a movie. Maybe I’m asking too much of a film about a ghost shark. But at least it could’ve been fun.

The Monstrous Shark

Jaws

124 min

Dir. Steven Spielberg 1975

Hidden among Steven Spielberg’s decades long schmaltz vending career are a few good movies. While his technical skills are always evident, as a storyteller Spielberg peaked with a couple of high concept creature features: Jaws and his two Jurassic Park movies. Both of the films spawned entire subgenres of copycats and knockoffs trying to tap into both the narrative and cultural success of the originals as well as launching successful film franchises. Jurassic Park was preceded by several ‘prehistoric monster’ films like King Kong (1933) and dinosaur movies like The Land Before Time (1988, with Spielberg as a producer), but Jaws very nearly launches the concept for the shark attack movie. Prior to Jaws, if sharks appeared in film, it was mostly as background hazards in adventure genre films with a few cameos elsewhere like in the James Bond film Thunderball (1965). And while none of the Jurassic Park derivatives outside the parent franchise have been particularly acclaimed nor commercially successful, Jaws inspired a whole slew of commercially successful films like Deep Blue Sea and The Meg as well as a few well reviewed movies like The Shallows. Jaws was and remains a cultural phenomenon. So what’s it all about?

In Peter Benchley’s novel, Jaws takes place off Long Island but in the film it’s Amity Island, a fictionalized version of Nantucket. The story opens with a drunk kid getting eaten by a shark. Chief Brody (Roy Sheider) searches for the girl and finds her remains. The medical examiner initially finds the girl died of shark bite which sets up the narrative fulcrum upon which the rest of the story, and most of the genre, operates.

Eager to stop news of a shark attack from hindering summer tourist business on the island, Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) convinces the medical examiner and then Chief Brody to declare that the girl was mangled by a boat propeller while swimming, not a shark. Without this decision, common to all levels of government in capitalist states, to protect capital accumulation instead of the population, the story cannot move forward because the beaches would be closed and there would be no further human infested waters where the shark could dine. But greed wins out, the beaches remain open and the bodies pile up, what’s left of them anway. This is a central point of the genre which usually finds either human greed or hubris – usually scientific – to be the basis that allows for killer shark stories in the first place.

After the death toll becomes politically untenable, a marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss) convinces everyone it is a shark and the beaches have to close anyway, Mayor Vaughn approves the hire of a professional fisherman, Quint (Robert Shaw) to hunt down the fish. Quint’s subplot is more or less a Moby Dick Cliff Notes, especially his ending! Quint’s dockhouse is filled with mounted shark jaws of various sizes and his hunt becomes framed as personal revenge against the sharks that ate his boatmates after a Japanese submarine torpedoed the USS Indianapolis in World War II. His narrative arc is definitely Ahab’s. Quint and the biologist Hooper invoke Moby Dick again in their comparison of their prior injuries and scars from shark encounters. Quint, Hooper and Brody then quest to hunt down the great white shark that is munching on tourists and locals. 

The film becomes increasingly silly as the three leave behind the political economic intrigue that allowed for the shark attacks in the first place. By the incredibly low standards of shark attack movies, Jaws appears practically peer reviewed from a science perspective. It still requires a series of nonsensical decisions and pseudoscientific shark biology in order for the Man vs. Shark portion of the film to build suspense or seem plausible. The shark hunters have harpoons, explosives, fish hooks, pistols, shotguns and more. Any hostile interaction with the shark where the people are not submerged in the water can only plausibly end in one way. In short: people go fishing, fish do not go peopling.

Jaws is very nearly the only shark attack movie, and one of very few animal attack movies of any kind, where the Horror Animal does not eat impossible amounts of food. That the shark continually preys upon people is implausible but since it’s not clear over how many days the narrative takes place, the volume of soylent green (plus one black labrador) the shark eats only moderately stretches plausibility. Some shark attack movies have the shark eating over a year’s worth of food over the course of a day or two. Jaws is positively restrained in having the shark eat only a couple months of food over a week or two. Yet this exaggeration is still part of creating a monster where, in reality, there is only a shark. It’s a puzzle. The film already has capitalism as the monster, as the problem that allowed for all but the first person to be eaten by the shark. Why does it need a second monster? Why can’t the shark just be a shark? Is an animal that does, on very rare occasions, kill and eat people so insufficiently terrifying that it must be exaggerated? And how does killing the shark solve the political problem that put people in harm’s way?

Jaws succeeds as a film for a lot of different reasons. Spielberg does his career best pacing and speeds up and slows down the film at several moments without rushing or dragging. The special effects would mostly pass muster today, unlike its sequels. And most of all, terrific performances from the four lead characters. Sheider, Shaw, Dreyfuss and Hamilton are all stellar with Shaw especially good in bringing to life what could have been an empty archetype. Hamilton as a politician only interested in the tourist economy is wonderful. You can feel the hollow salesmanship when he says, “Amity, as you know, means friendship,” while trying to distract a news crew from the shark attacks they’ve come to cover.

Jaws basically invented the nature horror subgenre of the shark attack movie and remains one of its best examples even after nearly fifty years and dozens of imitators. It is also a film that repopularized sharks as villains and probably plays some role in mass shark slaughters though commercial fishing was already doing that before Spielberg was born because, just as in the film, capitalism is the real monster, the one that magnifies all harm.

Bye you in the bayou

Red Water

2003 92min

Dir. Charles Robert Carner

There is a weird kind of masculinist environmentalism in Red Water where organizers who connect ecosystem devastation to war and oil extraction get a deserved comeuppance but thoughtful, individual men can legitimately come to care about the environment only if dragged there by a killer shark. It’s as if it is ok to care so long as you don’t tell anyone about it. It’s one of the only notable things about Red Water, a 2003 TV movie starring Lou Diamond Phillips, Coolio and Kristy Swanson. A bull shark is loose in the Mississippi River and it has killed a few people. Some violent men working for a drug gang are trying to recover drug money from the river bottom are also loose in the Mississippi River and have killed even more people. The oil industry is also loose in the Mississippi River and has killed many millions of people. But somehow the shark is the bad guy and source of horror for the story.

Red Water finds John (Phillips) down on his luck in the Louisiana bayou and needing a big score to stave off the bank from repossessing his fishing boat that is also his house. Along come his ex (Swanson) who is working for an oil company drilling in the river. She recruits John, a former oil worker, to help troubleshoot their drilling problem. On site they run into three men trying to recover money that one of them dumped in the river before a jail term. A series of nonsensical and deeply improbable decisions later and the oil crew and money hunters are at odds with each other as well as a bull shark that is hunting down seemingly everyone. From that point is Man Dodging Bullets vs. Shark until the credits roll.

Like all shark attack movies, Red Water fails to ask: can a shark even do all this? The answer is: No. At one point, a shark appears to kill several people within a matter of minutes. An earlier scene with John’s mentor makes it seem like the shark is eating the people it kills. Which would mean that over the one day the film takes place, the bull shark eats three times its body weight in soylent green. If we understand the early scene where a fisherman laments the lack of catfish to mean the shark has eaten those catfish, then it has eaten an even larger quantity of its body weight. No shark can do that. Nor does it randomly vary its feeding ground over such a wide area in such a short time. But since, somehow, filmmakers cannot imagine being killed and eaten by a shark to be a terrible or terrifying event, they have to create a monster in its place in order to approach horror.

Red Water isn’t a remarkable film. It would be a pretty standard heist film or shark attack movie and it’s very slightly novel that it combines the two. It’s reasonably well shot and paced and, apart from  a couple of spots, the shark effects pass muster for a 2003 film. The performances surpass the budget but the budget is low so that’s not much to brag about. Overall, it’s kinda weird and you could do a lot worse.

A little chum

Shark Bait

2022 | 87min

Dir. James Nunn

Shark Bait asks a very common horror genre question: What if a bunch of young, good looking people without the skills to survive an untied shoestring were all of a sudden in a situation with a high probability of death? Sometimes this means they’re at a summer camp and an abnormally violent hockey goalie (or his mum!) is stalking them like in Friday the 13th. Sometimes a knife wielding incel with daddy issues starts going after his schoolmates like in Scream. And sometimes, like in Shark Bait, a bunch of annoying tourists find out the consequence of their actions is a very hungry shark.

Shark Bait opens with young American tourists in Mexico partying on an ocean beach. They get drunk and the following morning decide to steal two jetskis and head out to the ocean for some drunk driving without life vests. Two of the dudes wreck the jetskis while dick measuring which leaves the three men and two women stranded far out to sea. From there it’s Humans vs. Shark until the credits roll.

Shark Bait uses a bunch of the most common horror tropes. A girl shows her breasts therefore must die because The Whores Must Be Punished! in one of horror’s more misogynist premises. No clear and obvious solutions can be pursued like: turn the other jetski over and see if it works or tie them together for a larger surface. There is even a Final Girl who develops Final Girl Skills out of nowhere, perhaps from her purity ring. 

Shark Bait also deploys the silliest part of all shark attack movies in that the filmmakers never think to ask: can sharks actually do all this? Can one adult great white shark eat five adult humans over 24 hours? Not even if it was the shark Joey Chestnut. Do great white sharks pursue speedy prey over long distances? Also no. A few species of sharks on very rare occasions, do kill and eat people. It’s hard to imagine going through something that horrible and terrifying. Yet, somehow, filmmakers do not understand that being eaten by a shark is horrible and terrifying so they have to exaggerate the shark’s capabilities to create something monstrous in its place. Less of an issue but still a scientific puzzle is: where are the remoras? You’d think in one of these shark attack movies there would be a couple of remoras scooping up people crumbs from the sharks but, nope.

Shark Bait is well shot and paced but weighed down by a bad script. The story is thematically bad, full of cliches, and odd decision making, and has British phraseology that sounds off through American accents. Usually American accents anyway. All of the actors drop their accents at some point, usually while yelling. The performances were fine, especially Cat Hannay, but sometimes it was pretty obvious that there were some gaps in their White American Non-Regional Diction practice. And really, if they had been bad actors it wouldn’t have changed all that much. There’s only so many different techniques you can use to shovel cliches. All in all, a run of the mill shark attack movie where you root for the shark a little more than in most others. Because tourists are awful.