Before the ’70s, before such expose oriented shows as The Crocodile Hunter and channels like Animal Planet, natural evil had to settle for something a bit less…sensational. Efforts like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and individuals such as Jacques Cousteau loved the wild, both above and below the surface of the sea, and treated their potentially scary subjects with dignity and grace. All of that changed when a young upstart from the Universal talent pool was handed the bestselling novel by Peter Benchley entitled Jaws. Hoping to make a name for himself, Steven Spielberg struggled mightily against many odds to turn this potboiler page-turner into a true fright flick. The results became a genre classic, and one of the first examples of the soon to be bragged over ‘blockbusters.’
Since then, sharks have gotten the short end of the cinematic stick. Usually reserved for slapdash schlock or SyFy mash-up originals, the finned fiend of the briny deep doesn’t get a lot of respect. So hot on the heels of the home video release for another, somewhat novel take on the razor-toothed reaper (Bait-3D is now available on demand and on Blu-ray and DVD) we offer this overview of the 10 Best Shark Films ever. That being said, there are a few critical caveats. First off, we are dealing with a subject that’s been featured in dozens of offerings. We couldn’t see every one, so these are our best selections among the movies we know. Second, we’ll argue that even a bad shark movie is “good” (if only in ways that will torment your personal taste). Finally, as we always say, this is not definitive. Instead, it’s an overview, a way of celebrating the maneater in all his gore glutton glory. Let’s begin with something we just mentioned a moment ago:
This movie boasts a terrific premise — a group of shoppers in an Australian market are trapped by a freak tsunami, resulting in a waterlogged establishment nand a killer shark on the prowl — and some decent special effects. It also asks us to suspend so much of our already taxed disbelief that the result feels a tad forced? Still, any film which features a group of groaning victims fodder balancing precariously on produce shelves to avoid a mad man-eater can’t be all bad, right? Luckily, Bait braves its faults to find a nice balance between scary and stupid.
9. Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus
Speaking of scary vs. stupid, this is one of the greatest guilty pleasures of all time. As usual, science screws things up when an experiment on whales goes awry, resulting in a cracked glacier and the release of the title titans. As they battle it out to see whose mean will reign supreme, the aforementioned scholars strut around, looking perplexed. With some unbelievably daft F/X and a cast which includes former ’80s chanteuse Debbie Gibson and ex-heartthrob Lorenzo Lamas, this is an unadulterated cheese factory masquerading as a sci-fi thriller. The result is gloriously goofy.
8. The Last Shark
Bet you didn’t know that there’s a version of Jaws out there starring James Franciscus and Vic Morrow. That’s exactly what this near shot for shot remake of the Spielberg classic by Italian rip-off artists is. The coastal town of Port Harbor is suddenly the scene of numerous shark attacks, but the tourism oriented major wants little done about it. Enter our aforementioned “stars”, the former playing an aquatic expert, the other an old sea salt who has a vendetta against Great Whites. Even the final act features an exploding maneater. Too funny and familiar.
Sometimes, like in the case of The Last Shark, the homage are so obvious as to warrant a case of copyright infringement. In other instances, the subterfuge is more subtle. Take this Rene Cardona Jr. epic, which seems far more concerned about softcore sexcapades than anything having to do with marine life. Yes, we get standard “don’t go in the water” warnings, but a caution against catching indirect STDs would be far franker. In fact, is seems like Cardona was more interested in bed hopping than shark hunting, considering how naked the cast is most of the time.
Cardona again, and one year after watching his actors drop blouses, trousers, and all sense of decorum with Tintorera. Here, a plane crashes with a ragtag group of irritants onboard. They seek refuge on a tiny boat, where cannibalism becomes the only means of survival (which makes sense, since Cardona is perhaps most infamous for his take on the true life horrors of the famed non-fiction book, Alive). Eventually, a rescue comes and so do the sea creatures. Hammy, hilarious, and hindered by the typical issues involved in any indirect rip-off.
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5. Mako: The Jaws of Death
Exploitation king William Grefe (Stanley, Death Curse of Tartu) decided to jump on the post-popcorn hit Jaws bandwagon by delivering his typical pro-ecology, anti-man rant. In this case, Richard Jaeckel learns that he has a deep karmic connection with sharks, and thanks to a medallion given to him by a shaman, can control their killer instincts. He then sets out to get revenge on anyone who has wronged his oceanic BFFs. Have no fear, Spielberg and company were safe. Grefe had his ideas about how to take advantage of the new finned hysteria.
4. Blue Water, White Death
Before Jaws turned great whites into cultural talking points, this terrific documentary by Peter Gimbel (whose crew eventually helped Spielberg out with his ode to swimming with bow legged women) highlighted the import of this creature to our current ocean environment. With amazing footage that captures these creatures in their natural, nasty habitat, the effort shed light on the animal’s by now characteristic traits. While the making-of material fills out a bit too much of the running time, the shark material more than makes up for it. It’s suspenseful and superb.
3. Deep Blue Sea
Imagine Jaws on steroids with a cheekier sense of humor and you have this outrageous excuse for b-movie fun. Genetically altered sharks (made smarter as a means of combating Alzheimer’s disease?!?) go gonzo in and around an underwater lab that also happens to be in the direct line of an oncoming hurricane. Your typical cast of character studs (including a destined to be classic Samuel L. Jackson and L. L. Cool J) battle the bad fish by any means necessary, including chewing the scenery. One of the last great ones from action ace Renny Harlin.
2. Open Water
When The Blair Witch Project proved that almost any subject could be “reinvented” via the found footage ideal, a lot of filmmakers tried their hand at the creative conceit. Few succeeded outright, though. This was the rare exception, a movie, while not 100% in the first person POV style, that used a true story and a startling “you are there” approach to place the viewer in the position of a stranded scuba diver. Left behind by their tour boat, our couple wonders how things could get worse. When they see the first dorsal fin split the surface, they have their answer.
It’s one of the classic films in any genre, a work of wild invention that takes a typical monster movie trope and reinvests it with a kind of excitement and urgency rarely seen in the ’70s… or now, even. It marked the arrival of one of the great filmmakers of the 20th century and still manages that rare Psycho-like feat of making one instantly afraid of the water even decades later. While some of its elements are starting to show their age, the final result flies higher than any celluloid skyrocket. Terrific and terrifying.