From Jaws to Sharknado and The Meg: the hilarious history of the shark movie
Laughs, fear, thrills… the scary shark movie is a genre of its own, says Ryan Gilbey – often quite a silly one
“A relationship, I think, is like a shark,” says Woody Allen in Annie Hall. “It has to constantly move forward or it dies.” The shark movie, though, seems not to suffer that problem.
Yes, it has grown bigger and nastier in the 43 years since Jaws. We’ve met aspiring vegetarian sharks in Finding Nemo, and the willfully absurd Sharknado series has made the creatures airborne, space-bound and radioactive. (In a distressing development, Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! even featured a cameo from Jedward.)
You’d be hard-pressed to argue that the genre had advanced, but neither has it “jumped the shark”, to apply the phrase used to nail that moment when a cultural enterprise turns irredeemably bad (spawned by an episode of Happy Days in which the Fonz, in trunks and leather jacket, water-skis over a shark).
No matter how low it sinks, the shark movie is immune to its critics’ harpoons. This month, cinemas will again welcome a formidable, remorseless monster to the screen. He’s Jason Statham, and in The Meg (in cinemas from Friday 10 August) he’s battling a mighty, 75ft Megalodon, a creature thought to have become extinct two million years ago, with an 8ft fin and five rows of enormous teeth.
The makers of this adaptation of Steve Alten’s 1997 Meg: a Novel of Deep Terror – described by one wag as “Jurassic Shark” – spent a year developing the design of the “meg”.
And if the movies’ reigning hardnut Statham – a former diver who competed for England at the 1990 Commonwealth Games – can’t defeat it, there’s only one option: we’ll need a bigger bloke.
Prior to 1975, the shark was merely a bit-player that bit people. It featured in documentaries (Blue Water, White Death in 1971) and was name-checked in the title of ripping yarns such as 1958 Roger Corman B-movie She Gods of Shark Reef and Samuel Fuller’s 1969 Shark!, starring Burt Reynolds, whose poster bragged of a genuine behind-the-scenes horror: “Suddenly, while shooting, a huge white shark turned on a stuntman and mangled its victim!”
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With the release of Jaws in 1975, the shark moved centre stage. It’s well known that the film’s production was a disaster – the young director, Steven Spielberg, was lumbered with a malfunctioning mechanical shark he called “Bruce” (after his lawyer) and later “the great white turd”.
But necessity proved to be the mother of invention: unable to show the monster as often or as explicitly as he’d planned, Spielberg used insinuation and dread to chilling effect. “The film went from a Japanese Saturday-matinee horror flick to more of a Hitchcock, the less-you-see-the-more-you-get thriller,” he said.
A flood of sharp-toothed imitators, few observing Spielberg’s less-is-more maxim, appeared in its wake. Italy was especially quick to exploit oceanmania. In 1977, Dino DeLaurentiis executive produced Orca, starring Richard Harris as a fisherman pursued by a killer whale with a grudge.
From the same shores came Shark’s Cave (1978), set in the Bermuda Triangle, and The Shark Hunter (1979) with Franco Nero; while a shark confronted the undead in Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), from splatter maestro Lucio Fulci. Never slow to get into bed with a trend, the adult film industry rushed out two spoofs: Gums and Deep Jaws.
Spielberg passed on directing Jaws 2 (1978), the first of three increasingly laughable sequels, but began his wartime comedy 1941 the following year with a self-parody: Susan Backlinie, the skinny-dipper savaged at the start of Jaws, here has her nocturnal swim curtailed by a U-boat to John Williams’s dur-dum riff.
Even watching TV in the late 70s wouldn’t have offered selachophobes any comfort: sharks were a regular fixture in the Pink Panther cartoon series and Hanna-Barbera’s Jabberjaw, while a docile-looking specimen “menaced” Steve Austin in The Six Million Dollar Man.
The short-lived British comic Action had a strip called Hook Jaw. Smart directors realised that competing with Spielberg could leave you dead in the water.
Better to go silly than scary: hence the trashy mutant monster movies Piranha (1978) and Alligator (1980), directed by Corman acolytes Joe Dante and Lewis Teague respectively.
Despite the occasional effective chiller such as 2004’s Open Water, it seems a sense of humour is the best buoyancy aid for today’s shark movies, as shown by the cultish fondness for the Mega Shark and Sharknado franchises.
National Geographic magazine reassured its readers in 2013 that, contrary to the scenario depicted in Sharknado, tornadoes are too weak as they pass over water to lift sharks from the ocean. Phew.
Our love of a Jaws-with-guffaws helps to explain the deserved popularity of 1999’s Deep Blue Sea, ironically swarming with genetically engineered sharks. You want daft? Here’s LL Cool J hiding in an oven in an underwater laboratory to escape a superintelligent Mako shark, only for the canny predator to switch it on.
The Meg has been smart to keep its audiences laughing amid the horror – as in Sharknado 5: Global Swarming (“Make America Bait Again!”) and the imminent The Last Sharknado: It’s about Time, featuring time-travelling sharks.
There’s only one word to close any discussion of shark movies, one that has brought countless French films to an end: FIN.
By Ryan Gilbey