What’s the greatest killer shark movie of all time? Jaws (1975) of course, and no one has ever disputed it. Try ranking number 2 through 114 however, and everyone has a different answer. Most folks will quickly marry Jaws 2 (’78) to its predecessor and follow up with the usual (and good, without question) suspects: Deep Blue Sea (1999), The Shallows (2016), etcetera and so on. Just make sure you put Jaws: The Revenge (’87) last, okay? Or don’t; as we all know, at the very least it bought Michael Caine a nice house and had Mario Van Peebles trot out a gratuitous Jamaican accent as a Bahamian diver. Speaking of gratuitous (in regards to accents and all other matters), let’s take a look at Great White (1981), my favorite Jaws movie that I can’t call Jaws for fear Universal will sue or shut me down. (Pick the latter, boys; I’m old and broke.)
Released in its native Italy in April, with a world wide rollout leading to it washing up on North American shores in March of ’82, Great White (AKA The Last Shark, The Last Jaws, The Last Mimzy) was a big hit; so big in fact that the lawyers at Universal balked at the um, similarities, and had it removed from theatres after a month (they were also trying to get their own sequel spoof Jaws 3, People 0 off the ground). Not before it raked in a reported $18 million however; Film Ventures International simply could not compete with Hollywood bank and were forced to pull the film. Understandable at the time, yes; but it’s a shame now that Universal won’t release their grip and let someone put this out. (Just pretend it’s fan fiction!)
See if this shakes any familiar buoys: We open with a windsurfer named Mike hitting the waters of the seaside resort Port Harbor over the opening credits, until a shark attack offers him an immediate lack of life. Mike’s friends, including Jenny (Stephania Girolami – 1990: The Bronx Warriors), hit the seas to find him, but alas, they come up empty. Not so local salt Ron Hamer (Vic Morrow – Humanoids from the Deep), who comes across a good chunk of Mike’s board and shows it to Jenny’s dad, local author Peter Benton (James Franciscus – The Cat o’ Nine Tails), and they both agree the half eaten object was decimated by a shark, and a big one at that.
Off they go to see Mayor William Wells (Joshua Sinclair – also 1990) who sympathizes with the pair, but not enough to stop him from hosting the annual Regatta in a few days. (He’s also running for governor, but I’m sure you assumed that, right?) So, security measures are taken, but our fine finned friend manages to chew through the outlining fences and chow down on unsuspecting teens and their wind powered machines. Deciding it’s perhaps a better idea to kill the beast instead of caging it, Peter and Ron hop aboard for a three hour tour into terror…
If you’re thinking that Great White is an exact mixture of Jaws and Jaws 2, you’re exactly right. And it isn’t subtle about it, at all; this isn’t tribute or homage, no winks or nods or hat tips to one of the best horror films of all time and its fine sequel. Great White goes out of its way to appropriate several key elements of the two: the structure and character dynamics (minus a Dreyfuss substitute), the big race with the teens, money over humanity, and the pursuit of the great grey killer. It’s all here, less about half an hour of frivolous material like character development and suspenseful buildup. Having said that, in the hands of director Enzo G. Castellari (The Inglorious Bastards), the film offers up so many idiosyncratic Italian pleasures you’ll hardly notice anything missing.
So you love Jaws, but wish it had a little more chum in the water? May I interest you in a severed limb or two? Perhaps a bisection? How about a boat blasted twenty feet in the air with a passenger on board or, in the film’s greatest moment, a man torn in half while clinging to a helicopter? It’s all here and more in a film that plays like the greatest hits of a band that doesn’t exist. (Oh, and this shark’s theme sounds like a disco rock version of 9 to 5.)
Great White is nothing but set pieces; carried off with a competence and confidence by Castellari (it’s far from the worst made shark movie), I think it honestly believes it’s trimming the fat from a film that possesses none. It’s wonderfully charming to think that Jaws could be more involving or tightened up. This is the Italian way though, yes? The film plays like Seth Brundle’s telepod steak; an incredible simulation, yet tastes kind of funky.
But that’s what I get the most from Italian horror; this interpretation of British and North American themes filtered through a sensibility not lost in translation, but rather found in a place just left of normal. (With home court advantage for Gialli, of course.) Weird is where the fun hangs.
Speaking of fun, Franciscus trots out his Heston-esque presence to solid effect (although his lockjaw has me worried that the tetanus shot budget on this production was nil); for fun and weird, look no further than Morrow’s personal telepod interpretation of Quint as Rod Hamer. Morrow gives his particular seafarer a thick and muddied Scottish brogue, and he snorts up and rolls out every R he can lay his hands on to the point that Groundskeeper Willie would give him side eye. He’s a blast in the role, and it’s nice to see the late actor play a grrreat guy for a change.
At its core, Jaws is nothing more than Fish Eats Man, Man Chases Fish. This isn’t a dismissal; just a summation of its essence. It’s a simple tale, told with remarkable skill and sympathy, and is pretty much unimpeachable. Every other shark movie follows this template with variations in story and levels of talent. Great White skips the variations, throttles back on the talent, and trolls the waters with the crew mooning the beachgoers as they pass the shore. My plea to Universal is this: Release Great White from its watery tomb and I promise to bump Jaws: The Revenge up the rankings. To at least 110.
Great White is available for streaming on Amazon Prime as The Last Shark.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: SILENT MADNESS (1984)