As difficult as it is to be a slasher fanatic (particularly nowadays–eek), it’s even harder being obsessed with sharksploitation. I mean, there are very few movies to which the label truly applies. Namely: Jaws. Almost every other shark-based horror movie that isn’t Jaws is trying (and failing) to be Jaws and, as a result, there’s a lot of cringeworthy imposters out there. However, there are a few notable exceptions to this rule.
When risks are taken, as with Sand Sharks, Swamp Shark, Sharktopus, and, naturally, the mighty Sharknado quadrilogy, scares and tension are swapped out for slapstick humour, cringe-worthy visual effects and a barely-there premise that exists purely to sell the idea of a shark being present. Over the years, we’ve been subjected to many such hybrid beasties and wannabes, the quality dipping more and more as time drags on.
Hell, even lesser attempts, such as Shark Night and Bait (both, inexplicably, presented in 3D) are a step above the current crop of CGI bludgeoning. Scattered among them are gems such as Open Water, The Reef, and cult classic Deep Blue Sea. What these flicks have in common, and what puts them over as great sharksploitation as opposed to cheap, attention-grabbing shlock that happens to feature sharks are; mostly believable-looking creatures, characters we care about in peril, and some cracking, Jaws-ripoff scares.
Great shark-based horror movies need scary sharks and people we can worry about being eaten by those same scary sharks. If it’s just a hail of toothy animals chomping at unsuspecting celebrity cameos (as with the Sharknado movies), it gets boring pretty quickly.
This year saw the long-anticipated release of The Shallows, the Blake Lively-starring sharksploitation thriller being heralded by critics as a fun, gory little B-movie that’s actually worth your hard-earned cash. In a world where sharks seemingly pop up everywhere, from swamps to sand to pools (R.L. Stine’s Haunting Hour), that we can even still be scared by sharks (in a well-executed picture) is amazing.
The premise in The Shallows is fairly simple: Lively’s character, Nancy, a med student considering dropping out of her program after the loss of her mother, goes surfing at an isolated beach in Mexico and gets stranded on a piece of rock with a hungry Great White circling.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra, heretofore known for generic actioners such as Non Stop, keeps Nancy front and centre throughout, her resourcefulness juxtaposed against the drive of the bloodthirsty, prehistoric predator bobbing below. He milks it for less than 90 minutes, which is the perfect length for this kind of movie. Any longer and we’d start to question it too much.
The Shallows is so tense, so fun, so gory–it boasts one of the coolest and most horrifying reveals in sharksploitation history–it’s almost up there with Spielberg’s seminal shocker which, it must be noted, took a good two hours to establish its central conceit. This flick gets to the business quickly, and effectively, learning lessons from Jaws while also establishing its own ruthlessly modern identity.
Less successful, but no less ambitious, is In The Deep (AKA 47 Meters Down), British filmmaker Johannes Roberts’s (The Other Side Of The Door) take on the sub-genre, which strands two sisters in a cage at the bottom of the ocean, with hungry sharks circling.
Roberts doesn’t have quite the same tenacity as Collet-Sera, and he’s a little bit too scared to really get his hands dirty, but the setting allows for several, well-placed, shark-based jump scares that unfold in the dark, endless expanse of the ocean. And, in spite of a ludicrous final act reveal, it’s never quite clear who’s going to survive.
Again, a woman is front and centre, this time Mandy Moore’s straitlaced Lisa, who’s trying to prove her ex-boyfriend wrong and putting her life at risk in the process. Although not nearly as brave as Nancy, Lisa is another noteworthy heroine. It’s easy to get behind her and easy to root for her survival.
In The Deep isn’t nearly as involving, or thrilling, as The Shallows but what both movies have in common is a reliance on the old-school Jaws aesthetic. The emphasis is on danger, the sharks are presented as cold-blooded killers, (as opposed to being punchlines), and they feed and feed and feed throughout.
They’re scary, and the characters are (rightfully) scared of them. When Brooke Hogan is afraid to step onto the beach in Sand Sharks, or a shark flies through the air in Sharknado, there’s no real sense of impending doom. This is partly because the characters therein are so thinly-drawn we don’t care if they live or die. Not to mention, the sharks themselves are so crudely rendered as to make them utterly unbelievable as villains in their own right.
Both The Shallows and In The Deep boast well-considered, realistic-looking creatures. They’re not perfect, and they still don’t move quite as smoothly as they should, but their teeth are sharp, their eyes cold and black and their form impressively massive. In fact, one of the best shots in The Shallows sees just the outline of the shark. When the premise is this strong, all it takes is a shadow.
Although In The Deep limped on to DVD in the States, with no UK release to date, the popularity of The Shallows on both sides of the pond should draw more attention to it, and others like it, soon enough. This begs the question, though, are we in the midst of a new era for sharksploitation? Two movies might not seem like much, but it’s been years since sharks were scary. Even longer since they thrashed their way into multiplexes.
In this world of Sharknado-focused nonsense, is the tide finally turning in favour of real, scary, shark-based pictures? For those of us who have been hoping for the next Jaws, and the nightmares it gave us, since we were kids, it’s an enticing prospect.