When Jaws blew the record for movie attendance sky high in 1975, it did more than usher in the era of the summer blockbuster. It also fueled a stampede of killer shark copy cat films, with creators who were dreaming of some sweet easy money.
Spielberg's film still holds up today, and acted as a template for blockbuster films for decades. It's actually an improvement on the Peter Benchley novel the movie was based on, and earned $7 million during its opening weekend - an enormous amount of money for the time. For the next several years the world went crazy over sharks, and needless to say, there were low rent imitators eager to shake out a few bucks with their own coattail-riding rip off films.
And there were a lot of them. In fact, I have actively sought out obscure horror and exploitation films for decades, and I still occasionally run across an old, low budget imitator of Jaws that I didn't know about. Filmmakers all over the world were gleefully churning out these water-based monster tales, sometimes using a shark (or sharks) as the baddies, and others substituting a different fish or mutated sea beast in the role of "People Eater Número Uno." There were also plenty of films that borrowed the basic formula and plot, but transferred the action onto dry land. Some of those are fun also.
With the Discovery Channel's annual Shark Week almost upon us it seems fitting to take a closer look at a few of these films, and to bask in the cheap thrills and sheer awfulness of some of them.
8. Tentacles (1977)
Tentacles was a jointly produced American-Italian film, during a time period when such collaborations usually resulted in some gloriously terrible horror and exploitation films. Unsurprisingly, this Jaws rip off uses a monstrous octopus that's using a seaside resort as its all you can eat human buffet. Of course, there's a marine expert and investigative reporter who discover that a morally bankrupt company has been zapping the water with high levels of radio waves, inciting the huge cephalopod into his murderous feeding frenzy.
What is surprising are the generally decent production qualities. Tentacles is a bad movie, but it doesn't look as horrible as one might expect. Somehow this film also managed to snare respected actors too. Both John Huston and Henry Fonda (yes, Fonda, I had to double check to make sure it wasn't "Fondu" the first time I saw the name scroll by) are in this flick. They must have needed some quick money for a car payment or something.
7. Great White (1981)
The Italians were responsible for this shameless plagiarism of Jaws and Jaws 2, which managed to earn a respectful $18 million during its brief theatrical run in the United States. It may have done even bigger business here, had it not been successfully sued by Universal Pictures, and pulled from theaters. B movie regular Vic Morrow stars in this one, which stole the basic plot of Jaws, as well as entire scenes from both it and Jaws 2. Long only available as a bootleg, it's worth digging up if you can find it, if for no other reason to enjoy just how shameless Italian exploitation film makers were when it came to "borrowing" ideas from successful films.6. Orca (1977)
I saw this one in the theater as a kid, and remember being bored by it. But I saw it again a few years later, and while it didn't knock my socks off, the film has a few good things going for it. It's got a cool soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and starred Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling, so the talent was there. "Orca" was produced by Dino De Laurentiis, who was also responsible for the previous year's excruciatingly bad remake of "King Kong", so bear that in mind. The 1970s popularized "nature gone berserk" films, and this one is equal parts that and Jaws copycat.
Reportedly, after seeing Jaws, De Laurentiis issued the command to "Find a fish tougher and more terrible than a great white", which failed since a Killer Whale is a mammal and not a fish, but I guess they were looking for a formidable ocean predator.
The film is really a revenge flick that borrows heavily from the Jaws format. The orca in question basically seeks vengeance against a sea captain that kills its mate and babies. This was a big budget film and the production values show it, but the film is still somewhat of a snore fest in my opinion.
5. Barracuda (1978)
This low budget killer fish epic, shot in Florida, begins as most do, with a couple of scuba divers being attacked and killed by something in the water. Enter a nosy marine biologist that thinks the local chemical company is to blame for dumping waste in the water, and you have a pretty good idea what to expect. Also expect live footage of barracudas intermixed with obvious puppet attacks, and some really odd and funny dialogue and plot points.
Spoiler alert: The chemicals being dumped into the water make barracudas hypoglycemic. which results in them being moody and angry. The townspeople begin to exhibit this weird behavior from drinking water, and there's a goofy evil government subplot too. Lots of fun and fail on display in this one.
I can honestly say this is the only horror film I've ever seen where hypoglycemia is the reason for everything going haywire.
4. Devil Fish A.K.A Monster Shark (1984)
The Italians were up to their cinematic tricks again with this one. And once again, a local tourist resort area in Florida is being stalked by some sort of human eating water beastie. This time the creature in question is a genetically altered mutation of an octopus and a prehistoric water predator, so lots of not very convincing tentacled attacks are on display in this film.
The scientist protagonists must battle their evil government project peers (the guys responsible for the mutated octoshark) and the creature eats most of them before being dispatched at the end of the movie by flame-throwers.
This is an awful film, but pretty enjoyable if you're a fan of awful movies.
3. Grizzly (1976)
This one moves onto dry land, but it is very obviously a Jaws copycat from the get-go. Set in a national forest, a couple of female hikers are bloodily attacked and killed by a huge bear at the beginning of the film.
As per usual, the park's corrupt supervisor scoffs at the idea of closing the park. Who knew that closing a national park down for a couple of days was such a big deal? The movie has many direct parallels with Jaws including the supervisor's reluctance to close down the park and the Chief Ranger's (played by veteran bad movie actor Christopher George) inexperience with bears, which leads him to recruit a Brody-like naturalist character for help.
The bear is supposed to be a 16-foot monster, and is killed in Jaws fashion with a bazooka. This is not a good film.
2. Alligator (1980)
This movie is a pretty fun ride, and benefits from a liberal dose of satirizing these types of films. Several years after a pet baby alligator is flushed down a toilet, he grows to full on monster proportions in the city sewers, having fed for years on the dumped carcasses of lab test animals that were dosed with growth hormones.
Expectedly, the giant gator begins to dine on sewer workers and other folks, while a few familiar plot devices borrowed from Jaws are trotted out.
The special effects aren't great, but are pretty decent, and the film is equal parts funny and scary, making it worth seeking out.
1. Piranha (1978)
This killer fish film was called "the best of the Jaws ripoffs" by Steven Spielberg himself, and for good reason. It was produced by Roger Cormam, directed by Joe Dante, and is somewhat of a parody of the Jaws formula.
Most of the film was also shot at the legendary Aquarena Springs water resort which was located in New Braunfels, Texas at the time, giving the film a fun connection to this state.
There are lots of actors that regularly appeared in Roger Corman films, including Dick Miller and Paul Bartel, and Piranha is among the best of the Corman-produced movies.
The film begins with a young couple breaking into an abandoned complex located on a mountain they're hiking on, and then skinny dipping in what they think is a swimming pool of some kind. Bad idea, as they're quickly devoured by something in the water. Investigators drain the pool, accidentally releasing what turns out to be a military experiment - genetically altered piranha that can live in fresh or salt water - into a nearby river.
As the piranha head downstream, eating people along the way, the team of good guys realize they're heading straight for Lost River Water Park and Summer Camp, where they eventually make a smorgasbord of kids and councilors during a swimming marathon. After that snack, the still hungry piranha head straight towards Aquarena Springs, on its opening day.
After thwarting the piranha menace by releasing industrial chemicals, the threat is apparently over, and the film ends with a shot of a peaceful beach. Then the tell-tale sound that indicates a piranha presence begins again, giving the viewer one of those "The End?" Moments.
A combination of OK effects, good directing, and competent acting places Piranha above almost all of the other Jaws copycats, and makes it a fun B movie in its own right. Definitely worth looking for, especially for people that remember Aquarena Springs.
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