Photo: Vulture, Lionsgate, Columbia Pictures, and Warner Bros.
Any hit movie is bound to inspire imitators, but few have inspired as many as Jaws. That’s bound to happen when you’re not just one of the most successful movies of all time, but also the movie that invented the modern blockbuster. The years after Jaws conquered the box office in 1975 saw an onslaught of man-versus-killer-animal films like Tentacles (killer octopus), Piranha (killer fish), Grizzly (killer bear), Alligator (killer ’gator), and Orca (killer killer whale). Others were even less coy about trying to play Jaws’ game and decided to go with a killer shark. It worked once, right, so why couldn’t it work again?
Though there were films about sharks prior to Jaws, the shark film as a subgenre effectively begins with Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece. Since then, the shark movie has had its ups and downs in popularity. It’s also undergone some curious mutations. The subgenre has, at its best, found ways to step away from its inspiration, and this century has produced some truly compelling, thrilling spins on the form.
That said, there’s something to be said for a cheesy shark movie, even the ones that are little more than Jaws rip-offs. So with this weekend’s release of 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, we decided to take stock of the genre. The following list begins in so-bad-it’s-good territory and ends with some genuinely scary confrontations with the perfect engines, the eating machines, the miracles of evolution that swim and eat and make little sharks (to paraphrase a movie not on this list that still looms large over every entry). One ground rule: To qualify, a film had to have a theatrical release, even if it’s just a token special screening (a loophole that allowed for the inclusion of this decade’s most influential shark movie). So let’s get started. Hopefully you’re not reading this on your phone at the beach.
Few Jaws rip-offs are quite as bald-faced in their theft as Great White, an Italian production directed by Enzo G. Castellari. Now best known for directing the 1978 World War II movie The Inglorious Bastards, which lent its title and little else to a later Quentin Tarantino film, Castellari borrowed so liberally from Jaws that Universal Pictures successfully had it pulled from theaters midway through its U.S. release in 1982. Not only does Great White feature an exploding shark in its finale, its characters include a bestselling author and shark expert named Peter Benton (a nod to Jaws author Peter Benchley, played by James Franciscus) and a crusty old salt modeled after Robert Shaw’s Quint played in a note-by-note imitation of Shaw’s performance by Vic Morrow (a great actor who theoretically ought to have known better). It’s a fun watch, however, in large part to see just how far Castellari pushes his plagiarism. Universal seemed to feel otherwise as recently as 2008, when it barred Los Angeles’ New Beverly from programming the film as part of a Castellari double bill, but the movie has since become available under the title The Last Shark on streaming services and DVD, and has served as fodder for an installment of RiffTrax. (Available on Amazon Prime Video)
One of the strangest Jaws-inspired films belongs to the official franchise. Released to puzzled audiences in 1987, Jaws: The Revenge picks up a few dangling strands from the previous films by following Ellen Brody (Lorraine Grady), now the widow of Roy Scheider’s police chief, as she confronts a great white apparently determined to take revenge on her family. After killing Ellen’s youngest son, who’d taken over his dad’s old job on Amity Island, the vengeful shark seemingly follows her all the way down the Bahamas. Could the shark be linked to her via some kind of psychic connection? Strangely, ridiculously, yes. Ellen’s allies in her fight against the shark include a pilot named Hoagie (Michael Caine) and Mario Van Peebles attempting a Bahaman accent. It all culminates in an ending so confusing and anti-climactic that Universal reshot it before releasing the film in Europe. The new version is not much of an improvement, which is to say it does little to make the film less unintentionally hilarious. (Available on HBO Max)
When is a shark movie not really a shark movie? When it’s Tintorera… Tiger Shark, a borderline soft-porn film from Mexico that only occasionally remembers it’s supposed to be ripping off Jaws between scenes of moonlit skinny-dipping and languorous lovemaking. Directed by René Cardona Jr., the film’s plot eventually coalesces into the story of a ménage à trois centered around Gabriella (Straw Dogs’ Susan George) and a pair of men who decide to share her affection. They squabble and bed each other in beautiful seaside surroundings. Cardona makes sure to leave in abundant amounts of male and female nudity and, oh yeah, they also fight sharks. Once in a while, at least. It’s an incredibly silly film but features some remarkable underwater footage soured only — and this is no small sticking point — by images of actual shark slaughter. (Available to purchase on DVD on Amazon)
Fortunately, there’s no chance any sharks were harmed in making Sharknado. Produced by The Asylum, the low-budget production company best known for “mockbusters” like Transmorphers and Triassic World, it became an unexpected sensation when it aired on Syfy in 2013 (leading to a one-night theatrical release). Filled with seen-better-days stars like Ian Ziering and Tara Reid, and dashed-off CGI sharks, it answers the question no one had been asking: What if a freak tornado dropped hundreds of sharks on a flooded Los Angeles? The resulting chaos provides a lot of tongue-in-cheek fun that has (so far) inspired three sequels (starting with the brilliantly titled Sharknado 2: The Second One). The Asylum had been playing around with shark movies for a while, via films like 2-Headed Shark Attack (which produced sequential sequels up to 6-Headed Shark Attack) but Sharknado opened the floodgates for low-budget shark movies both within the studio and among Asylum’s rivals, all attempting to up the ante via films like Ice Sharks, Sharkenstein, and Planet of the Sharks. None try particularly hard to be good in any traditional sense, but they do attempt to deliver on the promise of their outrageous titles. (Available on Amazon Prime Video)
Though not technically a shark movie, there’s no way not to include Lucio Fulci’s Italian film Zombie (a.k.a. Zombi 2, to suggest incorrectly it was a sequel to Dawn of the Dead, which had been released in Italy under the name Zombi). Why? Because of one scene in which a zombie fights a shark. Fulci wanted nothing to do with it but his producer loved Tintorera… Tiger Shark and arranged for a scene in which underwater photographer Ramón Bravo, in full zombie makeup, does battle with a shark that rips his arm off (which doesn’t seem to bother the zombie all that much). The scene has had its own second life as a much-watched YouTube clip, even turning up in a Windows 7 commercial in 2010. (Available on Hulu)
To call Jaws 2 the best of the Jaws sequels risks damning it with faint praise. While the movie reveals how much Steven Spielberg brought to the original Jaws, director Jeannot Szwarc delivers a serviceable retread of the original. Scheider returns as Amity Island’s beleaguered police chief, a man still forced to work with Murray Hamilton’s craven mayor, who’s somehow kept his job after keeping the beaches open during the last shark attack. Scheider brings some much-needed gravity to the film, which is highlighted by a memorable new development: a great white attacking a helicopter. (Available on HBO Max)
Not all low-budget shark movies have to use cheap CGI effects to make an impression. In The Reef, Australian director Andrew Traucki drops a group of tourists on a yacht en route to Indonesia, then watches what happens when their boat capsizes and they debate whether to state and wait for an unlikely rescue in the middle of the ocean or try to swim to an island a dozen miles away. Complicating matters: They’re in shark-infested waters, and one character’s early observation that “you’re more likely to die of a bee sting than get killed by a shark” doesn’t provide much comfort. Traucki cleverly combines shots of his actors with real shark footage, and while the seams can’t help but show once in a while, his cast’s mounting terror helps sell the illusion. A brisk, no-frills, but highly effective thriller, it works in part by capturing the terror of being defenseless in the middle of the ocean (much like another film a little higher on the list). (Available on Amazon Prime Video)
A Chinese-American co-production directed by Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure), The Meg may be the best example of a movie carefully engineered to play for a global audience. The international cast includes, among others, a British action star (Jason Statham), a Chinese multi-hyphenate (Li Bingbing), and an American sitcom veteran (Rainn Wilson), but more importantly, a giant shark translates easily into any language. And The Meg doesn’t just feature any kind of giant shark. It pits its cast against a reawakened megalodon, a prehistoric monster previously believed to be extinct that has carried on existing in the deepest regions of the ocean, happily staying away from the surface world and humanity. But all that changes when a probe goes too far, sending the megalodon to the surface in search of fresh prey. A fairly bloodless film, The Meg barely earns its PG-13 rating, but Statham keeps it fun and the giant-shark effects go a long way. Some of the most memorable images juxtapose the megalodon against normal-sized sharks, making them look puny by comparison. Why worry about a great white when there’s a shark the size of a semi making the rounds? (Available to rent on Amazon)
Can one scene make a movie great? If any movie proves that it’s Renny Harlin’s 1999 thriller in which a motley crew stranded in a marine-biology lab are forced to match wits with sharks genetically engineered to be smarter than the average man-eater. Harlin leads a wet all-star cast that includes Stellan Skarsgard and LL Cool J through some memorable shark encounters, but it’s Samuel L. Jackson’s big scene laying out just how much danger they’re in and the formidability of their finned opponents that makes it so memorable. If you’ve seen the scene, you know why the moment works so well. If you haven’t, do yourself a favor and give the movie a look. It never quite reaches a point that high again, but few movies do. (Available on Hulu)
When sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) decide to spice up their Mexican vacation with a little scuba diving, what could go wrong? Sure, Lisa doesn’t really know what she’s doing, the dive includes being submerged in a cage, and the sketchy tour guides (who include Matthew Modine) chum the waters to attract sharks to make the experience more interesting. But they’ll be safe, won’t they? It’s the smallest possible spoiler to say no, they won’t be — particularly once the chain to their diving cage breaks, sending the sisters (you guessed it) 47 meters down to the bottom of the ocean. Johannes Roberts’s film is not for claustrophobes, or at least not for claustrophobes unwilling to confront their worst nightmares. Even without sharks circling, Lisa and Kate have to contend with a diminishing oxygen supply, a cage that’s become a trap, and decompression sickness. But the sharks add an unpredictable, and unforgiving threat to their survival attempts and, like the other elements of Roberts’s film, they’re all the scarier because they seem so grounded in reality. There’s no need for megalodons or super-intelligent sharks when the garden variety can be this terrifying. (Available to rent on Amazon)
Dubbed by some as The Blair Shark Project when it hit theaters in 2004, Open Water turns a low budget into an aesthetic virtue. Shot on video, it follows a couple (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) who accidentally get left behind while partaking on a scuba outing, leaving them floating in the middle of the ocean and surrounded by sharks (as if trying to stay alive in the middle of the ocean wasn’t challenging enough). A short but terrifying film, it doubles as an exercise in mounting terror as a small wound attracts larger prey and it becomes increasingly obvious that it will take a miracle for them to see land again. There’s no unneeded flash here, just an awful situation captured in horrifying, up-close detail. (Available on HBO Max)
Director Jaume Collet-Serra brings considerably more flair to an equally simple story in The Shallows, in which Blake Lively plays Nancy, a med student who makes the critical mistake of running afoul of a great white, leaving her wounded and stranded on a rock — albeit one only a few feet from shore. So what’s the problem? The shark has decided to stick around, making the few feet that separates Nancy from dry land as treacherous as a minefield. To survive, she’ll have to outwit her hungry opponent. Serra’s direction and Lively’s performance keep the film focused tightly on Nancy’s psyche, and the narrowing selection of options that requires her to get creative in order to survive. A riveting tale of survival, it’s also notable for how little resemblance it bears to Jaws. It finds a different sort of shark story to tell and tells it extraordinarily well, suggesting that a subgenre that’s largely been defined by trying and failing to capture Spielberg’s magic hasn’t lost its capacity to surprise. (Available to rent on Amazon)