Shitty Movie Sundays: The Last Shark, aka Great White

Oh, Enzo G. Castellari, I’m so glad I found you. Shitty Movie Sundays has been further enlightened by your presence. Master of schlock, minister of exploitation, employer of flamethrowers, you can be counted among the progenitors of the mockbuster, those sad, cash grab excuses for films. It seems your only purpose as a filmmaker was to piggyback on the accomplishments of others, and prey upon an audience that didn’t realize what your producers were selling. Who would have thought that so many decades after your heyday, there would be people like me seeking out your films — not only to mock and deride, but to enjoy?

The Last Shark, from 1981, is a rank ripoff of Jaws. That’s not just hyperbole. For some strange reason, this stupid movie was making money when it was released into American theaters. So, naturally, Universal Pictures, the owners of Jaws, sued producers Maurizio Amati and Ugo Tucci for plagiarism. Universal won, depriving Canadian and Mexican audiences of this wonderful movie.

Castellari directed this film, from a script by Marc Princi. It couldn’t have taken long to write, as every character in this film has an analogue in Jaws. Veteran television actor James Franciscus plays Peter Benton, an author who serves as a combination of Chief Brody, Matt Hooper, and a meta Peter Benchley, author of the Jaws novel. Vic Morrow, sporting an accent that at times is Italian, at other times possibly drunk, and at still other times a mealy-mouthed imitation of Jackie Mason, plays a local fisherman named Quint…shit, I mean Hamer. Rounding out the leading cast is Joshua Sinclair (who went on to write the novel Shaka Zulu a couple of years after filming wrapped) as Governor William Wells, a tourism-obsessed politician who is in denial about the dangers of great white sharks. Sound familiar? Universal Pictures certainly thought so.

In Port Harbor, a coastal town in USA State, young beach bums are preparing for the governor’s windsurfing regatta. Not joking. I’ve never seen more windsurfing than in this film.

While out on the water practicing windsurfing, and giving the audience a bizarre glimpse into windsurfing dance moves in slow motion, a windsurfer is attacked and eaten by a shark. Later, the shark ruins the Fourth of July, I mean the windsurfing regatta. This incident convinces the mayor, I mean the governor, to authorize direct action against the shark. Then Quint, I mean Hamer, takes a boat out into the ocean to hunt the shark down.

Any potential viewer will be familiar with the plot if they have seen Jaws. There’s a great white shark in the area and it eats people who venture into the water. We all know this is coming. We also know that eventually there will be a climax out on the ocean and the shark will be killed. It’s all the nonsense that happens in between that makes this an extraordinary shitty movie.

I haven’t seen a Castellari movie yet that was worth a damn. Like with all of his films that I’ve seen so far, The Last Shark is marred by deadly slow spots. When it comes to exposition and setup, Castellari is not the man one would want in the director’s chair. But during action scenes he manages to be enough of an exciting filmmaker to keep a viewer’s attention…if they can get around all the slow motion.

The Last Shark clocks in at a lean 87 minutes, but if Castellari didn’t have slow motion photography to rely upon, I bet he could have gotten this film down to around an hour. It’s shameless runtime padding, elevated to the point where it has become Castellari’s signature style.

As can be expected from a movie with this quality, the special effects are not good. They have three facets. A third of the shots use stock footage of great white sharks from the wild. Another third uses models in a fish tank, for when the scene required wide underwater shots of the shark. These shots are hilarious. The shark model’s fins flap around like they were made from rubber bands, and whoever manipulated the model wasn’t concerned at all with having it appear as anything other than a bathtub toy. The shots have all the look and feel of satire, but they weren’t. The final third uses a full-scale prop that could be raised and lowered out of the water. I have to say, when it came to this flick’s version of Bruce the Shark, I was expecting worse. It’s still a cheap effect, but it does look like some real care and attention went into making the full-sized shark. It has jaws and teeth that can move. It can’t move forwards or backwards in the water all that much, making for some awkward scenes where cast members have to pretend an immobile shark is a threat, but so what? By the time this model is used in the film every viewer should have figured out what kind of movie they were watching.

This is a bad, bad movie. But Castellari could always be counted on to use his minuscule budget wisely. After all, despite being backed by a studio, Spielberg wasn’t able to have a scene in Jaws where the heroes try to fish for the shark while hanging out of a helicopter. Of course Alien: Resurrection is a better film than The Last Shark. Anyone who says otherwise is failing to use objective reasoning. But for connoisseurs of shitty cinema, The Last Shark is a must-see. To ease the pain, I recommend seeking out the RiffTrax version. It’s the only thing that makes the slow spots bearable.