The Golden Turkey Awards by Harry and Michael Medved is a fabulous celebration of all that is great about Bad Cinema. Directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis and Ray Dennis Steckler were finally given their due, albeit not in the most flattering manner.
Unmoved perhaps by the unique charms of Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs and The Incredibly Strange People Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, such movies prospered in categories like The Worst Director of All Time and The Worst Title of All Time – star chapters included The Worst Two-Headed Transplant Movie Ever Made and The Worst Performance by Sonny Tufts.
King Kong (1976) scooped the award for The Biggest Ripoff in Hollywood History Award, but there were any number of contenders that could have beaten it to the podium. All film successes beget inferior facsimiles, made quickly and on the cheap.
Consider all the myriad Sci-Fi capers that tried to thumb a lift aboard the Millennium Falcon for example (represented for collective opprobrium in The Golden Turkey Awards by the film version of Battlestar Gallactica). Yet above all others, one film was flattered with more sincerity than any other, probably ever, and that was Jaws.
In 1975, Jaws changed everything. It’s the reason seven hundred mega-movies will been released between May and September this year: until Jaws, the summer was no more a blockbuster season than early spring. It changed the way movies were advertised and merchandised. That shark logo was everywhere and on everything in 1975, and Jaws was one of the first movies to be huckstered with a nationwide TV advertising campaign.
At the time, opening a movie wide was a technique used to maximise revenue from poor, critically-mauled product – get ‘em into the theaters before they realise how bad it is. Over the past 40 years, Jaws has been studied and interpreted as everything from a Marxist treatise, to a metaphor for Vietnam and Watergate but at its heart, it’s a monster movie and monster movies, as Ray Dennis Steckler will attest, can be made quick and made cheap.
It sparked a worldwide fascination with sharks that continues to this day – see the BBC’s latest nature programme Shark for evidence – but which burned especially bright in the late 1970s, when every exploitative movie producer in the world decided that if their new movie stood any chance of turning a profit, it had better have a fin in it somewhere. That said, you didn’t even need to shoot at sea to make a Jaws rip off, as our first example demonstrates.
1. Grizzly (1976)
The first obvious cover version of Jaws was William Girdler’s bear-epic Grizzly – “The Most Terrifying Jaws in The Land.” The exactitude of the cloning, though is quite astonishing: everything from its very structure, concluding with three disparate men joining forces to hunt down the beast – in this case an 18-foot Grizzly bear (well, 11-foot, but the camera does add a pound or two) – to little things like the way that Andrew Prine gurgles out a mouthful of blood à la Quint when he’s bear-hugged to death.
There’s even an arbitrary use of a Latin genus name that recalls Hooper’s line that the shark they’re seeking is a carcharodon carcharias (the first bit of Latin anyone of my age ever learned). In fact, Richard Jaeckel’s claim that their quarry is a pleistocene arctodus ursos horribilis is a complete fiction.
Grizzly emerges ultimately as a good-natured entertainment, reveling as it does in the shamelessness of its forgery. It is well photographed and is blessed with a game but talented cast who gave Girdler more than his money’s worth. As a side note, it also features the greatest ‘Prolonged Scream of “No!” Reaction To a Screen Death’ that I have ever seen.
Incidentally, Jaws’s first victim, Susan Backlinie was also, by no coincidence, the first victim to bite the dust in William Girdler’s follow up to Grizzly, Day of The Animals. This ‘Nature Gone Mad’ film is a must for all cinema fans if only for the scene in which a shirtless, pre-Airplane! Leslie Nielsen goes crazy and wrestles a bear.
2. Mako: The Jaws of Death (1977)
The one-time Academy Award-nominated Jaeckel toplined a more direct Jaws-steal, released the same year as Grizzly. Mako: The Jaws of Death at the very least put an interesting slant on its shark exploitation.
In this instance the sharks are presented as the victims, pursued by unscrupulous hunters who don’t understand them. Fortunately, these Mako sharks (a species briefly mentioned in Jaws) have a telepathic connection with Sonny Stein (Jaeckel) who protects them, but also uses them to punish those who cross his path.
The producers tried to one-up Ron & Valerie Taylor’s celebrated shark footage from Jaws by claiming that it was ‘Filmed without the benefit of cages, mechanical sharks or other protective devices.’ Despite this hyperbole, William Grefe’s film is a cheap and bloated Tales of The Unexpected episode dotted with footage of resolutely unterrifying little sharks and red food colouring being splashed around in a fish tank.
3. The Deep (1977)
One of the principal beneficiaries of Jaws’s phenomenal success was the book’s author Peter Benchley. Much like John Grisham or Michael Chrichton in the 1990s, Benchley swiftly became an above-the-title star and movie studios lined up to buy his draft-notes for ever-escalating sums of cash.
Jaws producers Richard D Zanuck and David Brown would try and fail to make lightning strike twice in 1980 with Benchley’s strange contemporary pirate horror The Island. Once the scale of Jaws’s success had become clear, producer Peter Guber paid an absolute fortune (half a million dollars plus a percentage) for the film rights to Benchley’s unpublished novel about treasure hunters diving for sunken booty in the Caribbean.
The resulting film was a pretty prestige affair, directed with style by Peter “Bullitt” Yates and scored by the masterful John Barry, and it retains a great deal of late-70s charm. The shamelessness of the marketing department’s brazen Jaws-apery though was eye-popping. To heighten the bogus suggestion of continuity, Benchley was joined by fellow Jaws veteran Robert Shaw (upgraded to main star).
The poster appeared to have been created using a specific scientific formula that replicated the Jaws poster wholesale, and falsely suggested via its tagline “Is anything worth the terror of The Deep,” that the movie was an aquatic monster movie – to be fair, there was an intemperate moray eel on hand to chew on Louis Gossett Jr’s head.
Despite hoodwinking its audience, The Deep became a big hit, for reasons that ultimately had absolutely nothing to do with Jaws: Donna Summer’s disco megahit theme song, Down Deep Inside, and Jaqueline Bisset’s iconic bikini and wet t-shirt combo.
4. Tintorera (1977)
Exploitation films typically try to catch the prevailing winds of fashion and to capitalize on fads while they still have cultural currency.
One of the benefits of low-budgets and quick turnovers is that such movies can be shot and released fast enough to make hay on the back of potentially ephemeral phenomena – another such piggy-back rider was Barracuda, another true stinker that took Mayor Vaughn’s line, ‘You yell “Barracuda,” everyone goes, “Huh, What?”’ as some kind of glove-to-the-cheek challenge to make a thrilling horror movie about sardines. In Tintorera, the tiger shark captured by the “bozos” in Jaws finally gets its revenge.
Occasionally when watching exploitative cash-ins, one suspects that an entirely different movie had nearly finished shooting by the time the producer ran onto the set waving a copy of Variety magazine showing last weekend’s grosses and demanding that a new element be added, so as to intensify their marketing potential.
In the case of Tintorera, I suspect that it was onto the Mexican set of a soft porn film that producer Gerald Green stampeded, with dollar signs in his eyes and a Jaws poster in his hand.
Such is the wild incongruity between the water-bound scenes of entirely benign tiger sharks going about their business, occasionally eating a wet-suit filled with offal and being harpooned for their trouble, and the endless beach-set trysts and three-ways featuring Straw Dogs’s Susan George, whose character ups and leaves half way through having, presumably, read the latest draft of the screenplay. The expression, “So bad, it’s good,” may well have originated during Tintorera’s first run.
5. Orca…Killer Whale (1977)
Big-budget studio ripoffs took time, so it wasn’t until 1977 that producer Dino De Laurentiis unveiled his great contender, Orca…Killer Whale. This wasn’t just a factory-line knock-off, this was a sea-bound epic that would show up Spielberg’s blockbuster as the phony airport-book movie that it always was. Of Orca, star Richard Harris claimed that it would ‘make (Jaws) look like an anemic sprat alongside it.’
As an unmissable screw-you to Universal Studios, Orca begins with the titular killer whale laying waste to a great white shark. Universal paid the producer back in kind in Jaws 2, in which a killer whale is found dead on a beach having been savaged by a great white shark.
Orca…Killer Whale, directed by the Oscar winning Michael Anderson of Logan’s Run fame, tries a little too hard to have its mythical, Melvillian ‘man versus the sea’ cake, while still eating a derivative, marketable, ‘People get chomped by large sea-creature’ formula. In its most famous scene, the whale tips a house on its side and bites off Bo Derek’s leg. It does try, at least to be a very different beast than Jaws.
Its score, far from the threatening two notes of impending doom made famous by John Williams, is a haunting choral affair by Ennio Morricone that gives the movie a soaring, dreamy quality – the attack scenes are largely unscored – and the plot essentially turns Jaws’ story on its head. Here, it’s the whale that searches for a monster (Richard Harris’ captain and accidental murderer of the whale’s mate) and destroys it.
However, the film is ultimately crushed under the weight of its own silliness. Summing it up, DeLaurentiis stated that ‘In my opinion, this film is a battle between brain of fish and brain of man.’ Summing it up without quite as much unintentional hilarity, Sight & Sound magazine concluded that ‘There are more thrills to be found in the average dolphinarium.’