6. Tentacles (1977)
The Golden Turkey Awards singled Orca out in its Ripoff category, but the award might just as sensibly have been awarded to AIP’s Tentacles – ‘The most gripping suspense you will ever experience’ – released in 1977, which substituted Bruce the shark for a giant octopus with the ability to skeletonise pesky scuba divers whilst simultaneously pulling pretty girls off their yachts.
Ironically, the hero of Orca returned to save the day in a climax that set killer whale against giant octopus in a judiciously edited battle to the death.
What was genuinely astonishing was the cast that director Ovidio G. Assonitis managed to assemble for this inane, sun-kissed cheapie: Oscar-winning Shelley Winters and John Huston no less, plus the legendary Henry Fonda, who with a role in The Swarm only one year away, must have been close to pushing his agent in front of a truck by this point.
There were some genuine pleasures to be had in Tentacles, most of them very guilty indeed. Assonitis seemed to have higher aspirations than making films about aggressive molluscs – as an incongruous but hypnotic two minutes tracking shot across a crowded ferry suggested – but they had clearly vanished by the time he produced James Cameron’s Piranha II: The Spawning.
7. Piranha (1978)
The most enjoyment to be had watching Jaws clones was in marveling at the sheer brass of the producers and their clearly crooked intent. Only one producer had the wherewithal to make a derivative knock-off and do it properly. Step forward Roger Corman, who produced the only Jaws-replica that can hold its semi-eaten head high above the flotsam of fellow bandwagon jumpers.
Piranha (1978) was a blast and is the quintessential cinephile’s B-Movie. Peopled by legendary horror movie alumni like Barbara Steele and Kevin McCarthy, Piranha was directed by one of the great impish iconoclasts, Joe Dante and written by the (soon to be) acclaimed social satirist John Sayles. Sayles would go on to direct his own creature feature, the gleefully enjoyable Alligator in 1980.
Piranha was the Johnny Rotten of Jaws cash-ins. There is no doubt that Dante’s sympathies lie predominantly with the carnivorous fish, and you can almost hear his squeals of delight when the little mites finally crash the children’s summer camp and start tucking into the guests. Universal sent their lawyers over and threatened to spoil the party, but Spielberg fell in love with the film and had his goons stand down.
Ironically, his own collaboration with Dante, Gremlins, would unleash the next big cycle of cynical imitations (Critters, Troll, Ghoulies etc) six years later. The Jaws connection was made explicit in the 2010 remake, which starts with Richard Dreyfuss’s ‘Matt’ enjoying a spot of fishing while listening to ‘Show Me The Way To Go Home’ on his radio. A shoal of marauding piranha fish tip him overboard and enjoy the very meal that was denied to Bruce the shark in 1975.
8. The Last Shark (1982)
Italian director Enzo G. Castellari was known as ‘The European Peckinpah’, Castellari had made his name making enjoyably violent spaghetti westerns like Go Kill and Come Back and Johnny Hamlet. His stock took a dizzying leap in 2009 when fan Quentin Tarantino paid homage to his 1978 ‘Macaroni Combat’ film The Inglorious Bastards by (sort of) borrowing the title for his own acclaimed WW2 movie.
Castellari’s 1981 film Great White aka The Last Shark is so breathtakingly felonious a tribute to both Jaws and Jaws 2, that one finds oneself standing up and applauding the sheer audacity, shouting ‘bravo!’ A great white shark arrives at South Bay, a popular seaside resort and makes a meal of one or two of its citizens. The mayor, watchful of the harmful effects of such news on his career, does nothing and refuses to cancel the upcoming regatta.
When the shark turns up to ruin the party, writer Peter Benchl..oops, Benton, partners-up with shark-hating, occasionally Scottish Ron Hamer (Vic Morrow dressed as Robert Shaw) and heads out to sea with a view to blow up the beast with dynamite. Concurrently, a group of teenagers head out to parry with the shark because there were teenagers in Jaws 2. If you remember, there was also a scene in Jaws 2 where a helicopter is pulled into the sea by the shark. Snap.
Shot like a 1980 Asti Spumante commercial, The Last Shark suffers from all the same setbacks that bedeviled its fellow ripoffs: an awful, Europop soundtrack, badly dubbed bad actors, and an empty-coffer special effects budget. The shark itself is actually a rather impressive construction, though unlike Bruce the shark, this one only exists from the neck up.
Resembling a frowning iceberg in its sporadic appearances, the model has severely limited mobility and the screaming actors are often required to somehow swim towards it while appearing to be scrambling away. James Franciscus and Vic Morrow both put in valiant efforts, pretending not to realise that this is all a little beneath them.
The Last Shark opened well in March 1982 but it enjoyed only the briefest run. Universal pounced upon it, successfully suing the producers for plagiarism, and The Last Shark was swiftly pulled from theaters, never to return, to the likely delight of James Franciscus.
9. Blades (1989)
Jaws mania eventually withered in the 1980s, when indestructible masked serial killers became the ever-replicable subject matter of choice. Universal’s officially sanctioned ripoffs, Jaws 3D (1983) and Jaws The Revenge (1987) had scrubbed off whatever lustre was left on the original brand. By then, Jaws had permanently infused the fabric of modern culture, referenced in Airplane!, Top Secret! and even Spielberg’s own 1941.
Jaws producers David Brown and Richard D Zanuck were tempted to follow Jaws 2 with a spoof called Jaws 3 – People 0, but were encouraged not to ‘foul their own nests.’ In fact, the world had to wait 15 years for the first full-on, purpose-designed Jaws mickey-take: Blades.
It was astonishing that the king of cheap exploitation cult films, Troma took such a long time to stake its claim in the Great White gold rush but even more shocking was the tack they took. The entire plot of Jaws was replicated almost scene for scene, but rather than a seaside community being terrorized by a shark, Blades featured the members of an exclusive golf club being slaughtered by a possessed lawnmower.
Seriously, what would you give to have been at that script meeting? The adherence to the Jaws narrative is impressive and occasionally inventive – balloons are attached to the lawnmower in place of Quint’s barrels – but the joke wears very thin, very quickly. Still, it’s funnier than Caddyshack II.
10. Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus (2009)
So many years have passed since Jaws arrived, that it’s a stretch to label films like Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus “Jaws Ripoffs,” but then again, one look at the poster for Shark in Venice tells you that there is no statute of limitations on idea-theft.
What these films do illustrate – cheaply made, scientifically naïve straight to DVD productions with titles like Sharktopus, Two-Headed Shark Attack and Mega Shark versus Mecha Shark – is the enduring fascination with all things ‘Shark’ that Spielberg intensified to levels of mass hysteria 40 years ago.
There is, it seems, no human fear quite as primal as that of being violently consumed by a large animal, flesh, bones and all, especially if, as in this case, the shark is big enough to take a bite out of a passenger jet in mid-air. Privately, it was nice to see my teen-crush Debbie Gibson looking so well.
In The Golden Turkey Awards, while accepting that ‘if handled competently and professionally, these derivative entertainments might have been endurable, or even enjoyable,’ concluded, accurately that such ‘ripoffs are generally characterized by shoddy workmanship and an unashamedly sleazy approach, and so deserve the most virulent sort of condemnation.’
That said, suffering tenth-rate nonsense like Barracuda, one gets to rediscover by comparison, just what a stunningly well-made movie Jaws is. After the appalling editing of the clones: random scissor jobs designed to conceal the absence of production values, Verna Fields’ Oscar winning editing in Jaws seems nothing short of miraculous.
Bill Butler’s ozone-reeking cinematography is Michelangelo quality put next to something like The Jaws of Death, which you suspect was shot without recourse to a light meter. Above all, you realise all over again, what an extraordinarily gifted cast Spielberg assembled: everyone from Scheider,
Shaw and Dreyfuss, to Harry, the old man with a bad hat. Perhaps the biggest difference between Jaws and the cheap copies that floated up in its wake (and still surface to this day), was that in Jaws, the least interesting character was the monster. In the ripoffs, the only interesting character was the monster. Happy 40th birthday.
Author Bio: Cai is a food and film writer, with articles published in The Chap, Fire & Knives, Gin & It and Cinema Retro. He is a features writer for HeyUGuys.co.uk and has yet to get over the Jaws obsession which consumed him as a callow youth.