The Last Shark (1981)

JULY 30, 2019


For as long as I've been aware of the idea of Jaws ripoffs, I've known about The Last Shark (aka Great White), which was - as far as I know - the only one of the bunch that Universal took the time to take legal action against, forcing them to pull the movie from theaters in the US. In turn, it's never had an official release on video here, though every now and then - like right now - it will pop up on Amazon Prime and we can see what the fuss is about without stooping to paying someone (not the filmmakers, certainly) for a bootleg. For all I know it was director Enzo G. Castellari who uploaded it to the service himself.

Or it could just be some rando like me. As I learned a few months back when One Cut of the Dead briefly appeared on the site, there isn't much of a vetting process to get a film on Prime. While you can't just have something show up on Netflix or Hulu, Amazon kind of makes it easy, so there are probably lots of illegally uploaded streams showing at any given time, but there is unfortunately no way to tell the difference if it's available "free with Prime" (I assume folks can't charge $3.99 or whatever the standard Amazon rental price is for a film they don't own). It's still there as of this writing, so unless Universal is simply too busy with Hobbs & Shaw, maybe it's a legit release for once - can they really hold a grudge for nearly forty years?

The funny thing is, it's not really any more of a ripoff than others I've seen. The template for these things is pretty set in stone - there's a "you can't close the beaches" kind of plot, a Quint-like hardass with all the best lines, a mild-mannered hero (they usually combine Brody and Hooper into one character, for whatever reason) - and this movie doesn't stray far from it, but neither does a dozen others that Uni never bothered to bully around. Plus they ended up ripping THIS MOVIE off a few years later - the shark roars when it attacks, and the only other movie I've seen that happen in is Jaws The Goddamn Revenge, a film that insults the original Jaws far more than this one does.

In fact it's kind of amusing how Castellari and his crew go out of their way to mix things up, especially if you're aware of the movie's notoriety and are expecting to be thinking "OK yeah I can see why they had to sue these Italian guys" throughout most of your viewing. For starters, the mayor is kind of proactive! Sure, he's worried about the upcoming *rolls the event-o-dex* annual regatta, but he doesn't dismiss the threat outright, either, agreeing to precautions rather quickly. Hell, when the fake Quint (Hamer, played by Vic Morrow, whose character has a line of dialogue that seems like a bad-taste joke about his own death the following year) tells him he'll need eight boats, he offers ten! And later, when the shark causes havoc anyway, my man actually goes out on a chopper himself to try to capture the thing - he's like half Mayor Vaughn, half that unnamed guy with his wife's roast!

Also, in a move that Carl Gottlieb should be amused by, the town's local reporter turns out to be the bigger human asshole (the newspaper man, played by screenwriter Gottlieb, had a much bigger part in the Jaws novel than he did in the film), and the film kind of depicts his soul being corrupted as he seeks fame for catching video of the maneating shark. At the top of the film, he's just trying to put together clips for the mayor's campaign video, and seems like the kind of put-upon guy who might aid our heroes to get back at the demanding mayor (again, at this point we're expecting the mayor to be an obstructionist and nothing more). But over the course of the movie you see him lose his integrity and put people in danger to get his footage, fully demanding the punch in the face the hero gives him right before the credits roll.

(Hopefully it won't change before you see for yourself, but the Wiki synopsis never names his character ("Bob Martin") until the punching moment, making it a hilarious non sequitur.)

It's also got a pretty great "less is more" kind of sequence where the shark is attacking the regatta. While "Bruce" couldn't be trusted to work, their fake shark kind of only has one move - it surfaces from under the water at a 45 degree angle and roars a bit. This wouldn't work for a big attack scene, so Castellari has the shark get tangled in a buoy chain, and the sequence plays out with the buoy darting through the water toward boaters and swimmers - it's a solid sequence! With so many anonymous victims in harm's way, and the Italian horror sub-genre's history of being pretty casual with killing people off (including kids), there's no reason to believe everyone will get away safely, so it kept me more on edge than I would have expected.

Unfortunately the film as a whole is a bit of a slog. While it's never as blatant as I was led to believe (nothing even remotely as actionable as "Terminator 2" (aka Shocking Dark) cribbing from Aliens), the plot is more or less the same thing, and it's not like Jaws itself has that spectacular of a narrative. It's a great (perfect!) movie because of everything working in unison to create movie magic: Spielberg's sense of pace, the memorable and distinguished characters, the incredible music... this movie has none of those things. The music in particular is kind of awful, in fact, to the point where I wished they were ripping off John Williams, as it would probably be better or at least more fitting. The hero's not particularly exciting, and the FX are crummier than other Italian films of the era, so there's just not a lot here to really grab you beyond the novelty of its mere existence.

But hey, it's about forty minutes shorter than Jaws and it has the line "One thing's for sure, it wasn't a floatin chainsaw!" (floating chainsaws > boat propellers, re: things you can blame for shark attacks), so there are worse ways to kill an hour and a half. Plus it's shark week and the people behind 48 Meters Down inexplicably waited until mid-August to release their movie, so you might as well check it out while it's there, if only to see how seriously Universal took their Jaws property back before they inflicted Dennis Quaid in 3D on us.

What say you?


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