Written and Directed by: Zac Reeder
Starring: Richard Keats, Terry Arrowsmith, and Stephanie Rose
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
No one thought it could happen in a river...now, one man must convince them before it's too late!
By this point, I’ve probably harped on artificially manufactured “so-bad-it’s-good” movies enough (I probably should have just confined it to a think-piece titled “Damn the Sharknadoes”) , but Great White provides a fine contrast to illustrate my point swimmingly. You aren’t likely to mistake it as great by most observable standards due to its limited resources, but director Zac Reeder never treats it as a joke, nor are his constraints used as an excuse to intentionally make complete garbage. Even if it didn’t exactly work out, you have to admire the audacity on display: when most backyard filmmakers were shooting on video, they were content to compensate by making gratuitous gore movies. Meanwhile, Reeder decided to make a killer shark movie.
And it’s not just some schlocky piece of junk, either! Not that there would be anything wrong with that, obviously, but it’s endearing as hell to see how earnestly Great White unravel as a film with an actual story. Set in a Nevada river town, the action centers on Steven Miller (Richard Keats), a college professor who is horrified when authorities discover the chewed up corpse of his teaching assistant. When more locals go missing and the town drunk claims to have spotted a shark, Miller goes on a one-man crusade to find and destroy the man-eating great white that’s inexplicably invaded the river.
See, Great White sounds like the type of film that’s only enjoyed ironically or if it’s the subject of mockery. So much about it is an easy target: the amateur acting, the low-grade effects, the soundtrack full of 90s alt-rock riffs, the writing, etc. But just know that Reeder at least plays it earnestly—so earnestly, in fact, that it becomes completely charming. The way he charges right into the silliness without flinching is infectious—this is the sort of movie that almost brings out the “bless-your-heart” Southerner in me. Just about every plot development is adorably cornball, from Professor Miller’s fear of the water due to a traumatic accident involving his father to his son’s defiant attempt to be cool and go river-tubing with his buddies (something forbidden by his father, of course). There’s a lot to love about Great White, but Reeder’s decision to pull out Chief Brody’s sub-textual struggle with his milquetoast masculinity in Jaws and make it the obvious, neon-lit text might be the most lovable thing, as both father and son attempt to rage against their own lameness, only to be thwarted at every turn (for example, Miller isn’t even afforded a badass climactic moment like Brody).
Instead, he spends most of the film resembling Brody from Jaws 2: bombing around town, desperately attempting to convince officials that a shark’s loose in the river. The town sheriff is naturally skeptical and only wants to get back to the round of golf Miller interrupts (I don’t want to imply that this guy is chewing scenery, but I somehow doubt there’s much turf left on the fairway after he rages through this scene like Yosemite Sam). But what’s great is that there aren’t that many mean-spirited, downer moments—even the son’s confrontation with bullies in an arcade (!) is somehow precious in its awfulness. When the town drunk reports his fin sighting, he’s laughed out of the bar, but there’s a sweetness to how Miller (and one of his students) blithely accepts his story without any evidence. It might make Miller a shitty scientist, but he’s a hell of a guy (well, when he’s not whining about his inadequacies and having dreams about his childhood).
Great White is another one of those movies where I could keep rattling off incredible scenes, yet to do so would rob you of the joy of seeing them unfold in all their glory. Besides, the film is commendable beyond its bad-movie charm because, well, it’s not exactly terrible in terms of production values, at least when you consider the meager budget. Granted, this was before CGI effects were widely available (especially at this level of filmmaking), but Reeder opts for some well-placed stock footage to compliment the mock fin and fiberglass head (pulled by a jet-ski!) that otherwise represents the river shark (that said, there is an awful computer-generated explosion that has me wondering just how terrible this might have been if he could have gone with digital sharks). Plus, the lo-fi aesthetics are often quite strong for a shot-on-video movie, as Reeder and company were quite concerned about video quality and even attempted to manipulate the Betamax footage into having more of a film-like quality. The illusion doesn’t quite hold, but it works in-concert with some consistently decent lighting and dynamic camerawork to separate it from the SOV pack in many ways.
While it never completely escapes those trappings (its muffled sound quality often jars you back to reality—along with the acting, of course), Great White feels like a one-of-a-kind experience. By the time the film was in production, this genre wasn’t at a crossroads so much as it was buried under a cross thanks to the diminishing returns of the Jaws franchise and Italy’s insistence in beating a dead shark, so it stands as a cool outlier on the precipice of its imminent, computer-generated resurrection. Long lost to the depths of obscurity, the film recently resurfaced on DVD courtesy of Retrovision Entertainment, who lovingly re-mastered the film and produced a sparse supplement in the form of a five-minute retrospective that’s actually quite revealing. It turns out that Great White wasn’t quite a homemade production like so many SOV affairs, as a Japanese company approached Reeder and funded the endeavor.
Released in Japan as Jaws ’98, the film wasn’t even released in America until 2000 on a now long-out-of-print DVD. Retrovision’s new restoration doesn’t completely assuage the production woes (the sound is still pretty muffled in some areas thanks to the original sound engineer’s “inexperience”), but something like Great White is destined to wear its inadequacy on its sleeve. Even without the retrospective, which is quick to note how much the cast-and-crew struggled with the production, it’s clear that this was a labor of love, and I wish I could say that about every bone-headed shark movie in production right now. Sincerity counts--maybe not as much as acting quality and production values--but it's something, and Great White has plenty of it. Bless its heart. Buy it!
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