Written by: William Grefe, Robert W. Morgan
Directed by: William Grefe
Starring: Richard Jaeckel, Jennifer Bishop, and Buffy Dee
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“Maybe there is something we can do to keep from being attacked.”
“There is--swim away.”
“There is--swim away.”
In the wake of Jaws (yes, this is another shark movie review that discusses how Jaws gave birth to many bad movies--let’s call it “Jawsploitation”), it’s kind of surprising that there actually weren’t a whole lot of killer shark movies. Nature ran amok in all sorts of ways, but rarely was it sharks doing the running (er, swimming). Maybe it’s because everyone knew Jaws had set the impossible standard (nah), or maybe the horror stories involving uncooperative Bruce on the set of Spielberg’s film scared people off (more likely). The minds behind The Jaws of Death came up with a clever workaround for that by dispensing with the animatronics altogether (they always look fake anyway, right?). Instead, they took actual shark footage to craft a Jawsploitation (in name only) tale of revenge and telepathic links with the fish (wait a minute…).
Sonny Stein (Richard Jaeckel) is a lonesome weirdo with a strange gift: he can communicate with sharks ever since he bumped into a shaman (who worships a “shark god”) who gave him a mystical pendant. A fierce shark advocate, Stein spends most of his days hanging around bars and helping with shark researchers; when he gets tangled up with a sleazy barkeep and a shady scientist, he and his finned companions suddenly find themselves in danger.
I will say this about The Jaws of Death: it’s no Jaws rip-off. The title was certainly slapped onto it to capitalize on the 1975 mega-hit, but, otherwise, this is a unique (and absurd) shark tale. One might actually be able to argue that Jaws: The Revenge did indeed borrow its telepathic link (and its novelization included a voodoo priest--funny how some of the Jaws sequels seemed to rip stuff off from other flicks considering the legacy of Great White). Of course, it isn’t a particularly good tale--it’s waterlogged by a soggy script that has no real, sustained plot. Jaeckel basically drifts through the narrative by slumming around town; occasionally, he rescues the barkeep’s wife (Jennifer Bishop) from being raped by thugs (and shows off his martial arts prowess in the meantime). Terrible acting (and dub jobs) and uninspired direction further sink it, and it only occasionally resurfaces when it gets awesomely silly (more on that in a bit).
Jaeckel’s character is kind of fascinating though; he often played tough guys, and I think he’s sort of supposed to be one here. However, Jaeckel often plays it up like he’s some kind of petulant teenager (“I’ll never trust anyone again!") and with an odd, boyish quality, despite the fact that he’s a hardened killer. Yes, he’s basically a cold-blooded murderer who uses sharks as his weapon--see, everyone around him thinks he’s nuts, and the movie doesn’t do much to dissuade you from thinking so either. His telepathic link with the sharks is exhibited by his chummy chats with them and the fact that they don’t devour his flesh. The conversations are painfully awkward, but I love the insert shots of the sharks that are supposed to indicate that they’re listening to him. Jaeckel is surrounded by so many scumbags that it kind of works despite all this. One of them is actually Harold “Odd Job” Sakata (which is how he’s actually credited in the film), and the sight of the former James Bond villain in a speedo is the most horrifying thing the flick has to offer.
If the entire movie was like the last 20 minutes, The Jaws of Death would be one of the great batshit films of all time. Watching Jaeckel become unhinged and go Terminator on everyone is a sight to behold; playing like a B-action movie (complete with dramatic zooms and a funky score), the climax completely utilizes the film’s absurd premise by turning the bad guys into shark bait in raucous fashion. The actual attacks are pretty well done, as the actual shark footage gives it a level of authenticity. It’s not just stock footage, either, as the film contains a dedication thanking the brave men and women who actually risked their life for this film.
Yes, you read that correctly: people actually risked being eaten by sharks to get The Jaws of Death made. I hope they were well paid and I’m glad no one really died because what an ignominious way to go that would be (though I freely give people permission to put it on my tombstone if I perish making a crappy shark movie). Anyway, this flick got one stand-alone DVD release from Legacy Entertainment that’s out of print. Fret not, however, as Brentwood threw it onto their Creature Features Advantage Collection along with 7 other bestial terrors, including another shark flick, Night of the Sharks, wherein Treat Williams battles the beasts (and gangsters). Jaws of Death looks as you’d expect--it’s a glorified VHS transfer that’s washed out, and the sound is sort of hissy (but very loud). This collection is also out of print, but only commands a few bucks on the secondary market. Spending 90 minutes with Richard Jaeckel and his killer sharks is worth that much. Rent it!
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