Written by: David A. Lloyd, Brett Kelly
Directed by: Brett Kelly
Starring: Candice Lidstone, Jessica Huether, and Catherine Mary Clark
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Evil has an appetite.
Relativity is a crucial factor when it comes to movies. Whether we admit it or not, expectations play a key role in how we receive a movie, specifically how willing we are to meet it halfway. What might be inexcusable in a big-budget blockbuster might be a charming norm for smaller projects with fewer resources, those scrappy productions that are just trying to grit out a movie by sheer force of will. Acknowledging this is practically a survival mechanism when navigating the waters of the killer shark genre, especially now that everyone has thrown their hat (which, yes, is like a shark’s fin) into that ring. The genre’s resurgence has brought new highs but even more lows, with the latter requiring you to really know what you’re in for. Yes, there’s the SyFy junk, which often promises the ironic “so bad, it’s good” approach, complete with intentionally laughable effects, broad, farcical performances, and outlandish plots that function as the joke. But then there’s the level below that, where independent filmmakers launch zero-budget attempts that make those SyFy productions look positively lavish. Simply put, something like Raiders of the Lost Shark is where the expectations completely bottom out and you have to really dig to find something to appreciate. Forget even meeting it halfway—you pretty much have to do most of the legwork when a movie probably has no business even existing in the first place. And even knowing this might not be enough for a movie where a 65-minute runtime feels like an act of mercy.
Somewhere in Canada, a small lake community is dealing with an unlikely problem: a giant prehistoric shark stalking its waters, devouring anyone who dares to go swimming (or even stroll on the shore since it can inexplicably leap out of the lake to claim its victims). A nearby research facility might hold the key to this, and they’ve tapped a local college professor to investigate and solve the problem since the local police force is incompetant. As the lake attracts more visitors—including the professor’s own students—it becomes even more crucial to stop the beast.
Just extracting three sentences to describe the plot of Raiders of the Lost Shark feels like a feat since this movie is about as threadbare as they come. It mostly unfolds around one location, a grungy, sketchy lake that looks like it should be exclusively reserved for dirtbags who have been banned from the more attractive hangout spots. Even calling it a “lake” feels generous since it mostly just looks like some backwater channel the filmmakers setted on because it was the only usable location nearby. Other locations include a backyard patio and thinly-disguised office buildings substituting for college classrooms and police stations. The plot mostly revolves around random visitors showing up, running through some awful, unfunny schtick (there’s a man and his nagging wife, some cops trying to get chummy with some local gals, etc.) that’s punctuated with a cartoon shark bounding into the frame, mercifully pulling them into the water, never to be seen again. If there’s a “story,” it’s the professor being driven by a traumatic incident in her distant past (even though the flashbacks have her looking exactly the same) involving the shark at the same lake, so, you know, it’s personal for her.
Despite the melodramatic posturing, it’s not at all compelling because most of the performers are going through the motions, dully reciting dialogue with all the enthusiasm of someone reading a grocery list. Every now and then, you’ll get someone going in the other direction by giving a loud, broad take that does little to inject the movie with any kind of life or energy because it’s the kind of winking irony that’s reminding you that you’re watching a bad movie, so why should anyone bother? Indeed, why even bother watching it, right? So we’re back in a familiar place, left wondering what the point of this even is. I like to give the benefit of the doubt and assume that everyone involved just really wanted to have a good time—I don’t think you mount this sort of thing with any expectations of fortune and glory, so it has to be because you really love it and find it fun. With that said, I just hope everyone had a good time making it.
I can’t say the same for watching it, even with the cratered expectations. You know going in that the shark effects will either be laughable or nonexistent, so expecting any kind of reasonably interesting shark carnage in a movie about a killer shark goes out the window. Director Brett Kelley opts for the former, scribbling in a digital shark that might as well be imported from Microsoft Paint. For the most part, doing so deprives the audience of the gory pleasures that might be mined from such mayhem; however, there are a few scenes where the crew scatters around some of those severed body part props you can procure from Spirit Halloween every year. Likewise, there’s one (1) scene where the shark decapitates a sailor (affecting a thick pirate accent for whatever reason) and leaves behind a gory, practical stump, and it’s totally charming because the handcrafted grit feels like it’s working around the limitations instead of ironically pointing a finger at them for laughs. Had it simply taken this kind of approach instead of replicating the SyFy formula, Raiders of the Lost Shark might have been passable schlock.
Instead, it’s a pale imitation of an already tired schtick—nobody should be aspiring to be the next Sharknado, much less trying to do so on a fraction of its already low budget. Like those films, this one brings a familiar mantra: “well, what did you expect?” It’s a fair question, especially since I of all people know exactly what I’m in for when I pop something like Raiders of the Lost Shark into a DVD player. I can’t even say I was disappointed—it’s exactly what I figured it’d be, which is not to say it’s exactly what it should be because we have ample evidence that DIY movies don’t have to be a complete write-off. Look no further than something like Great White, a remarkable bit of no-budget ingenuity that thrives on its earnest charms. Or, hell, look at the films that obviously inspired Kelly—who has directed over 40 movies—in the first place: the shot-on-video films of the 80s and 90s, from the likes of Todd Sheets and J.R. Bookwalter. Having spent the last few months working through a box set of the latter’s homespun productions, I can say that it’s definitely possible to mount ridiculous movies but take them seriously enough that they can be worthwhile. Something like Zombie Cop or Kingdom of the Vampire (which Kelly himself remade) should not exist on a $2,500 budget, much less be wildly entertaining. And yet, because they invested in things like cool lighting, wild stunts, scrappy effects, and an earnest approach, it works.
So I’m inclined to lob the question of expectations back and wonder why I shouldn't expect better from this sort of thing when we know it’s possible. They think they’re making a joke with a movie like Raiders of the Lost Shark because the joke’s on them: I’ve seen and have been reasonably entertained by a movie titled Chickboxer that did more with even less—and that’s a movie that features about five minutes of someone tying their shoe-laces during the opening credits. That’s how you make light of your shoestring budget.
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