To truly understand the impact of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws on the pop cultural landscape, one need only look at the number of cash-in films created in its wake. The decade following its release saw a staggering number of water (and land) – based terrors from both independent and established studios looking to scare up even a fraction of the ticket sales that Jaws had generated. Not counting several retitled documentaries and action films that proliferated just months after its release, the films that were made in direct response to the Universal hit were a strange and interesting lot. Many of these titles are often lumped together and dismissed as inconsequential rip-offs. While it’s difficult to argue that they were made in response to the success of Jaws, only a few are true carbon copies of the Spielberg hit. Long before the sharksploitation landscape was filled with laborious CG-enhanced video and cable offerings, the “hardtops and drive-ins” were packing them in with these sometimes bizarre, always entertaining, toothy terrors.
Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976)
Written and directed by Florida auteur William Grefe, Mako was one of the first films to capitalize on the public’s fascination with sharks after the success of Jaws. The plot is similar to Stanley (1972), a film that Grefe made a few years’ prior, itself a variation of Willard with snakes standing in for rats. Mako (released in some markets as simply The Jaws of Death) stars TV tough guy Richard Jaeckel as Sonny, a man who, through the power of a charmed amulet, can commune with sharks. He swims with them, feeds them and even kills unscrupulous fishermen for them. Cheap, lurid, and infinitely watchable, Mako greatly benefits from years of dodgy CG sharkery in films and television. Its low budget forced the production to use real sharks, which makes for some impressive and even disturbing set pieces. The “live shark” element was exploited to the fullest extent in the advertising which, for once, lived up to the hype.
RIFF FACTOR: 5, ENTERTAINMENT FACTOR: 7
Of all the films on this list, none is bolder in its slavish commitment to the Jaws playbook than Grizzly. Structurally the two couldn’t be more similar, though by simply changing the locale to a wilderness resort and the predator from a shark to a bear – Film Ventures International managed to make a killing on the film without a lawsuit from Universal. It was directed by the late, great William Girdler who had already tried a riff on The Exorcist with Abby (1974) - a fun, sleazy, “blaxploitation” film pulled from theaters after Warner Brother’s sued – and won. Maybe if Abby had revolved around a possessed bear no would have noticed the similarities? Grizzly stars exploitation favorite Christopher George (doing his best Roy Scheider) as a park ranger investigating a series of bear attacks. Along with naturalist Richard Jaeckel (again!) and helicopter pilot Andrew Prine, George attempts to hunt down a very angry 18-foot grizzly bear. One of the more solid and accessible films in Girdler’s short career (which isn’t saying much), Grizzly was successful enough to get Girdler higher profile films – and generate a sequel shot but never released.
RIFF FACTOR: 9, ENTERTAINMENT FACTOR: 8
One of the more expensive titles on this list, Orca was Dino De Laurentiis’ answer to Jaws. Somber and at times extremely silly, it’s a film with huge scope, decent effects and some gorgeous cinematography. Orca revolves around a fisherman, played by the joyless Richard Harris, who inadvertently captures and kills a pregnant orca. Its bereaved mate taunts the fisherman into a sort of duel at sea, where Harris and a small crew chase the whale to certain peril. The cast includes the great Charlotte Rampling as a marine biologist (and Harris’ inexplicable love interest) Will Sampson from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Bo Derek in her film debut. Derek’s scene where she’s attacked by the orca (in a sea-front house!) is a great moment of ridiculous awesome. It was directed in a workman-like fashion by Michael Anderson, whose action film resume, including Logan's Run and Doc Savage: Man of Bronze, isn’t especially distinctive. Orca was not the hit that De Laurentiis was anticipating, proving too somber for action fans and too silly for the adult crowd.
RIFF FACTOR: 4, ENTERTAINMENT FACTOR: 5
Tentacles often feels like a cough syrup fever dream. A big, bright star-filled fever dream. Director Ovidio G. Assonitis (credited here as Oliver Hellman) was also responsible for the previous year’s Beyond the Door an incoherent yet crazy entertaining riff of The Exorcist. This production is not as quite as incoherent - and not nearly as fun, though the weirdness factor and famous cast help things along considerably. A giant octopus terrorizes a coastal community and it’s up to feisty journalist John Houston(!) to find the cause. Could it have anything to do with Henry Fonda(!), and his shady drilling company? A high-profile cast with clearly nothing else to do figure into “the plot,” they include Shelly Winters as Houston’s sister, Bo Hopkins, Claude Atkins and TWO killer whales (take that Orca!). A few arthouse editing decisions, perhaps covering up an incompetent second unit, and a lively score provided by Stelvio Cipriani keep the hallucinatory proceedings from sinking too far into the muck.
RIFF FACTOR: 7, ENTERTAINMENT FACTOR: 6
Rightly lauded for its solid mix of humor and horror, Joe Dante’s clever Jaws homage simply gives the people what they want. Piranha stars perky Heather Menzies (from Sssssss) as a missing person’s expert hired to track down a couple of young hikers. She meets up with loveable curmudgeon Bradford Dillman (from Bug) who lives in the mountain area where the pair were last seen. They travel to a shuttered “Army test site” at the top of the mountain and end up inadvertently setting free a pool of genetically altered piranha into the river system. A river that leads to a children’s camp and a water park… this Roger Corman production features a smart script by first-time screenwriter John Sayles and is peppered with a supporting cast of New World players including Paul Bartel, Dick Miller, and Barbara Steele. Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) offers solid support as the crazed scientist and the lovely Belinda Belaski (The Howling as a camp counselor wins the award for saddest, most poetically-shot death in a Jaws riff.
RIFF FACTOR: 7, ENTERTAINMENT FACTOR: 10
Killer Fish (1979)
Advertised with the tantalizing come-on, “The adventure that drags you in, pulls you under and tears you apart!” this bizarre exploitation film is no Piranha, but its goals are smaller and far seedier. A disco theme by diva Amii Stewart sets the stage for a production that feels driven by cocaine and tax shelter money. But who could pass up that combo? Directed by Italian exploitation maestro Anthony M. Dawson (aka Antionio Margheriti), who was responsible for dozens of low budget action and horror titles over five decades. Killer Fish sort of combines his two favorite genres – plus his background in model-making for extra scope (and hilarity). A team of jewel thieves, lead by a somnambulant Lee Majors, pull off an explosive heist and get away with millions of dollars in jewels. They dump the cache in a lake to hide it until it’s safe to make a getaway. Little do they know that team mastermind James Franciscus has filled the lake with piranha! While they wait it out at a local hotel, Majors and his cohorts get entangled with a supermodel (wooden, wonderful Margaux Hemmingway) and her colorful entourage. The entire cast (which also includes Marisa Berenson and Gary Collins) confuse attitude for acting save for the amazing Karen Black who manages to give a nuanced performance amid the hackery.
RIFF FACTOR: 2, ENTERTAINMENT FACTOR: 8
Up from the Depths (1979)
Possibly the “worst” film on this list in terms of production value and coherency, Depths is nonetheless an entertaining trifle with an impressive pedigree. This extremely low-budget quickie is essential viewing for fans of Roger Corman and the New World Pictures legacy. It was directed by the wonderful Charles B. Griffith, screenwriter of several Corman classics including the original Little Shop of Horrors. Griffith claims Depths was written by an office typist who had no aspirations of screenwriting. It’s hard to argue this assertion. Shot in the Philippines, doubling for Maui, the story concerns a group of tourists being menaced by a prehistoric sea monster recently awakened by an earthquake. Virgil Frye is the annoying hotel manager who sets a bounty on the man-eating fish. Island grifter Sam Bottoms, far, far away from The Last Picture Show and hotel employee Susanne Reed attempt to destroy the cardboard creature. Corman evidently edited half of the footage (mainly comedic shenanigans) from the final cut, which was probably for the best.
RIFF FACTOR: 8, ENTERTAINMENT FACTOR: 3
This is another solid film anchored by a clever John Sayles script and given tight direction by Lewis Teague (Cujo). A baby alligator is flushed down a toilet and grows to monstrous size thanks to genetically enhanced animal carcasses littering the sewer system. It eventually escapes and begins to chow down on the city of Chicago. A game Robert Forster plays a cop looking into the gruesome remains of the attacks and is aided by herpetologist Robin Riker (who, ironically, may be inadvertently responsible for the alligator’s existence). The title creature is portrayed by a mix of animatronic and actual alligators, which manages to create a far more realistic menace than any of the sharks in the Jaws saga. Lots of in-jokes, satisfying violence and genuine chemistry from the leads make this one eminently watchable. Less a Jaws riff than a “nature-runs-amok” thriller, it’s still a valid entry on this list and a perfect second feature to its brother-in-bite Piranha.
RIFF FACTOR: 4, ENTERTAINMENT FACTOR: 9
Jaws 2 (1978)
Some might think that including this title on the list is a cheat, that technically Jaws 2 is a continuation of the “Brody saga” and therefore a legitimate follow-up to the classic original. Some might be wrong. Originally Jaws 2 had slightly higher aspirations than the silly crowd-pleaser that was eventually released. Director John Hancock (Let's Scare Jessica to Death) was hired to steer the huge project, with a script that dealt more realistically with the consequences from the events in the original. This was not meant to be as Hancock, the script and half the young cast were jettisoned for a more commercial entertainment. TV director Jeannot Szwarc (Bug) was brought on board while a more palatable narrative was hastily thrown together by original screenwriter Carl Gottlieb (replacing Howard Sackler). In Jaws 2 Roy Scheider reluctantly returns as Police Chief Martin Brody, once again facing a voracious killer shark in the waters of Amity Island. This time the events surround the Brody’s young sons and their friends who lead a carefree boating culture. Solid production values and good performances from the adult leads (including a returning Lorraine Gary and Murray Hamilton) make this low-aiming riff a true guilty pleasure.
RIFF FACTOR: 9, ENTERTAINMENT FACTOR: 10
Great White (1982)
There were several Italian riffs on Jaws, but none of them were as entertaining – or successful as this amazing title that menaced America for a very brief period in the spring of ’82. Just a few short years after his triumphant role in Killer Fish, James Franciscus returns to more derivative waters in Great White (also known as The Last Shark). Appearing rather late in the riff-off sweepstakes, director Enzo G. Castellari’s film has the dubious distinction of not only reimagining Jaws – but also its teen-targeted sequel. Shark expert Franciscus along with swarthy Quint-alike Vic Morrow attempt to rid “the lazy coastal town of Port Harbor” from the jaws of an insatiably hungry great white shark. Joshua Sinclair plays the no-good nick mayor who refuses to cancel the windsurfing contest – in spite of the body parts that begin to litter the surf. Breathtakingly ridiculous and loads of fun, Great White features an awesome shark that is capable of all manner of destruction, is able to swim backward – and growls! Come to think of it, Growls would have been another great alternate title. Pulled from theaters after just a couple of weeks in release after Universal sued for copyright infringement, Great White is more famous (or infamous?) for people having NOT seen it.
RIFF FACTOR: 9, ENTERTAINMENT FACTOR: 9