THE JAWS OF DEATH
Pros: Amusingly goofy; stunts are impressive since this film features real sharks
Cons: Confused tone; laughable script; iffy acting; pretty bleak and grimy looking
One of the first cash-in films produced in the wake of the success of 1975’s Jaws, the following year’s The Jaws of Death (also known under the title Mako: The Jaws of Death though no mako sharks are even seen in the picture) actually has more in common with the definitively 1970s genre of ecological horror and “animals strike back” films of the Willard, Ben, and Stanley variety than with Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster. Made in rural Florida by director/producer William Grefe who specialized in regional films designed for release in specific markets (and actually previously directed Stanley, the 1972 “my friends are snakes” movie), Jaws of Death tells the story of a loner named Sonny Stein who has become a friend to all sharks following an escapade in the Philippines in which the creatures saved him from armed pursuers. Years after the incident in which he was given a protective medallion by a Filipino shaman, Sonny lives in the Florida Keys as a sort of reclusive shark wrangler, but it seems all the locals have an interest in his sharks for one reason or another. A sleazy tavern owner wants to use a large tiger shark for an aquarium act at his establishment, while a sneaky scientist wants to observe a pregnant shark named Matilda giving birth. Though he initially agrees to allow these people access to his “friends,” Sonny quickly realizes that, amongst these snake-like characters, the only beings he can truly trust are the sharks themselves.
That’s what you get, Sharkhater!
Written by Robert W. Morgan from a story by director Grefe, Jaws of Death becomes one of the most downbeat and borderline depressing of the already dark ecological horror films of the 1970s. There isn’t even a glimpse of cheer or hope anywhere to be found in this picture: every human character aside from Sonny (who’s declared to be “a sickie” by all those around him due to his rather unhealthy relationship with predatory fish) comes across as a complete scumbag, liar, and cheat. One might think then that this film’s point would be to suggest that sharks are less ruthless than most people, but the tone of the film seems utterly confused. Part of the problem here is that Sonny is portrayed as the hero of the film, yet he has no problem ruthlessly killing humans who he believes are doing his friends the sharks wrong. In the end, there’s no sympathetic characters at all in the film: though Morgan seems at times to be arguing for shark conservation (albeit in a sketchy manner since sharks are actually killed onscreen in the picture), even these creatures are demonized and made villains by the end of the film. It prompts the question: Who exactly are we supposed to be rooting for here?
Richard Jaeckel as the FROGSUIT AVENGER!
Richard Jaeckel, who had a bit of a run in these types of movies – he also appeared in Day of the Animals and Grizzly, plays the role of Sonny in a dead serious manner and actually seems quite credible. Unfortunately, this also means that he recites some of the most goofy lines of dialogue imaginable with a straight-face, making for numerous unintentionally funny moments. Jaeckel’s muddled explanation of science and scientists is one thing (“it doesn’t make an difference what science thinks…whatever is, is. If they don’t believe it, it doesn’t change what is. Maybe it’s better they just don’t know…it makes them dumb” um WHAT!!?!), but listening to him angrily defend his “friends” the sharks is another (“HIS NAME IS SAMMY” he mutters angrily at one point; later he urges a scientist to treat Matilda with respect – “she’s very special to me”). Additionally, Jaeckel plays Sonny in much the same manner that Tom Laughlin portrayed the Native American ass-kicker Billy Jack in the film series of the same name. When any of the people around him start threatening Sammy or Matilda, Sonny…just…goes…berserk, leading to some of the most constipated and stiff fight scenes found in any film from the 1970s. It’s worth noting that Jaws of Death almost seems to predate some of the “anything goes” and gimmicky slasher films of the early 1980s in scenes where the frogsuit-clad Sonny viciously stalks human victims. These scenes aren’t at all effective as moments of horror in the hands of the dubiously talented Grefe, but still…
Jaeckel about ready to snap…
Smaller roles in the film are occupied by an iffy but nothing if not rather colorful cast of supporting players. Harold “Odd Job” Sakata (known for his role in the Bond film Goldfinger) plays a hulking but dimwitted thug hired by a weakling scientist as an enforcer, while the morbidly obese Buffy Dee plays Barney, the sleazeball bar owner who not only has no real problem if his wife Karen is raped by Sakata (“he’s one of my best customers!”) but also -gasp!- starts to antagonize the tiger shark recruited to appear in her aquarium act with high-frequency sound waves. This, or course, bumps him to the top of Sonny’s hit list, leading to one of the many deviously enjoyable kill scenes in this film (the human body being towed behind a boat is a keeper). Though a viewer winds up rooting for a character in Sonny who is definitely not a good, well-balanced dude, it’s hard to deny the feeling of satisfaction that occurs whenever Sonny knocks off one of the jerkoff characters surrounding him (usually by feeding them to hungry sharks).
Now that’s a meal fit for Jaws – the rotund Buffy Dee as the sleazy bar owner.
Jennifer Bishop is perhaps the most confusing character in the film, playing Barney’s wife Karen who initially comes across as a potential love interest for the generally likable if strange Sonny. Though she apparently is not entirely satisfied in her marriage (she flat out comes on to Sonny early in the film and has a rather angry outburst at Barney, finishing up with a plea for her husband to “beat the hell” out of the men who tried to rape her or “if [he] can’t do that, just sit on them”), as time goes on I just wanted this despicable woman to die a horrible death. When she demands that Sonny “get out of here, you sharklover” she finally went over the line, though I’m not sure if that declaration is supposed to be threatening or just ridiculous.
Movie gets bonus points for having real people in the water with real sharks…but that’s about it.
Technically speaking, Jaws of Death is pretty atrocious. Some of the problems may be due to the age and inferior condition of the print used in the version I watched, but this film (photographed by Julio C. Chavez) looks dreary throughout with an endless string of lousy day-for-night shots. It’s also just plain ugly in terms of its visual sense – though obviously filmed on location in Florida, it may as well have been filmed in the local mud bog for how lifeless the setting appears. There’s never an adequate build up of tension or any level of excitement in the picture; even if the film has nice underwater photography and scenes of actors interacting with real sharks (including some legitimately dangerous tigers), the entire thing is sluggish and dull, playing out to a gurgling and tedious music score.
If only ANYTHING in Jaws of Death came close to being as memorable as this moment…
Though it could be argued that the oppressively downbeat mood of the film was intentional (and if so, it’s a job well done), I was ultimately left with a sense that Jaws of Death could have been something definitively unique in the history of rather listless shark movies – but that it simply was handled poorly by a cast and crew who didn’t seem to have their hearts in the production. Always the professional, Jaeckel tries his hardest (witness the absurd, tearful conclusion of the story) and even appears to do many of his own stunts with the sharks, but he’s let down by a director who plays this one by the book and a script that can’t get any sort of momentum going. At best, this flick is an intriguing curiosity that would be entertaining for fans of bad movies, however most viewers would be better off avoiding it altogether.
DVD from Legacy Entertainment is full-frame with soft picture quality. No extras are included.
3/10 : A few shark attacks and some brief violence: mainly, it’s a series of scenes showing blood swirling around in the water. There’s no explicit gore.
1/10 : Very brief, very minor profanity. Nothing much.
1/10 : Some minor sexual content and innuendo. No nudity.
7/10 : Would be enjoyable for those looking for a laughably bad shark movie.
“You guys really kill me. Don’t you know no better’n’da swim out where people are fishin? No dang wonder ya’ll disappear. Gotta be pretty dumb ta swim out here.”