Hollywood loves a bandwagon to jump on, and while the creature feature was never bigger than in the fifties with atomic tests causing lizards, insects and random people to grow to enormous size, threatening Midwest farming communities and occasional desert cities, only occasionally shrinking the individuals to slip unseen between the cracks in the floorboards, it is in nature rather than the suburbs that dangerous animals are traditionally found.
Written and directed by Stephen Scarlata who has assembled interviews from dozens of speakers hailing from the realms of cinema, some well established and well regarded, others whose work inhabits a niche habitat, as well as marine biologists, conservationists and other scientists, it is a very specific cinematic subgenre which he has tagged, catalogued and released back into the wild in his documentary Sharksploitation.
The voices and insights diverse but sharing an enthusiasm for the subject informed by their broad range of expertise and experiences, it was in 1975 that Jaws took the cinema by storm and invented the blockbuster; based on Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel of the previous year, the antecedents were long established, with Joe Dante mentioning Creature from the Black Lagoon of 1954, Vanessa Morgan The Sea Bat of 1930, actually featuring a manta ray, a species closely related to sharks, and Doctor Emily Zarka even older stories and mythologies.
The Suicide Squad featuring a human/shark hybrid, his name Nanaue hails from a benevolent shapeshifting Hawaiian shark god who fathered a child with a human, but through the sixties and seventies sharks were already being established as dangerous in the public consciousness through supporting roles in several James Bond films, kept as pets by the villains who used them a means of executing those who disappointed or betrayed them.
While earlier films such as 1969’s Shark! and the 1971 documentary Blue Water, White Death are discussed, it is the post-Jaws explosion of films related or inspired by Spielberg’s breakthrough feature which forms the bulk of Sharksploitation, from the tangential “Jaws with claws” of Grizzly to the spoofs of Dante’s Piranha and the plethora of rip-offs such as Great White (L’ultimo squalo, more literally The Last Shark) of 1981, withdrawn from American distribution following accusations of plagiarism.
The era of straight-to-video and “mockbusters” requiring sufficient volumes of product of lower quality to fill an ocean, Sharksploitation presents a range astonishing and occasionally appalling, from the Bollywood musical Aatank to Sharknado and its sequels, with genuine praise offered increasingly rarely as the speakers move from the films to the fish and efforts made to advocate for their protection and conservation, intelligent and often misunderstood animals of complex behaviour which is seldom threatening to humans.
Sharksploitation will be available on Shudder from Friday 21st July