48 years after the release of Jaws, a new documentary written and directed by Stephen Scarlata explores the craze behind shark horror or ‘sharksploitation’ movies. With interviews from marine biologists, filmmakers, actors and even the wife of late Jaws author Peter Benchley, this educational piece taps into the human psyche and why it has become so shark-infested.
Ever since Jaws released in 1975—and perhaps starting even earlier, with this film documenting the appeal of older monster movies such as 1954 flick Creature From The Black Lagoon—the world has been gripped by a frenzy for shark horror films. Many things have motivated this craze, from the human fear of the lurking unknown—and by extension thalassophobia, or fear of the deep sea—to the love of pulp horror in general.
The film also discusses specific events that may have fuelled this craze, and how they added to the perception of sharks as a dangerous force; shark attacks on SS Indianapolis victims, the 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks and attacks on surfers off the coast of Australia are all mentioned. The documentary certainly cites its sources when it comes to documented shark behaviours that could be used to back up the thinking behind Jaws. There’s a real understanding of how these films feed on the hysteria around sharks and build on real-life events to enhance the impact of shark horror.
One worry that viewers might hold going into this film is whether the filmmakers have disregarded the nuance of the subject, whether they are upholding these films as cinematic triumphs without acknowledging the very real damage that they have done to public views on sharks. But this is not the case. Not only are marine biologists brought in to discuss the reality of shark behaviour compared to the films (not half as bloodthirsty as we’ve been led to believe!), but the filmmakers featured discuss and condemn the wave of shark-killings that occurred in the wake of Jaws, when some members of the public decided that sharks were too dangerous to be kept alive near their shores.
Following the film’s release, it has been suggested by director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, George Burgess, the large shark population around the eastern coasts of North America halved. While it has to be acknowledged that much of the decline in shark numbers has been due to overfishing and the animals becoming bycatch, Burgess suggested the hysteria around sharks following Jaws meant that many individual fishing enthusiasts pursued the adrenaline of catching a shark without the guilt of killing it. After all, if you convince yourself something is bloodthirsty and dangerous, it’s easier to justify killing it before it kills you.
Although films in the sharksploitation genre are not directly linked to shark deaths in any unmistakable way, then, they have contributed to wide public misinformation about the animals. As recently as July 2022 there has been panic among swimmers and beachgoers about supposed dangerous ‘sharks’ in UK waters—many of which turn out to be other large fish or even mammals such as seals. Informed caution is important, but the situation around fear of shark attacks is something closer to irrational panic. There have been very few unprovoked attacks in UK waters, with pop-culture induced terror being a more likely reason so many people seem to expect attacks.
This documentary functions very well, then, as an homage to the films while remaining aware of the harm they have caused. While it does not perpetuate misinformation—for every reference to an unrealistic shark behaviour there is an expert on hand to explain it away—it also doesn’t exclusively bog the films down in criticism for this lack of realism. The filmmakers and actors interviewed clearly love what they do, and a sense of fun is maintained throughout. There is enlightening discussion about props and mechanical or rubber sharks used in production, and plenty of laughs about the low-budget nature of many of these films – nobody takes themselves too seriously. They appreciate the craft – particularly as craftspeople themselves – and the humour is a part of that appreciation.
The only slight criticism is the running time; sitting at nearly two hours long, one wonders if this documentary needed the length of a feature-length film to make its point. As enjoyable as all of the references to past films are, they could easily have been trimmed down to give the documentary more of a sense of direction. A division into clearer chapters or sections would also have benefitted the flow. Although a timeline of shark films is followed, arranging things by topic and issue rather than chronologically might have streamlined things.
Sharksploitation is a self-aware love letter to shark movies that acknowledges their faults. Those who want a comprehensive history of shark-based films will enjoy the sheer number of references included in the documentary, as well as the backstage glimpses into their creation. The number of people interviewed is large and varied, including Jaws author’s wife Wendy Benchley, filmmaker Roger Corman, author and editor Vanessa Morgan, marine biologists including Vicky Vásquez, and many more.
Sharksploitation will be released on the Shudder platform on 21 July.
Words by Casey Langton
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