“I want to tell you about a shark attack.”
“Do you want to report one?”
“No, I want to prevent one…”
Director: William A. Graham
Starring: Richard Yniguez, Phillip Clark, Elizabeth Gill, Jennifer Warren, Victor Campos, David Huddleston, Jimmie B. Smith, Carmen Zapata, Richard Foronjy, Roxanna Bonilla-Giannini
Screenplay: Sandor Stern
Synopsis: Work halts on an oil rig off the southern California coast as divers try unavailingly to fix a blockage in one of the underwater pipes. Meanwhile, on shore, marine biologist Rick Dayner (Phillip Clark) arranges the purchase of a trawler, as his artist girlfriend, Carolyn (Jennifer Warren), watches with mixed emotions. Rick, who is employed by the oil company as a consultant, then makes his way by boat out to the rig, where two divers are attempting yet again to locate the blockage. Unbeknownst to the two men, their arrhythmic pounding on the oil-pipe has attracted some unwanted attention… Seeing a fin cut the water, Rick shouts a warning to the men on the rig, who work frenziedly to bring the two divers safely to the surface. When Alejandro “Cabo” Mendoza (Richard Yniguez), one of the divers, demands an explanation, Rick insists that what he saw was not the blue shark common to the area, but a great white. Cabo scoffs, and prepares to re-enter the water, while Rick argues unavailingly with the crew’s boss, Banducci (Richard Foronjy). A volley of contemptuous abuse from Cabo following him, Rick makes his way from the dive platform into the rig itself, where he directs his arguments at company man Franey (Jimmie B. Smith) who, his eyes on the financial losses stemmimg from the pipe blockage, says only that he must trust the divers’ judgement. When Rick threatens angrily to quit, Franey throw his erratic employment record in his face. However, when he has gone, Franey worriedly contacts Banducci, telling him that someone of Rick’s qualifications is unlikely to have made a mistake. Banducci begins sending down his divers in teams of three, two to work and one to watch. As the last team of the day is called up, the shark follows them; the last man in the water does not even realise he has had a narrow escape… Over dinner, Cabo continues to complain about what he calls Rick’s panic, but only succeeds in frightening his sister-in-law, Maria (Roxanna Bonilla-Giannini), into trying to talk her husband, Luis (Victor Campos), out of diving. That night, as Cabo rekindles his on-off relationship with Bonnie (Elizabeth Gill), Rick is unable to shake off the feeling that he must continue to try and warn people of the shark. To his disappointment, Carolyn refuses him her help. Rick heads for the local newspaper office, but his warnings come too late: at the rig, one diver is killed and Luis Mendoza losses his leg when the shark finally attacks. The next morning, Cabo opens the newspaper to learn that a $20,000 bounty has been placed on the shark by the oil company. The same news reaches Rick via one of the paper’s journalists. He immediately heads for the dock to try and hire a boat, only to find Cabo there on the same mission. The two men team up to hunt the killer shark…
Comments: It is impossible to overestimate the impact upon the motion picture industry of the release of Jaws during the American summer of 1975. For better or for worse, nothing about the way that films were conceived, or made, or marketed was ever the same again; while even now, so many years later, the specifics of that production are still being regurgitated in killer animal films almost without number.
The financial success of Jaws made a slew of cash-ins inevitable; and indeed, we are able to calculate almost to the minute how long it used to take for a blockbuster success to spawn its rip-offs. Jaws opened in US cinemas on the 20th of June, 1975. The first overt Jaws copy was William Girdler’s Grizzly, which took the Jaws formula and reproduced it wholesale in the forests of Georgia. Produced independently, Grizzly debuted in cinemas on the 21st of May, 1976…one day after the television debut of another independent production, Shark Kill, which holds the honour of being the very first post-Jaws killer shark film.
But while this film would probably not have been made at all except for the triumph of Jaws, it would be unfair to call Shark Kill simply a Jaws rip-off. In fact, it may have less in common with its illustrious predecessor than any other killer shark film made since, with only a couple of moments when it wanders near to those by-now well-worn tropes.
Similarly, it is hard to imagine that anyone would have bothered to dig out a copy of Shark Kill and release it to DVD were it not for what we might call the second wave of killer shark films, those made possible by the introduction of computer-generated imagery, which was kicked off by 1999’s Deep Blue Sea.
I use the expression “dug out” advisedly. This is the worst quality print that I have ever seen in a standalone DVD release (which is to say, I own an embarrassing number of those Mill Creek public domain sets). It isn’t merely that this copy of Shark Kill was so obviously sourced from a videotape, it’s that it keeps every one of that video’s flaws, including an impressive tape-roll during the opening credits, and plenty of moments when the picture distorts at the edge of the frame. The image itself is horribly muddy, awash with the pinky-brown that signifies Eastmancolor improperly preserved, and the sound rather muffled.
It’s the complete package, in other words; so much so that those of us who lived and suffered through the videotape-hire era might find ourselves experiencing waves of nostalgia.
All of this begs the question of whether it is worth persisting with the image flaws for the sake of the film. Plenty of made-for-television movies from the 70s do still hold up amazingly well today, but Shark Kill isn’t in that upper echelon. It’s a film for the completist, rather than the general viewer.
That said, I don’t mean to put anyone off, merely warn people what they’re getting into (which is more than the DVD does: a disclaimer about the print, either on the packaging or up-front, would have been the classy thing to do). It can be difficult to find the right balance when dealing with something like Shark Kill, which was, after all, certainly not made in expectation of having to stand up to any kind of critical scrutiny; not even critical scrutiny as haphazard and partial as this. And while finding fault with a little film like this is (ahem) rather like shooting fish in a barrel, it is also possible to find a few virtues in it—although a real love for this particular sub-genre probably helps.
One thing I can commend Shark Kill for is that it gets its species of shark right. Now, that may sound stupid, but if you’ve watched as many killer shark films as I have, you’ll know how often any old shark is thrown at the viewer, regardless of its identity. Shark Kill’s shark may be stock footage, but they promise us a great white, and a great white is what we get. For someone like me, content simply to look at these animals, that’s a treat in itself.
In addition, this is one of the very few killer shark movies ever made that is satisfied to give us a shark of realistic dimensions. At fifteen feet, this shark is bigger than average, but not ridiculously so.
But of course, if you’ve only got a stock footage shark, then there will only be so much that you can do to make that animal seem threatening. Shark Kill tries its best, via some fairly desperate editing and an even more desperate cranking up of the soundtrack, to convince us that its characters are in danger, but little tension is generated. Then, too, it is evident that only a limited amount of stock footage was available; the film resorts to both repeating and reversing shots in order to pad out its resources.
Apart from a few random inserts, there are only three real shark sequences in this film: when it menaces a dive-crew early on, without the men being aware of it; when it makes its fatal attack; and when it considerately reappears for the climactic showdown. Even in a film only seventy-six minutes long, that’s not a whole lot of shark. In fact, it is (as we shall see) possible to capture pretty much every bit of footage of the shark’s appearances within the confines of a review.
So in order to stretch itself out to an acceptable running-time, Shark Kill took the obvious road, and ends up being a perfect example of a very old cinematic truism: action – and stock footage – may be expensive, but talk is awful cheap.
On the other, the film doesn’t waste any time in introducing its menace: we get our first stock footage within the opening fifteen seconds! – as over-emphatic music tries to convince us that the divers working from an oil platform are in imminent danger.
It turns out that an attempted cleaning of the underwater pipeline has gone wrong, and that the device used to flush out the line, known as a “pig”, has gotten stuck somewhere. The divers have been hired to find the spot and clear it, but are having trouble because of the convoluted layout of the pipes. Their failure doesn’t sit well with team-leader Banducci, who reminds the others that they are, “The hottest diving-team this side of the North Sea!” He orders another pair of divers into the water, who search for the pig by tapping their way along the metal pipe.
Marine biologist Rick Dayner, who is employed by the oil company for reasons that the screenplay never makes clear, is on his way to the platform by boat when he spots a fin cutting through the water. He bellows, “Shark!“, prompting the rapid recall of the divers. Actually, assuming that they are in danger, they’d probably be safer waiting out the shark on the bottom of the bay, rather than thrashing around in the water and dangling temptingly while being lifted out; but this isn’t the kind of film to consider details like that. We’re left to assume that the divers had a close call, with more over-emphatic music to drive the point home.
The divers, particularly Cabo Mendoza, are unimpressed, sneeringly accusing Rick of overreacting and pointing out that there are sharks around all the time. “Blue sharks,” replies Rick grimly. “This was a great white.”
The implication being, of course, that (i) great whites are man-eaters, and (ii) this one must be there to eat men.
For some reason Cabo finds the thought of a great white in these waters ridiculous, and scoffs at Rick’s claim. Rick gives up arguing with the divers and makes his way from the diving-platform to the oil-rig, where he reports his sighting. However, overseer Franey pushes the responsibility back onto the dive-team.
Franey’s reluctance to act prompts a petulant, “Take this job and stuff it!” from Rick. As he storms off, Franey does have a word with Banducci, who dismisses Rick’s concerns, calling him “a greenhorn” in the process. Franey then reveals that Rick has a PhD in marine biology from the Scripps Institute. This persuades Banducci to send down three-man diving-teams, two to work, one to stand guard with a bang-stick. One of the divers observes gloomily that, if it is a white, “A bang-stick will be as much use as a pop-gun.” The divers complete their shift without incident, although we’re again supposed to believe they have a close call while returning to the platform.
Meanwhile, Rick has caught up with his artist-girlfriend, Carolyn, for whom his quitting means no more than that their planned weekend (threatened by the blocked oil-line) is back on.
The triumph of Jaws is of course that its character scenes are every bit as gripping and enjoyable as its action sequences: so much so, that not only is it easy to overlook how little we really see of the film’s eponymous star, but by the time the shark does make its belated appearance, the commitment of the viewer to those characters is absolute—and so is the suspension of disbelief. Sadly, this lesson seems to have been lost upon the perpetrators of most of the Jaws imitations, who give us neither characters we take an interest an in nor sufficient shark scenes to ease the consequent pain.
Shark Kill passes its time away from the water by dwelling on the personal and professional issues of its joint protagonists, in which respect it bats five hundred at best. Though he does change over the course of the film, Rick Dayner remains an unattractive personality: immature and selfish, he has clear issues with authority. He’s also a serial job-quitter, whose tantrum at the oil company is his third such exit in two years. Later, he will reveal that the height of his ambition in life is, “The freedom to tell anybody to buzz off!”
(In fact, the more I see of him, the less I believe in that PhD from Scripps.)
Rick is well-matched by Carolyn, who never thinks of his situation other than in terms of what she might gain from it—a weekend away in the first place, Rick moving back to Los Angeles, as she would prefer, in the second: “There’s nothing here for you now!” She is annoyed to find that he has “quit the job but not the problem”, and advises him to just walk away and forget it. When Rick decides that he can’t let the shark business go and asks her, not to do anything, but merely for some emotional support, she separates herself from him as if his request is something outrageous.
So the time we spend with this pair is pretty painful. Fortunately, we do better over in the parallel character-plot. One of the nice things about Shark Kill is that it gave billing to Richard Yniguez as Cabo, who we see at work, at home with his extended family, and fist-fighting for fun and profit, generally against those unwise enough to object to the presence of a “Chicano” at their favourite bar. His initial mouthiness notwithstanding, Yniguez’s Cabo is a lot easier to like than Rick; and he is-well matched by Elizabeth Gill as Bonnie, Cabo’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. The easy charm of these two helps mitigate the irritation of the Rick / Jennifer material.
Despite having been separated for a year, Cabo and Bonnie quickly hook up again. The latter is technically seeing someone else, but she’s just about had enough of her fitness-fanatic boyfriend’s self-absorption…and his lack of energy in the bedroom:
Bonnie: “I have this fantasy… Ice-cold beer, pretzels, loud music, and the company of loads of pot-bellied physical degenerates.”
We also follow Cabo to the home he shares with his mother, his brother, Luis (who dives with him), and sister-in-law, Maria; and his young niece and nephew. Word of the shark prompts an argument between Luis and Maria, the latter of whom would gladly give up high wages in exchange for her husband’s safety, though Luis is having none of it. Interestingly, no-one sympathises with Luis’ head-of-the-household outburst: Cabo points out that Maria is only speaking out of love, while Mama Mendoza gives her older son a steely-eyed glare, until he shamefacedly kisses and makes up with his wife before returning to work.
Meanwhile, Carolyn having departed, Rick tries one more tactic to publicise the shark, offering the story (such as it is) to a local newspaper. He is too late, however. A real story soon comes down the wire: that one diver has been killed, and another has lost his leg, and very nearly an arm. The latter is Luis Mendoza…
The oil company, in addition to suspending the diving, places a $20,000 bounty on the shark. This is one of the moments where Shark Kill does echo Jaws, even to the bounty prompting an “idiots on the loose” sequence.
The announcement has different effects upon Cabo and Rick. For Cabo, it means financial support for Luis and Maria and their children; though he fully intends to kill the shark anyway, as Luis implores him to do.
For Rick, however – marine biologist Rick – it’s all about the money…
To give him his due, to this point Rick has been concerned entirely with public safety; but safety goes out the window when a shot at a tidy lump sum and, “Freedom, man!” walks through the door. His first thought is to track the animal by helicopter. He tries to hire one, but learns that none are available until the following day—prompting the frustrated protest, “But the shark might be gone by then!”
Uh, Rick? Shark gone, people safe— Isn’t that good?
Apparently not. Rick then hot-foots it to the dock, where he manages to cut Cabo out of the last available boat, an inadequate little vessel known as the Candy Bar. Rick at first rejects Cabo’s suggestion that they work together, claiming that he is too “emotionally involved”; but he finally capitulates. Each of the men contributes a different skill-set, and different equipment, to the hunt for the shark: Rick brings long all the latest snazzy equipment, and ex-navy demolitions expert Cabo a homemade, floating explosive device that he likes to call “a Mendoza cocktail”. They set out together on the Candy Bar, sent on their way with a suggestion from its pragmatic owner that they be back before dark, as the boat’s navigation lights don’t always work…
The hunt starts badly, with the tiny Candy Bar almost wiped out by the flotilla congregated around the oil-rig. Expert Rick has Cabo head out to sea, arguing that the crowd will drive the shark away in any case, but that he has the means of attracting it.
From here Shark Kill ought to get more suspenseful, but in truth it becomes something of an endurance test, as precious little happens, and Rick and Cabo pass the time by swapping life-histories. The one interesting point here is that while Rick holds the oil company responsible for the situation, Cabo insists that the divers, Luis included, knew what they were doing and chose to take the risk
A minor false scare finally occurs when a fin is sighted, but, “It’s not our shark.” The viewer can only be grateful for this clarification, as the animal is conveyed via the exact same clip we’ve seen twice before, when it is “our shark”.
On the other hand—when Rick says this shark is “too small”, it finally occurs to Cabo to ask how big the one they’re hunting is?
Rick: “Judging from how it took your brother’s leg, I’d say it’s about fifteen feet.”
Cabo: “Fifteen feet!? But—this boat is only eighteen!”
Cabo doesn’t say it; but nevertheless we can almost hear it: THAT line of dialogue…
Meanwhile, a cutaway shows us that “our shark” is in fact lurking under the Candy Bar; but nothing happens and the men never know it, so it’s really just a waste of good stock footage. Very good stock footage, actually, since not only does it show us a shark which much more clarity than usual, they found a clip of one beneath a boat rather smaller than itself, a rare example of the footage matching the film.
The day drifts on; the fog drifts in. The men debate giving up for the present, with an hour to go until dusk, but decide to try and find a patch of daylight instead.
However, they are unable to start the engine again; and the Candy Bar is sitting dead in the water when a party-boat suddenly looms up out of the fog and crushes the little boat under its stern, with the two men barely diving out of the way in time. The bigger vessel passes on, unaware that it has left Rick and Cabo adrift in the open ocean, with night closing in and a single “Mendoza cocktail” to help them stay afloat…
This touch has seen some belated comparisons drawn between Shark Kill and the more recent Open Water; and while the horrifying true story that inspired the latter film is sufficiently well-known, it’s still tempting to think that Chris Kentis might have seen Shark Kill during his formative years.
Unfortunately, the limitations of Shark Kill’s resources mean that not much is made out of what should be a nerve-wracking sequence. Rather, Rick and Cabo keep themselves going by doing what they do for most of the rest of the film, too: they talk – and talk – and talk…
(To be fair, this is of course what two people in such a situation would do.)
The shark does show up, though, and here more than anywhere else the film’s reliance on stock footage really hurts it: the animal’s menacing of Rick and Cabo is as unimpressive as it well could be. “He scraped my arm!” cries Cabo in a gallant attempt to convince us that something thrilling is happening.
Meanwhile, after an unnerving conversation with the Candy Bar‘s owner, the loyal and worried Bonnie rousts out the Coast Guard. The Candy Bar is the only boat that has not reported in; though there’s a charter vessel with a damaged stern…not that anyone onboard knows anything.
Bonnie also thinks to call Mama Mendoza—after, interestingly enough, we’ve heard Cabo admitting that thanks to his habit of “crazy stunts”, his family probably wouldn’t even miss him for a couple of days.
Dawn finally breaks, and the Coast Guard supplements its search-boat with a helicopter. Eventually the two men are spotted, and the pilot sets the chopper down upon the water, on its pontoons.
And just at that moment, the shark reappears, forcing Rick and Cabo to out-race it to the helicopter. They manage it, just – stock-footage sharks have their advantages – and Rick is barely onboard before he has located and seized a convenient flare-gun. The shark, meanwhile, selflessly keeps itself in the vicinity of the still-floating Mendoza cocktail…
(And before anyone asks— Yes, of course I’m annoyed that the helicopter gets away unscathed; even though, historically, this is correct…by one day…)
So with the Coast Guard as their witnesses, Rick and Cabo claim the bounty; and Rick uses his share to buy a trawler he’s been eyeing since the start of the film, which he believes will give him both the capacity to earn a living as he needs to, as well as the freedom he has always dreamed of.
Cabo’s story, however, does not end as we have been led to expect. We hear no more about Cabo’s brother, or his shocking injury, or his consequent inability to do the work he is qualified for; there is no hint that the situation might give Cabo new obligations.
Nor do we see much more of Bonnie or Carolyn. The handling of both this film’s relationships is questionable, its tacit suggestion that Carolyn is “the wrong kind” of girlfriend because she makes demands, whereas Bonnie is “the right kind” because she puts up with being dumped and picked up and dumped all over again without saying ‘boo’.
But even a girlfriend like Bonnie is too much of a drag on a man, it seems. Rick’s relationship with Carolyn effectively comes to an end when she refuses to accompany him to the newspaper office, although he does sleep with her one more time before officially walking out – nice – while a resigned Bonnie is around to watch Cabo walk out too, left to make do with the promise of an occasional postcard.
The viewer, meanwhile, is left to ponder whether the film-makers were conscious of the implications of this entire closing sequence, which amusingly enough foreshadows a major plot-thread of another post-Jaws killer shark film which would be along soon enough.
Shark Kill ends with Rick and Cabo celebrating their ditching of all personal and professional and financial responsibilities – of everything, in fact, except each other – as they literally sail off into the sunset together, in a manner that puts me irresistibly in mind of the relationship at the heart of the following year’s Tintorera, where the Mexicans spell out what the Americans barely dare hint at…