So sometime about two weeks ago I started REALLY jonesing to see a movie that featured shark attacks. Unfortunately I think I have very few options left in this genre, and after this movie, it’s quite possible that I have none. This is a telling of a true story that happened along the New Jersey shore in 1916, and if, as you’re reading, you sense echoes of Jaws, it’s because this is the event that inspired Peter Benchley’s story. I actually read a book about this event, called Close To Shore by Michael Capuzzo. Although it was “acclaimed,” it was one of those perfectly dreadful modern books of nonfiction that contain about 75 pages of what you want to know and 225 pages of fluff designed at boosting page count and appealing to contemporary readers who get bored by history books that contain too much history.
This turns out to be a Discover Channel original movie and, well, I’m afraid it seems like it. This was directed by Jack Sholder, notorious for directing the gayest horror movie ever to have existed, A Nightmare on Elm Street II: Freddy’s Revenge. There’s not much gay content here, however, unless you count the camera’s lingering gaze at this film’s pretty, pretty hero. Okay! So we begin with a title saying it’s based on a true story from 1916, then the movie begins with a voice-over telling us it’s 1916, causing us to say “Oh yeah, as you just told us.” We have some B&W photos of the beaches and New York City, as we hear that 1) it was super-hot that summer, 2) “sea-bathing” had become a national craze, and 3) there was a polio epidemic in NYC, causing people to want to get out of the metropolis and to the fresh air of the beach. All of this is to support that the beaches were absolutely packed that year, a point which we’ll come back to.
So we have a nice little recreation of the Jersey Shore circa 1916, and having read the book and been intrigued by this world of these huge ornate shoreline hotels and a lovely boardwalk culture, I was fascinated to see it. Now of course no one can stand to have a historical story without some tepid romance to spice things up, so before we have anyone ripped apart by the horrors of the deep we must endure some horrible “characters.” Our hero is Alex, black-haired hunk who reminded me of a young Christopher Reeve. He is approached by Alice, a low-rent Sarah Michelle Gellar with the affect of a snail, and Stan, innocuous mild-mannered business guy. Alice and Alex used to be an item, until she switched to Alex’s former best friend, Stan, and now they’re about to be married. However, it seems that Alice’s real love is playing mind games, as she approaches Alex to ask which color cake they should have at their wedding, and when he chooses green, says “You see? I knew ALEX would know exactly what to do” [or some such], then takes off. Thanks for the emotional manipulation! I really appreciate it! So Stan and Alex have more character-setting talk while you start to think “Uh, Alex, aren’t you supposed to be paying attention to the water?” Then some strapping lad goes into the water and you can tell he’s going to be victim #1 because of how arrogant he is about his swimming ability. He gets bitten on the leg, loses a ton of blood, and dies.
Around this time one really appreciates the 1916 setting, as at the time people really hadn’t ever encountered anything like this before, and the peace of the beach really is shattered and people have no clue how to respond. Alex is called to meet the town council [or whoever] who say they’re going to leave the beaches open, that they can’t be sure it was a shark. The next few scenes provide some thematic hammering of the fact that because of the “sea-bathing craze,” development has gone insane along the Jersey shore, and even Woodrow Wilson is coming that night to laud the area and encourage building. And obviously a shark scare would not be good for business. Then milquetoast Stan tells Alex that continuing a booming business is the most important thing, and for a while it seems like literally everyone in town [except the wise old sea cap’n, as we shall see] is against Alex.
Okay, so then some more emotional manipulation from passive-aggressive sociopathic erotic game-player Alice. She appears late at night in the hotel with a come-hither look and asks Alex if he's ever had second thoughts about them. He says that's not a fair question, then admits that he has. He then asks her, and she says "The question is no more fair when you ask it," to which he says "Fair enough," when he should have said "Right, well, you asked it anyway, and I answered, so now it's your turn." I hate it when people get away with this kind of shit in the movies. The script throughout, it must be said, is not the work of Shakespeare. It's just extremely pedestrian and it's as if the writer, Jeffery Reiner, just wanted to make everyone seem "old-timey," rather than give them any genuine emotions or reactions. It comes off as though his research into the time period did not extend beyond whatever old movies he had already seen.
Anyway, next day we see Alex swimming way out deep, and you're like "Uh, dude, remember the shark?" And what, is he like LOOKING for it? You're just going to swim around and try to eyeball it in the vast stretches of murky water? Then he comes in, sees some doofs swimming out with a huge tube, and sends one of the other lifeguards in to get them. The lifeguard gets his legs bitten off above the knee! This makes Alex feel like totally bad. The attack is okay for the micro-budget this thing has, as you see both guy AND shark thrashing in the surf, and many of the shots are so quick that the foam-rubber nature of the shark never becomes distractingly apparent.
So after the second attack the story hits the papers in NYC and we see the mayor say it's no big deal, a freak occurrence, and dispatch someone from the Museum of Natural History to investigate. There's also two charlatans, Michael and Murphy, who go down to the shore to catch the shark and claim the reward that has been offered. Then Alex agrees to help his old salt buddy Captain [I think we'll just call him Cap'n] in putting up this fence around the shore. Basically they sink these thin poles—not pounded into the sea floor, mind you, just weighted down, then put up a fence that is about the strength you might use to contain chickens. What's more, they accomplish this by just holding their breath and diving, no goggles or fins. The divers are "protected" by guys on the boat with rifles. The whole thing is eye-rollingly stupid, but on the other hand, it was very refreshing to be with people who DON'T know exactly what to do, who are grasping at these tiny, nearly useless measures of security, and that's all they've got. They're really in danger and have almost no protection. Thank God no one in this movie whips out any kind of super-advanced gadget that locates and kills sharks in 13.6 seconds or whatever.
So after Alex and Stan have a really big fight [and soon make up, which was a bummer, because Stan is SO odious], the expert from the Museum of Natural History, played by an actor with a natural, Chris Farley-esque likability, shows up, as do the two charlatans. We are told that it's the last day of the shark rampage, and for the first time, at 48 minutes, see a Great White shark underwater. We are told that the last day was "a real scorcher," and that people jammed up the beaches, despite the warnings about sharks. Now, sort of a minor problem that completely changes the character of what's really happening here is that the production just can't afford to fill up beaches with extras like they keep telling us they are—and like we saw in the historical photographs at the beginning. So we're supposed to believe that the beaches are packed, even though what we're seeing is a quite roomy and sparsely-populated expanse. For example, while the below image in on screen, we are hearing voice-over telling us that on this day people were at the beach "in record numbers." So what, the record before this day was three people?
SPOILERS > > >
So the wise ol' Cap'n spots a wise ol' pelican who is supposedly out of his natural region [there's a lot of hugger-mugger about how a shift of the gulf stream probably brought the shark to their shores], when he spots the shark swimming up the creek from the sea. He gets in a boat and goes along the creek warning everyone, but not in time to save this group of boys, one of whom gets killed. In certain shots here, btw, the visible shark is as stiff as a board. The townspeople come, and Stan and two others dive in to look for the boy—again, by hand, with no goggles or anything, making it a nearly impossible task. One of the guys is brushed by the shark and they get out, but Alice is standing on the dock, and Alex is arriving in a boat coming down the way—and at this point I was like: "Of course, Stan is going to have to die so Alex can be with Alice without betraying his friend and being a bad person." It turns out to be exactly so. The shark goes on to attack a group of other boys. Hmm, hungry today, lil' fella!
Then Alex sees Cap'n displaying a shark and selling pictures of it. Alex knows it's not the shark, and is unhappy with Cap'n for stooping so low, especially as he is in effect telling the town that the shark has been caught and it's safe to go in the water. I thought this was quite a low blow for a character we are supposed to admire, but on the other hand, it's nice to have things shaken up a bit. Alex uses his indiscretion to coerce him to go hunt for the shark, at which point I was like "Jesus Christ, how much longer is this going to go ON?" because I was getting seriously bored by this point—and they DID tell us it's the last day. Quite an eventful day, I guess.
They go out in the boat, see the charlatan out there, the shark jumps at them, then the shark gets caught in a net of the charlatan's boat. Alex dives in and swims over to attach a grappling hook to the shark, whereupon we see the shark pulling the boat along, then—they arrive on shore with the shark hanging from a hook, and the end. Well, that was rather abrupt, was it not? Of course Alex has a misty-eyed reunion with his snail-love, Alice, and that's it!
< < < SPOILERS END
Okay, where to begin? I guess with the real history. The reality is that all of the attacks took place in separate towns, as the shark moved steadily up the coast, not in one town as here. All of the main characters are based on real people, but these were people in different towns and never knew each other. One thing the movie alludes to but doesn't have the budget to show is that the attacks spurred a massive shark hunt all along the coast, and many sharks were killed. The charlatan ended up killing the shark all by himself, proven by opening its belly and finding human remains inside. Read the relatively interesting real story here.
One area of interest of this movie is how Benchley adapted it into the novel of Jaws. You have corollaries for many of the characters, the whole angle of the town refusing to close the beaches for economic reasons, the attacks in the creek become the attacks in "the pond," the craze for catching the shark, etc. I thought it was interesting to see how Benchley changed the characters—for example, the trio that kills the shark, the lifeguard becomes the town police chief, the old sea salt stays the same, and the scientist in this version stays on shore while the charlatan goes hunting with them—but that was before I learned that all of these characters were in different towns and never met. So it turns out that this movie IS quite a rip-off of Jaws, as it chooses to arrange the material into a very, very Jaws-like structure. A little disappointing, that.
The other thing this movie proves is that Speilberg's film of Jaws did it once, did it best, and did it for all time. There can never be another shark attack film that does not lie in the shadow of Jaws. Almost all the visual ideas that can be explored in this motif have been exploited by Jaws, and there's just nothing left to do [unless you make a huge deviation of setting, like in Deep Blue Sea]. Part of this is that it's a limited subject, the other part is that Spielberg is a genius.
Finally, as a movie? Not bad for a Discovery Channel original movie, but not great as a movie. There are just so many aspects left to explore that the movie just doesn't have the budget for, and the compositing of characters and overlay of the most conventional love story imaginable only detract. What the movie does have going for it are its time period and setting, and the naïveté of the population at the time—which the movie could have done a lot more with. But then you'd have to have a lot more on historical psychology and the social setting, and that's not what this movie is about. It's kind of ironic to think that you would watch this movie on the Discovery Channel to find out what happened in these real events, and then be so misled, because the movie distorts the truth to such a degree.
But if you need a decent shark attack fix, another version of Jaws when you've already worn out your DVD of Jaws… this is sort of like eating one of those frozen hamburgers with frozen buns when what you want is a juicy bar burger, but in a pinch, it will provide some meager sustenance.
Will suffice if you are absolutely desperate for shark attack action.