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SHARK KILL (1976)

“Judging by the way the shark took your brother’s leg, I’d say it’s about fifteen feet.”

“Fifteen feet!? But – this boat is only eighteen!”


  




  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, however, 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-renter 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 Rick has gone, Franey worriedly contacts Banducci, telling him that someone of Rick’s qualifications is unlikely to have made a mistake. Rick meets up with Carolyn, who is sketching by the docks. She immediately intuits that he has quit his job, explaining dryly that she has lived through two such incidents before. At the rig, Banducci sends down his divers in teams of three, two to work and one to watch. As the team is called up, the shark follows them, narrowly missing the last to leave the water, who does not even realise his narrow escape. That night 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 simply 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, more than thirty 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 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 21th May, 1976....one day after the television debut of another independent production, Shark Kill, which carries the honour of being the very first post-Jaws killer shark film.

Although it is hard to imagine that this film would ever have been produced without 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. There are only a couple of moments when it wanders near to those by-now well-worn tropes. Granted, as soon as the bounty is placed upon the shark, the water is covered by boats full of drunken idiots....but as I said, I think, in my review of Red Water, that’s less a Jaws cliché than a sad recognition of human nature. Besides, those drunken idiots turn out to play a very important part in the film’s climactic sequence. Otherwise, there is reluctance on the part of the divers and oil company employees to believe that the shark that Rick Dayner has seen really is a great white, but it hardly outlives a recitation of Rick’s professional qualifications. As usual, the almighty dollar is at the root of most of the selective blindness.

These days it is hard to decide how much sympathy we’re supposed to feel for the losses being sustained by the oil company, first because of the line blockage and then because of the shark, but the dilemma of the divers – many of them immigrants, and struggling to make ends meet – is clear enough. The oil company employee overseeing the diving puts the decision upon the shoulders of the dive-boss – because he can – while the dive-boss does finally send his men back into the water – because he must. Tragedy follows. Suspending their initial hostility, Rick and Cabo join forces and hire a boat in which to hunt the shark, but the circumstances being what they are, the only vessel available to them is a dinky little eighteen-footer – the Candy Bar, believe it or not – with a broken radio and faulty navigational lights. It is not until they are out in the open ocean that Rick chooses to reveal that the shark is probably all of fifteen feet long. Cabo doesn’t say it....but behind the dismay in his eyes, you can almost hear it: THAT line of dialogue.

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. 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 – and that’s even aside from the scourge of the twenty-first century, the CGI shark, which more often than not is simply appalling. 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 may be the only killer shark film ever made – and in saying that, I include Jaws – that is satisfied to give us a shark of realistic dimensions. At fifteen feet, this shark is bigger than average, but not ridiculously so. At any rate, it’s big enough – particularly, I would have thought, if you’re a six-foot man in an eighteen-foot boat....or adrift in the open ocean....

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 their 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 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.

The real triumph of Jaws has, of course, very little to do with its shark. Where that film succeeds best is in the sequences between the shark scenes, which are beautifully written and brilliantly executed; 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 the 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 twin protagonists, and in doing so outdoes a lot of its competition by managing to bat five hundred. As Cabo Mendoza and his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Bonnie, Richard Yniguez and Elizabeth Gill are so likeable that their portion of the film goes down very easily. We see Cabo 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. (Bonnie, in the know, earns a tidy profit betting on the former naval boxing champion. “I got a hundred dollars says Cabo can beat that creep!” she announces as Cabo steps outside with his mouthy opponent. “Which one’s Cabo and which one’s the creep?” inquires her intended mark.) None of this is anything we haven’t seen in dozens of other films, but it’s deftly written – by our old friend Sandor Stern – and nicely performed, meaning that as long as we are in company with Cabo and Bonnie, we don’t resent too much the prolonged absence from the screen of the shark we’re really here to see.

The same cannot be said, however, of the scenes dealing with Rick Dayner and his girlfriend, not just because Phillip Clark and Jennifer Warren lack the charisma of their co-stars, but because the defining characteristic of both Rick and Carolyn is their monumental selfishness. Hearing that Rick has quit his job, Carolyn’s only thought is that now they’ll be able to spend the weekend together, like she wanted. His frustration at his inability to get his superiors to listen to him prompts nothing more from her than a suggestion that he return to Los Angeles with her – “There’s nothing for you here!” – while when he decides that he must make another effort to warn people about the shark, she backs away from him altogether, as though his request for some emotional support was an outrageous imposition. But Rick himself is hardly Mr Pure. While his walking out on his job over the oil company’s refusal to take the shark threat seriously initially seems admirable, it becomes less and less so the more we learn about Rick. In fact, the man is a serial job-loser who has some serious problems with both authority and responsibility; whose one professed goal in life is, “Freedom, man!”; and whose agitation of the press and the police about the shark has less to do with his concern for the public than it does with justifying his latest professional failure.

Be Rick’s motivations what they may, his gloomy predictions are fulfilled when the shark kills one of the oil company’s divers and takes the leg off another – Luis Mendoza, Cabo’s brother. A reporter on the paper that Rick tried to alert phones him to tell him that the oil company has put a $20,000 bounty on the shark, while Cabo gets the news from the paper itself. The two halves of Shark Kill collide when, both in quest of suitable transportation, Rick and Cabo meet at the docks and form an uneasy alliance.

Now, the shark has at once killed one of his colleagues and deprived his brother of both his leg and his livelihood, so Cabo’s mingled desire for vengeance and financial gain is understandable; but Rick is another matter. Once the bounty is announced we hear nothing more from him about the public good. He first tries to hire a helicopter from which to shoot the shark, and when he learns that there is none available until the following day, protests, “But the shark might be gone by then!” Uh, Rick? Shark gone, people safe---- Isn’t that good? Evidently not, as Rick immediately hot-foots it to the dock to find a boat in which to pursue the animal – which has, in fact, moved right away from the oil platform. Eventually he reveals to Cabo his intention of using his bounty money to buy a boat, said boat representing, “The freedom to tell everyone to buzz off!” This is, in short, a man whose only ambition is to rid himself of all personal responsibility; who wants money but isn’t willing to work for it. What’s worse, this is a marine biologist who has no thought in his head but to kill an animal for profit. We learn that prior to his walking out on the oil company, Rick has had “three jobs in two years”. If his behaviour here reflects his idea of “marine biology”, it’s hardly surprising.

Armed with the fruits of their various labours – recordings of injured fish and an underwater sound system on Rick’s part, and a inflated floating explosive device dubbed a “Mendoza cocktail” on Cabo’s – the two men set out in the diminutive Candy Bar. Failing to catch sight of their quarry, and with a fog settling in, they reluctantly give up for the day – only to find that the boat won’t start. Becalmed and hidden by the fog, the men suddenly see another vessel, much larger and manned by drunken partiers, bearing down on them. Moments later, the Candy Bar has been obliterated, and Rick and Cabo are adrift in the ocean, with night falling and a single “Mendoza cocktail” between them to help them stay afloat....

It is this twist that has seen some belated comparisons drawn between Shark Kill and the recent Open Water; and while the horrifying true story that inspired the latter film is sufficiently well-known, it’s tempting to think also 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.) Thankfully, this night is shorter than any other in California’s history. With the dawn comes the Coast Guard, rousted out by the loyal Bonnie, and also comes the shark. It is here more than anywhere else that the film’s reliance on stock footage 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 an effort to convince us that something thrilling is happening.) The Coast Guards put their helicopter, which is on pontoons, down on the water, and Rick and Cabo manage to “out-swim” the shark and climb to safety. On board they find a flare-gun immediately to hand – how convenient – while the shark selflessly keeps itself in the vicinity of the floating explosive device....

And the film closes with Rick and Cabo on their new boat. Something curious happens over the final third of this film. Rick Dayner, who for most of the film is pretty obnoxious, displays a new likeability in his interactions with Cabo; but if Cabo succeeds in making Rick a bit less of a jerk, then Rick succeeds in turn in infecting Cabo with his own jerk-itis. We hear no more about Cabo’s brother, or his disability, or his financial woes, which the bounty money was supposed to cure. Nor do we see much more of Bonnie or Carolyn. Cabo, we know from the beginning, is the footloose type, and Bonnie takes his desertion with a rueful shrug. Meanwhile, Rick’s relationship with Carolyn effectively came to an end when she refused to accompany him to the newspaper office – although he does sleep with her one more time before officially walking out. Nice. Shark Kill ends with both men celebrating their ditching of all personal and professional and financial responsibility. Upon reflection – and I’m not sure this is really anything for it to boast about – this film probably features the most peculiar emotional component of any killer shark film except Tintorera....but that, my friends, is a tale for another time.

I hope I haven’t been too hard on Shark Kill. It does, granted, represent a fairly tentative beginning to the epoch of the post-Jaws shark film, but whatever its limitations, it at least had the grace to carve itself a tiny original niche, instead of merely replicating its celebrated forerunner, as it so easily could have done; as a great many films did do, and continue to do. Apart from its historical importance, Shark Kill is also a good example of what just might be the last great untapped resource of archival cinema: the made-for-television movies of the seventies and eighties. Anyone who grew up in the era of MFTV film-making cannot help but have a handful of these little films engraved upon their heart. (Here’s a test: find someone of the right age, mention Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, and watch them squirm.) At their best they were brilliant – Duel, lest we forget, was originally made for television – and even those of modest virtues, like Shark Kill, have an integrity about them entirely lacking in the dispiriting product churned out like sausages by today’s direct-to-DVD companies.

The tragedy, of course, is while the viewers loved them, by the companies that produced them these films were regarded simply as disposable filler material, to be screened once or twice and then thrown away. Fortunately, some people who did grow up during that era have made it their business to track down a few of these films and release them on DVD. For Shark Kill we have the company Wild Eye to thank – as we do for its companion piece, The Maneaters Are Loose! It must be conceded that the print of Shark Kill is distinctly sub-par – a roll in the picture at one point makes it fairly evident that this was sourced from a videotape, and the colour balance is all over the place – but that should not dissuade anyone with any affection for the films of this era (or any killer shark film completist) from picking up a copy of the film, whose extreme rarity is apology enough, if an apology is needed, for the shortcomings of the picture quality.



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----17/09/07