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L'ULTIMO SQUALO (THE LAST SHARK) (1981)

[aka Great White aka The Last Jaws aka Jaws Returns aka Jaws III]

It wasn’t a mako. It wasn’t a tiger. There’s only one shark in this whole world big enough to have caused that kind of damage.





  Director:
 
Enzo G. Castellari

  Starring: 
James Franciscus, Vic Morrow, Joshua Sinclair, Timothy Brent (Giancarlo Prete) Stefania Girolami, Micky Pignatelli, Gian Marco Lari, Thomas Moore (Ennio Girolami), Massimo Vanni, Romano Puppi, Chuck Kaufman

  Screenplay: 
Marc Princi, Vincenzo Manning and Ramón Bravo (uncredited), from a story by Ugo Tucci

Synopsis:  South Bay, Georgia, prepares for its centenary celebrations, which will include a windsurfing regatta. Race favourite Mark Patterson is in the middle of an extended practice session when something collides with his board; he looks around to see that the back of it has been bitten off. The next moment, Mark is knocked into the water and dragged under.... Writer Peter Benton (James Franciscus) is reminded by his wife, Gloria (Mickey Pignatelli), of his promise to accompany her to a committee meeting for the planning of the centenary celebrations. The two are interrupted by their teenage daughter, Jenny (Stefania Girolami), and her boyfriend, Dave (Chuck Kaufman), who announce worriedly that Mike Patterson has disappeared, and beg Peter to use his boat to search for the boy. While Gloria attends the meeting, which is held at the campaign headquarters of William Wells (Joshua Sinclair), for is running for Governor, Peter, Jenny and Dave search the waters where Mike was last seen. In another boat, Peter’s friend and former partner, Ron Hamer (Vic Morrow), has found a piece of Mike’s board – which shows signs of bite marks. Seeing the other searchers, he calls them over. Like Ron, Peter immediately realises what must have attacked Mike’s board: a great white shark; a big one. In the faint hope that Mike is floating somewhere on the other half of his board, Ron radios the Coast Guard. Meanwhile, Jenny, who is sitting on the railing of Peter’s boat, is knocked into the water when something bumps into it. Peter and Ron rush to drag her back on board. Back in South Bay, Wells and his campaign manager, Matt Rosen (Ennio Girolami), resist the idea of an enormous shark in the local waters. Word comes from the Coast Guard that they have found something. A group that includes Mike’s frantic parents and the missing boy’s friends gathers at the dock, where a derelict boat is being towed in. It belongs to a local fisherman, who is not on board – except for his jaggedly severed arm.... As the men walk back, Gloria suddenly cries out and points at something in the water: another piece of Mike’s shattered board.... Peter tries to talk Wells into cancelling the regatta, but he refuses: he has too much personally at stake. However, he promises that all possible precautions will be taken, and follows through by having shark netting installed across the mouth of the bay, and armed “spotters” in boats all along the perimeter. At the same time, he warns his media manager, Bob Martin (Giancarlo Prete), to downplay the situation as much as possible, to avoid any chance of a panic. Peter and Ron explain to the men who are to man the spotter boats what to expect, and the best ways to kill a great white. While a group of teenagers holds a campfire party on the beach, the shark approaches South Bay and attacks the netting, tearing a hole in it and tangling itself in a piece of the mesh attached to a marker buoy. The centenary celebrations get under way, including the windsurfing regatta; a large crowd watches excitedly from the shore. As Jenny cheers on Dave from a lookout tower, Ron notices something peculiar: a small buoy moving against the tide. He borrows Jenny’s binoculars, and follows the buoy as it moves swiftly towards the windsurfers. In an instant he realises its significance, and tells Peter to get everyone out of the water before heading for his boat. Peter grabs a megaphone and starts shouting a warning; the cry is taken up by the public announcement system. Ron steers his boat towards the windsurfers, many of whom have been knocked into the water. He begins rescuing those nearest to him; others make a dash for the shore; while in the midst of the confusion and panic, a huge fin cuts through the water...

Comments:  L’Ultimo Squalo is one of my favourite killer animal films – as I suspect it would be for a great many people, if not for the incredible dickheads reasonable and fair-minded individuals at Universal Studios. An Italian production shot partially on location in the US, L’Ultimo Squalo was purchased for American distribution by the notorious Edward Montoro of Film Ventures International, who must have been feeling pretty good about its prospects on the back of his success with Grizzly and Beyond The Door, two other movies “inspired” by American blockbusters. Granted, the latter had attracted a lawsuit from the humourless people at Warner Bros., who in the wake of The Exorcist were jumping up and down in a ridiculous fashion over anything with a whiff of demonic possession about it; but that had been settled out of court, and the film was profitable anyway. Montoro opened L’Ultimo in US cinemas in March 1982 as Great White; it was yanked out again a few weeks later after Universal Studios filed an injunction against it. The courts upheld it, and L’Ultimo Squalo passed into the realm of legend...

  

The great white hype...

...and remains there. Now, you can kind of – kind of – understand why Universal might have been touchy about competing films in 1982: home video was then in its infancy, and not in its wildest dreams could the studio have envisaged the current state of film marketing; nor a time when countless low budget production companies would be churning out killer animal films by the dozen without a thought of them ever reaching a cinema. In 1982, cinema box office was everything; and Universal Studios were defending their territory like a very large and very angry great white shark.

Of course, the irony of this situation is that Universal couldn’t touch the most blatant and shameless Jaws rip-off of them all – namely, Grizzly – thanks to Bill Girdler’s central-concept switch. L’Ultimo Squalo, on the other hand, as it mixes and matches its thievings, plays more like a Jaws tribute than the piece of outright plagiarism it is often accused of being – even by those who have seen it, or who to claim to have: it’s rather alarming to note how many reviews of this film describe similarities to Jaws that just don’t exist - for instance, insisting that Peter Benton is the sheriff of South Bay.

Oh, sure, the usual riffs are there: there’s a foundering boat containing a random body part, a scene of the shark destroying a pier, and a beach party that offers an excuse for a little mild nudity; while the focus on the regatta that is not called off and the prominence of several teenage characters certainly calls to mind Jaws 2.

And there, my friends, we have another little irony, since (as is quite evident to those of us who have made a study of these things; and yes, there are such people) Jaws 2 owes more than a smidgeon to Tentacoli; while it probably pinched its helicopter from Grizzly. But I guess throwing stones is okay if your glass house also happens to be a major American film studio.

And the real deal:

 

 

And yet, people feel the need to make stuff up.

Mind you--- Reading the fine print on Universal’s lawsuit is revealing. Though it is generally reported that the issue was L’Ultimo Squalo’s plagiarism of Jaws and/or Jaws 2, in fact the studio sued over damage to the Jaws franchise. The real issue was that, when L’Ultimo Squalo hit American cinemas, Jaws 3-D was in pre-production. And the fact that Universal actually thought that having a film about a great white shark in cinemas fifteen months before they released their own was going to damage their box office take simply proves that they had no clue about the audience they were catering to.

So it’s really Jaws 3-D that we have to thank for this ridiculous situation: a film that boasts a fibreglass shark so embarrassingly, so pathetically fake, it makes the one in L’Ultimo Squalo look perfectly respectable by comparison.

Well... We might be prepared forgive Universal for overreacting to their perceived competition in 1982: it was, indeed, a different world back then. What we can’t forgive, however, is the astonishing display of superdickery that the studio has been guilty of since.

In 2009, with Quentin Tarantino’s re-make in the offing, the good people at the New Beverley Cinema in Los Angeles scheduled a screening of Enzo Castellari’s own version of Inglorious Bastards. For its companion-piece on the double-bill, they decided that it would be great fun to screen L’Ultimo Squalo for the first time since 1982. The organisers therefore contacted Universal Studios to ask permission. It was refused.

A short time after that, the good people at Severin Films (yes, there are a lot of good people in the world of weird cinema) also contacted Universal Studios, hoping to negotiate the rights to a R1 DVD release of L’Ultimo Squalo. Permission for this was also refused.

Personally I'm looking forward to the synchronised windsurfing.

I mean, what the hell!? After all this time, what’s the point? Unless the studio wants to prove just how mean and petty and spiteful Big Business can be, in which case, mission accomplished.

And yes, I suppose you could reasonably argue that L’Ultimo Squalo isn’t worth all this angst; but on the other hand, there’s been plenty of effort put in on behalf of far worse films than this – Jaws 3-D, for one. And don’t get me started on Jaws: The Revenge! (Although if you must, it’s over there.)

Anyway--- I’m pleased to be able to report that since the Universal injunction only extends to North America, other countries have released L'Ultimo Squalo for the home cinema market. Many years ago, there was a Japanese laserdisc release (which was subsequently the source of bootleg copies of the film, or – *cough* – so I understand); while more recently, several European countries have released it on DVD. This small crop includes an R2, English-language, subtitled version from Sweden.

Which – in what seems to me a fitting spirit, all things considered – prompts me to poke my tongue out at Universal and say, “Nyah-nyah.”

L’Ultimo Squalo opens with – windsurfing! Local hero Mike Peterson practices his moves on his board as the credits role, and we all groove to the early eighties musical stylings of Guido and Maurizio de Angelis. We later learn that Mike is practising “eight hours a day” in preparation for the regatta, which seems a little excessive; while as we watch, he strikes a series of poses that suggests that this particular regatta has a rhythmic section, and he expects to be marked on his artistry and execution.

Mike feels a bump and looks down to find that something has bitten off the back of his board. How exactly a thirty-foot great white shark manages to bite a piece off your surfboard without you seeing or hearing it is rather a puzzle; a puzzle that Mike is still pondering when his board is hit from underneath in good earnest, which sends him flying into the air. He surfaces and splutters – and then is pulled under by something which we do not see...

"I hope this shark has a good dental plan..."

We’ve met several other young characters by now, including Jenny Benton, her boyfriend, Dave (whose surname turns out much later to be “Patterson”; not very imaginative of our screenwriters), and Billy Joe Wells, son of the local political head-honcho, William Wells. One of the more interesting and appealing things about L’Ultimo Squalo is the way it avoids a number of the tiresome clichés of its genre. Here, for example, although Billy Joe is the local rich kid, he’s not in the least obnoxious (or no more so than the rest), but just one of the gang. Likewise, although he will be competing in the regatta, he is admiring rather than resentful of Mike’s prowess.

The Plot-Point Specific RadioTM kicks in here, filling us in on such details as South Bay’s centennial celebrations, and William Wells’ plans to throw open the grounds of his home for a general party, as well as his run at the governorship.

DJ:  “Bill Hoye here, hoping it’s going to be just another perfect day. Sun, surf---whatever it takes to make you feel just right!”

To make me feel just right? That would be a thirty-foot great white shark that roars.

The DJ then throws in several sneers at William Wells in his spiel, to which Billy Joe reacts with weary exasperation. Interestingly enough, before the film is much older we might be inclined to think that the DJ is a bit out of line.

Gloria Benton is attempting to drag her reluctant husband to a function held on behalf of Wells when Jenny and Dave burst in, explaining hurriedly that Mike Peterson “just disappeared” while windsurfing, and demanding Peter’s boat. Gloria therefore heads out alone for Wells HQ, while Peter joins the search for Mike. Meanwhile, Ron Hamer - pronounced “hammer” - has found a piece of Mike’s board and silently makes ominous “measuring the bite-radius” gestures. (The exaggeratedly raggedy edge of the board suggests it was designed by someone who'd never seen a shark bite.) He is still grimly contemplating the evidence when Peter’s boat draws up alongside.

 

Cute.

The screenplay of L'Ultimo Squalo never does bother to explain the relationship between Peter and Ron, although from their conversation and various bits of memorabilia at Peter’s house we gather they were once partners as well as friends, running a business together that may have been either a dive company or a deep-sea fishing concern. At any rate, though Ron is the official sea-dog, Peter too is at home in the water, which is one way that this film distinguishes itself from its models.

Peter climbs up onto Ron’s boat while Jenny waits on his, and Ron shows him the bitten board. “I’ve lived here thirty years – never been a reported shark big enough to do this,” Ron comments, which naturally enough is the cue for an underwater POV shot and a dramatic musical sting.

This scene is the first time that Vic Morrow gets any significant dialogue, and we listen in delight as he first tries out a broad Irish accent, wavers indecisively for a few sentences, then discards it for a Scottish accent instead. “Once they get a free meal – once they get the taste – they tend to hang around looking for more,” he lies unblushingly gives his expert opinion.

Peter suggests hopefully that Mike is alive on the other half of his board, being swept by the current toward “Eagle Rock”, but his false optimism withers and dies in the face of his next thought: “Jesus – there’s a windsurfing regatta on Saturday!”

Meanwhile, Jenny is sitting on the railing of Peter’s boat, her shapely butt jutting suggestively above the water. The shark does indeed make a lunge in its her direction, but in the end finally only bumps the boat, tipping Jenny into the water. She gasps and splutters but is basically unperturbed. Dave also looks on unconcerned by his girlfriend’s ducking, but Peter and Ron scramble down and drag her back on board with more haste than care, although without explaining themselves.

Bum-bum. Bum-bum. Bum-bum bum-bum bum-bum bum-bum...

Peter and Ron take the bitten piece of board to Wells, trying to convince him that there is a gigantic shark in the vicinity and that some action should be taken. Unexpectedly, Wells turns out to be one of the more interesting things about L'Ultimo Squalo. Many Jaws rip-offs have an overblown Larry Vaughn figure, an eee-vil capitalist willing to risk lives for profit (or in this case, political mileage); but Wells turns out to be a more credible proposition. Yes, he has his eyes on his run for Governor and, yes, he allows that to influence his decisions more than he should; but for all that he does listen to the experts, Peter and Ron, rather than just dismissing them. Instead, it’s Wells’ campaign manager, Matt Rosen, who goes into denial.

(Among other things, Rosen argues that the debris isn’t Mike’s board, but just something that “floated up from Florida”, the only in-film indication that this is supposed to be coastal Georgia: the location scenes in L'Ultimo Squalo were shot in Savannah, while the water scenes were shot in Malta – like those in Orca.)

Wells doesn’t want to believe in the shark either, but he nevertheless responds to Rosen’s desperate counter-suggestions by saying, “Come on, Matt – a kid’s missing; that’s all that matters.” And when the Coast Guard radios in that they’ve “found something”, he heads down to the docks to see the evidence for himself.

Here we get one of my favourite touches in this film (seriously), as Peter and Wells wait with the gathered crowd to see what’s happened. This is, after all, the Local Celebrity and the Local Bigwig; yet both of them give every indication of being real members of their community. They know and speak to various people by name, without fuss on either side, and when the derelict boat is towed in, Wells instantly recognises it as the property of a fisherman called Ed Clover.

The boat, which has a hole in the side and is listing dangerously, is at first presumed to be deserted. Then a Coast Guard officer bolts from below deck looking nauseated. This is, of course, our traditional “random body-part in abandoned boat” scene: Ron ventures below, where he finds Ed’s severed arm – and nothing more.

If I were a shark, I wouldn't eat that either.

(You might care to amuse yourselves by working out the logistics of this particular fatality.)

Rosen, of course, tries to argue that it was some sort of accident, an explosion, perhaps, since Ed was known to “use grenades” (!!). Ron retorts angrily that this was no boat accident explosion – that there are no powder burns anywhere on the boat.

Wells is properly horrified, but with Rosen in his ear he stubbornly refuses to cancel the regatta and the festival on which so much campaign-boosting time, effort and money have been expended – “No damn shark’s going to screw up a whole year’s work and planning!”

As the men re-emerge from the boat, Gloria Benton suddenly cries out and points as a fin glides by. It’s---

The rest of Mike’s board...

Seemingly having set off down a very well-worn path, Wells then proceeds to surprise us again: he turns to Ron for his expert advice on how to protect South Bay, and pays for the installation of shark-netting and the hiring of lookouts and armed guards for the perimeter out of his own pocket. Moreover, when Ron recommends eight spotter boats, he arranges for ten. We can forgive his subsequent (intended, and needless to say premature) exploitation of his actions for political gain; although at the same time, more true to genre form, Wells orders his media manager to downplay the situation as much as possible.

This introduces a confusing note into the proceedings. While at this stage, the media manager, Bob Martin, seems to be torn between his work for Wells and his professional responsibilities to a local news network, later we shall see him pursuing footage of sharky mayhem at all cost in order to gain a position with the network.

"...and over here we can see my political career lying dead in the water."

The fishermen hired as spotters are gathered together so that Peter can let them know what they’re up against. “I know the great white isn’t supposed to be in our waters,” he comments – wrong! It is supposed to be, although only in passing, in the wake of whale migrations. Random unconnected spottings are happening more frequently these days, as well. Peter also claims that the biggest white ever caught was, “A little over twenty-eight feet” – wrong!

Anyway, Peter proves a poor public speaker, and finally hands things over to Ron, thus gifting him with an opportunity to go into a full-on Robert Shaw, with perhaps a little William Shatner thrown in for good measure:

“The great white shark...you cannot scare off! Especially...because he’s had his taste...of human flesh...and he’s developed a crrraving...kind of madness. Because it’s not his hunger that he wants...to satisfy. He wants to kill. So you have two choices, one...get out of his way! The other...is to hold your ground...and fire...and try to kill him, ’cause ye dinna have another choice.”

As you may have gathered, by this point Vic Morrow has definitely settled upon Scottish.

Ah! A beach party! I knew we’d been missing something! A young woman announces, “I’m going for a swim – who’s coming?” and then sets off along the beach, shedding clothing as she goes, which has the strange side effect of inducing slow motion photography. While she bounces along in profile, the soundtrack becomes peppered with dramatic stings, and we get underwater shots of the shark-netting...

The young woman takes such an inordinate time to reach the water, several of her companions, male and female, are able to catch up with her. They all plunge into the water together, diving and splashing and laughing...

...and then they all get out again.

She seems to be having difficulty locating the water.

So there you go. If anyone ever asks you whether there was ever a killer animal film where nudity didn’t automatically trigger brutal, bloody death, you can point them towards L’Ultimo Squalo. A nicely executed little bait-and switch!

The shark, meanwhile, has been throwing itself against the netting. Unfortunately, this scene is our first intimation of a major flaw in the existing prints of this film – WHICH IS WHY WE NEED A NICE CLEAN DVD COPY – the underwater scenes are all so dark that you literally cannot see what is happening, something which painfully impacts both the later death of a major character, and the film’s climax. The shark finally breaks through the netting, though we only know this from the eventual consequences, not from anything we can see for ourselves. On the way through it snags a line attached to marker float, with which it then swims off. This pink marker is no yellow barrel, but it gets the job done.

So the day of the regatta dawns, and the film treats us to some embarrassingly amateurish scenes of people being “entertained” that are too reminiscent of Tentacoli for anyone’s comfort. Wells is out glad-handing, and in spite of the local DJ’s cynicism, most of the crowd seem honestly pleased to see him. He slides discreetly across to the docks for a quiet word with Peter and Ron.

L’Ultimo Squalo is at its most Italian here: its misunderstanding of the culture it’s trying to depict could hardly be more profound – or funnier. For one thing, I never realised that windsurfing was a popular spectator sport, let alone one that attracted large crowds who jump up and down and cheer hysterically from the beginning of the race to the end. Still less did I realise that an occasion such as this would prompt the enthusiastic waving of a Confederate flag. Indeed, we can only admire this film’s committed effort to convincing us that, as a major component of a motion picture, windsurfing is nowhere near as numbingly dull as scuba-diving.

THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN!! - and win the windsurfing regatta!

Yet another thing I didn’t realise – and this may be a reflection of regional differences – is that windsurfing is an exclusively male pursuit. So it proves here, however, with young men from all over the country (!) taking to the water while the wimminfolk look on from the shore. One such is Jenny Benton, who sends her boyfriend Dave off with encouraging words, and then spends the next several minutes irritating us mightily by shouting inanities like, “C’mon, Dave, you can get ’em, c’MO-OO-ON!!” Meanwhile, somewhat counter-intuitively (at least from one point of view), Wells’ offsider Rosen is standing unsteadily in a small boat, handling the start of the race by means of a megaphone; while the PA guy talks cheerfully about the various competitors, including Dave, with nary a thought to spare for poor Mike Peterson, whose gruesome death seems to have slipped from the public consciousness with astonishing rapidity.

A minute’s silence would have killed the buzz, I guess.

Anyway, the surfers set off, the PA guy blathers, the crowd cheers, Jenny grows momentarily more annoying, and a smiling Wells watches Billy Joe through binoculars.

And then a pink marker float appears in the middle of the competitors.

Ron is also up in the lookout tower from which Jenny is watching Dave through binoculars and offering her nasally encouragement. He notices the float at once and, throwing a rapid order at Peter to get them out, he runs for his own boat.

In the water, the windsurfers are being bumped into and knocked off their boards, much to the puzzlement of the spectators and the PA guy, in a sequence that is almost a carbon copy of the equivalent in Tentacoli. (Castellari even uses exactly the same water-level perspective! - but I bet it never occurred to Ovidio G. Assonitis to sue.) Peter starts shouting through a megaphone for everyone to get out of the water, as do Ron and Matt Rosen from their respective boats. Bob the media guy, realising that something is up, orders his cameraman to keep filming the area of the disturbance, while the bewildered surfers break into two groups, some scrambling for shore, others for Ron’s boat.

The pink floatie...of DEATH!!

And then a fin breaks the surface.

And now that everyone knows what they’re panicking about, they naturally panic even more – in spite of the efforts of Rosen who, still balancing precariously in his little boat, repeatedly yells, “DON’T PANIC!!” through his megaphone.

At least, he does until something hits his boat from underneath and sends him about twenty feet straight into the air.

The guy waving the Confederate flag is particularly shocked by this development. Bob the media guy, on the other hand, is DEE-lighted.

Rosen hits the water hard (and rigidly: love those Italian mannequins!), then surfaces panting and spluttering. And it is at this moment, behind him, that the shark puts in its first public appearance.

Okay---I’m going to put myself out there and declare this shark to be a far more admirable effort than any of those that were to appear in the subsequent Jaws entries, even though this film was patently made on a much lower budget than either of those. The shark’s designers obviously copied a rather famous photograph of a great white shark (which in fact is used as one of Peter and Ron’s visual aids), so that it is generally better proportioned than many model sharks.

Unfortunately---although great white sharks do sometimes assume that particular head-back, mouth-open posture, someone forgot to tell the designers that they don’t maintain it for extended periods of time. And this, alas, is about all that our new sharky friend – I’m going to call him “Bruno” – can do. He bobs above the surface, head back, mouth open, and then retreats the way he came.

 

 

"DON'T PANIC!!"

Anyway, Matt Rosen becomes Bruno’s next victim, being pulled under in a surprisingly bloodless scene.

The media descend like a wolf pack upon Wells, pressing him about his downplaying of the shark’s presence – apparently he only admitted to “rumours” – and then L’Ultimo Squalo surprises us again, as Ron comes passionately to Wells’ defence, insisting vehemently that everything that could have been done was done, and that it would have worked, if they were dealing with an ordinary shark. But this--- “I’ve never seen anything like it!”

The reporters are dispersing when a voice (an awful bit of overdubbing, strangely) yells, “The shark! The shark! It’s coming back!” To the sound of screams and running feet, we see the pink marker heading towards the docks where, accompanied by an hilariously out-of-proportion musical sting, it catches on a pylon – a manoeuvre that requires a thirty-foot great white shark to pass through a four-foot gap.

The upshot is that now the people have no way of tracking the shark’s movements. Nevertheless, Ron and Peter go out hunting it, with Gloria tagging along; she seems at home amongst the dive equipment, so perhaps she was also part of their business venture, whatever it was. At any rate, she voices no objection to her husband’s intended dive, so we assume she’s used to this sort of thing. Peter starts putting bang-sticks together, while Ron has a case of explosives that just screams, “Plot point!”

Meanwhile, Wells is getting chewed out by The Man In The Suit, the representative of his Faceless Backers, who are not happy about the shark situation. “What do you want me to do, kill the goddamn thing myself?” retorts Wells irritably. Billy Joe is listening in on this conversation, and all of a sudden thinks he knows how to make his dad proud, as well as avenge the unfortunate Mike.

Hey, kids, let’s put on a show! And, yes, the teenagers in L’Ultimo Squalo are just as stupid and annoying as the ones in Jaws 2, but I don’t think that’s grounds for legal action.

Bob the media guy reacts to the tragedy unfolding around him.

Commandeering his father’s boat without permission, Billy Joe invites Dave, Jenny and some nameless third kid who looks enough like Billy Joe to make things extremely confusing to join him on a shark hunt. Jenny herself rocks up apologising that, “This was all I could find” – as she hands over a high-powered rifle and some boxes of ammunition.

I have no idea whether we’re supposed to interpret this moment as (i) a joke, (ii) the Italian view of America, or (iii) reality.

We get a brief cutaway here to Bob the media guy and his cameraman, reviewing their footage of the regatta. Bob is disappointed that they didn't capture more images of the shark, prompting this gem of an exchange:

Bob “Damn! You can hardly see the shark!
Cameraman:  “Well, use a little stock footage. Nobody’ll know the difference.”

L’Ultimo Squalo then cuts to some stock footage of a great white shark.

Cute, Enzo.

For some reason, Ron and Peter choose to look for the shark in an underground cave with an entrance only just wide enough to admit the two of them. I suppose they figured if it could squeeze between those pylons, it could squeeze in anywhere. Well, actually, no---but that doesn’t stop it having a darn good try once it cruises up behind its hunters. It then starts slamming itself against the mouth of the cave; because as we all know, there’s nothing sharks enjoy more than bashing their snouts against hard, pointy objects.

For the record, the bang-sticks don’t work. Ron fires an explosive-tipped spear-gun (!), but only succeeds in narrowing the opening. Largely unperturbed, the shark keeps bashing away, until the mouth of the cave collapses altogether, trapping our intrepid idiots hunters; and they have to use Ron’s explosives to blast their way out in a scene that shows a disregard for the laws of physics that is almost awe-inspiring. The flying debris does, however, sever Ron’s air-line, and there is a desperate scramble to the surface.

Yup, that's where I'd look for a thirty-foot great white shark.

And having amused itself with Bunch Of Idiots #1, the shark cruises off to take care of Bunch Of Idiots #2, who just happen to be motoring by (Peter recognises “Wells’ boat”, but not who’s standing lookout), and are busy committing one of my very favourite acts of idiocy.

This shark, accepting that it is thirty feet long, must weigh---well, let’s be conservative and say three tonnes. That’s about 6500 pounds, for the non-metrically minded. Yet time and again we see people fishing for it using bait on a rope which they tie to a wooden or aluminium railing! And then they look surprised when it all goes horribly wrong.

Mind you, I can’t say that I’m astonished to see a gang in which Billy Joe Wells is the mastermind resorting to such a tactic.

The shark hunters are back on land, describing their encounter with Bruno, when Wells strolls up from the other direction. Peter is confused about how he got back so quickly – and then the penny drops. Ron scrambles back to his boat while Peter leaves with Wells, who – YES!! – goes to get his helicopter!!

Bruno now puts in an appearance near the teenagers’ boat. Billy Joe swings the vessel around in pursuit of it, while Not-Billy-Joe starts firing the rifle at it, and Jenny annoys us once again with her adenoidy commentary.

Well, if they wanted the shark’s attention, they got it: it turns towards them and starts bumping the boat in traditional fashion. It is also – sigh – seen hovering motionless under the boat. In fact – SIGH – it holds itself against the boat’s propeller to prevent it from moving away; a cloud of blood fills the water. “Something’s jamming the throttle!” yells Not-Billy-Joe as he wrenches at the controls.

Sure, that should work!

“Why don’t we lower the bait?’ suggests Jenny, even though the last time we saw the bait it was being towed beneath the surface. Billy Joe and Dave start dipping the hunk of meat in and out of the water, while Jenny – SIGH – leans against the same railing the bait-pole is attached to.

Like most killer shark films, L’Ultimo Squalo supplements its model shots with stock footage – which as usual really only emphasises the difference between the fake and the real thing. Still, at least most of the footage here is of a great white shark, which certainly isn’t always the case (we do get a glimpse of a tiger shark, and something else that appears too transiently to be sure). For this scene, Enzo Castellari cuts in some of the most famous footage of a great white shark ever captured: that in which a very large shark attacks a bait, lips pulled back and jaws thrust forward as it bites again and again and again. It’s genuinely scary stuff – much scarier than anything served up by your average killer shark movie.

Jenny pays the stock footage the tribute of a terrified scream, which is about the first sensible thing she’s said or done in this film. Meanwhile, as I’m sure you’ll be astonished to hear, the rope holding the bait is fraying, threatening to snap. It does so. Dave and Billy Joe, who were struggling to control the bait-pole, are thrown off-balance by the release and Dave cannons into Jenny – who is still standing by the railing – and knocks her overboard. She should, by rights, have fallen almost into Bruno’s open mouth, but instead she is able to flounder to the surface, shrieking for help. The boys lie down on the deck and reach down to her, Dave grabs her hands and starts hauling her up, but for too long her legs are dangling temptingly near the water, and---

Would you believe a discreet cutaway? L’Ultimo Squalo is remarkably restrained for an Italian exploitation film. And even when it does serve up a couple of gross-out scenes, they are not nearly as gross as they should be.

But perhaps in this case there was a reason for Enzo Castellari’s discretion. Those familiar with the director’s career will recognise most of the cast of L’Ultimo Squalo; in particular, many of the participants in this carried over to his next film, 1990: I Guerrieri Del Bronx, including Castellari’s daughter, Stefania Girolami, who plays Jenny, and his brother, Ennio Girolami, who plays Matt Rosen.

Or not.

And yes---I am telling you that Enzo just offed his brother and maimed his daughter.

We get an abrupt cut to some paramedics wheeling Jenny into the hospital, with a distraught Peter in attendance. The film makes a big mystery out of just what the shark has done to her, with lots of POV shots to hide her injury as she is taken into surgery. (FYI: she’s lost a leg.) As Peter harasses the desk nurse about when there might be news, Wells shows up, telling him how sorry he is. “It’s not your fault,” replies Peter – what, no illogical blame-placing? – adding, “If it hadn’t been for your helicopter, we’d have lost her for sure.” Leaving us to ponder exactly how Jenny was air-lifted into a helicopter not in the least fitted out for the task, and why we didn’t get to see it, dammit!

We get another unexpected Wells moment here: he does blame himself – for being so wrapped up in his campaigning as not to be keeping a sufficient eye on Billy Joe, or realising what he was likely to do. Not that he consequently absolves his son: when the boy shows up, wracked with guilt over Jenny’s accident, Wells responds to his abject apologies with an old-fashioned box on the ear.

Poor Billy Joe. He’s having a bad day. And it will shortly get much worse.

Here the best scene in L’Ultimo Squalo and the very worst one jostle against one another and vie for our attention. We’ll get the worst one out of the way first, which as you might expect is Peter Benton’s Big Character Moment. When Jenny comes out of surgery, Gloria actually funks the task of seeing her, so Peter goes alone to their daughter’s room, where she lies semi-conscious. He then launches into some maudlin reminiscences about when a much younger Jenny fell off her bike, but he knew she wanted to conquer that bike herself, so he didn’t help her, even though he really, really wanted to, and sure enough she got right back on...

“This time you won’t have to do it alone,” he assures her, “because I’m here, and your mom’s here” – at least, she’s out in the corridor – “you’re going to walk out of this hospital – walk! – with that great big grin back on your face...”

"You go and sit with her. I've got a hair appointment."

At this point Jenny starts screaming, although I think we’re meant to infer that it’s her memories of the shark rather than her father’s bathetic rambling that’s upsetting her.

Meanwhile---

I know I’m going on about this, but I feel the need to say again that one of the really pleasant surprises of L’Ultimo Squalo is its refusal to follow the usual cliché path with respect to William Wells, who is probably less culpable than any Larry Vaughn figure in any Jaws rip-off – including Larry Vaughn. In spite of this, Jenny’s tragedy affects him so profoundly that he decides that he has to do something about the situation himself.

One of the most amusing things about this film is the complete absence of any kind of law enforcement or emergency services: as far as we can tell, South Bay has no police force, and no land or sea rescue. The Coast Guard puts in an early appearance, towing the derelict boat, and then is never seen again; and while there are paramedics, naturally they only show up after the event. Perhaps the Italian makers of this film misunderstood the notion of South Bay being a town controlled by one man.

Anyway, as a consequence, when William Wells decides that he has to do something “himself” about the shark, that’s exactly what he means. What follows is one of the most amazingly stupid things ever committed to film.

Not that I’m complaining. On the contrary.

As my loyal readers would know, I’m something of a connoisseur of helicopter scenes in killer animal films – and on that basis I am prepared to declare the following sequence of L’Ultimo Squalo the GREATEST HELICOPTER SCENE EVER!!

Is this really the time for an anecdote about when she scraped her knees?

So--- Wells sets out in his helicopter to hunt down the shark. And if we laughed at the notion of “fishing” for a three-tonne shark from the railing of a boat, what is there to say about the idea of fishing for one with a rope and reel from a helicopter!? At least now we know where Billy Joe gets it from.

Wells spots the shark without difficulty, and repeatedly orders his pilot, Bernie, to, “Take us down lower.” He climbs out of his seat and prepares the bait, dangling a huge chunk of meat from a rope off a lockable pulley system. As the helicopter hovers, he begins lowering the bait towards the water. Sure enough, without the meat even touching the surface, Bruno lifts himself up out of the water – and roars!!

And yes, my friends: I do believe that L’Ultimo Squalo is the original source of one of the most idiotic of all killer shark film conventions, the roaring shark.

(The self-referential roar with which Spielberg accompanies Bruce’s death in Jaws doesn’t count since, well, Bruce is dead.)

The film then cuts in less-than-convincing fashion between Bruno lifting his head in that uncomfortable-looking manner and roaring, and that same piece of stock footage of the bait-chewing shark. As the stock footage shark closes its jaws around the bait, we cut to Wells shouting, “Up!! Up!! Up!!” at his pilot, who is doing his best, but seems to be having – ahem – some little difficulty. The rope spins out of the reel at great speed as Bruno tugs on the bait, in spite of Wells’ efforts to lock the system, and when it reaches full extension not all of Wells’ desperate commands for the helicopter to be taken UpUpUp!! can stop it going DownDownDown!!

Bruno gives one more good tug and the reel goes flying, nearly taking Wells with it. “Berniiie!” he cries despairingly as he is jerked out of the helicopter, just managing to grasp the door-frame in time.

"UP!! UP!! UP-UP-UP-UP-UP-UP-UP-UP-UP-UP-UP-UP-UP!!!!!!!!!!!"

“Hang on!” advises the sagacious Bernie, as Wells – still shouting, “Berniiie!” at regular intervals – hangs precariously from the open helicopter door.

(Don’t ask me why, but the fact that the helicopter pilot’s name is “Bernie” adds immeasurably to the hilarity.)

In spite of Bernie’s best efforts, Wells loses his grip and plunges into the water. “Berniiie!” he implores. Bruno pops his head up and roars, but the courageous (not to say foolhardy) Bernie brings the chopper as low over the water’s surface as he dares. Wells manages to grab on and is lifted up. He can’t hold on the first time, but the manoeuvre is repeated and the helicopter gains some altitude with Wells dangling from the undercarriage.

Just like Jenny.

Bruno launches up from the water and goes himself one better by latching onto both of Wells’ legs. Remarkably, Wells manages to keep his grip – giving us perhaps the single most glorious image in the history of the killer shark film – even a metaphor for the killer shark genre as a whole – as shark and helicopter battle for possession of the puny human caught between them. Something has to give – and it’s Wells’ legs – although curiously, they don’t do so precisely where Bruno is hanging onto them.

Ahhhhhhuhuh!” says Wells, as well he might.

His lifeblood then drains away via what’s left of his legs – though again, not as much as we might expect – even as the rest of him continues to dangle from the helicopter. It does drop off eventually, and Bruno moves in for a snack. Foolishly, instead of taking the opportunity to make his escape, Bernie persists in hovering over the site of Wells’ demise.

"Oh, no! I forgot the Shark-Repellent Bat Spray!"

And then the shark eats the helicopter!!

Well...not really...but it does suddenly grab onto it and pull it under the water – which rather supports my initial point about three-tonne shark vs helicopter – and I’m pretty sure it makes a meal of Bernie, too. But what the heck? – it was probably in his job description.

And before we move on, allow me to reiterate:

GREATEST – HELICOPTER SCENE – EVER!!

(At least, if anyone thinks they know a better one, for goodness’ sake tell me about it!)

Meanwhile, Peter and Ron are back out shark spotting. Peter suggests radioing Wells’ chopper to help them – he’s such a kidder! There’s no answer to their call, not surprisingly, but they do find some debris...

The two of them start squabbling over who gets to kill the shark – a bit optimistic of them, if you ask me – and Ron eventually “wins” the privilege of donning the single dynamite belt.

“I’ve been killing shark most of my life!” Ron announces – which I don’t think is anything to brag about, and apparently the film agrees with me – “while you’ve been writing mostly about them – so I’m the expert here! – and that’s what it’s going to take to kill the bastard!”

Uh-huh? Place your bets now, people.

 

"And where do you think YOU'RE going?"

This is supposed to be one of L’Ultimo Squalo’s big set-pieces, but thanks to the crappy quality of our NON-DVD PRINTS, we can barely see what happens. I think that Ron discovers the wreckage of the helicopter, and goes inside it – perhaps Bernie’s body is still in there; it’s impossible to say. Anyway, Bruno shows up and, seeing yet another human being stupid enough to get inside a helicopter in a killer shark film, attacks the wreckage, and Ron is crushed to death. I think.

More debris floats to the surface, alerting Peter that something has gone wrong. He immediately goes in after Ron – and here the print is so dark we literally cannot see a thing, although from later events we know that Peter is unable to catch hold of Ron’s body. In fact, it’s so dark that I’m not even sure whether Bruno menaces Peter here or not.

(As Peter scrambles back onboard the boat he ditches his scuba-tanks in his haste, a touch which looks very much like a set-up for a re-working of the end of Jaws. To L’Ultimo Squalo’s credit, it isn’t. )

Back in town, Bob the media guy and his self-evidently doomed cameraman are still working hard on parlaying the shark situation into a network career. Bob has hired an “expert” called Briley – played by Romano Puppo, aka “Trash’s dad”, giving the most embarrassing Italian-pretending-to-be-Texan performance you ever did see. Bob reports that he and Doomed Cameraman have baited the end of the pier – hmm, where have we seen that before?

“If your shark shows up, it’ll be over real fast,” comments the prescient Briley.

Again--- Three-tonne shark. Wooden pier. No-one but me sees a problem?

Apparently not, since Gloria, Dave, Billy Joe and Not-Billy-Joe are all standing on the baited pier! Remarkably, it seems that Gloria still hasn’t seen Jenny, as she has to inquire after her of Dave. “She’s going to need her friends more than ever,” Gloria tells the boys. Well, yes, especially since her mother seems to have abrogated all responsibility.

"Buon giorno, signore. Uh, I mean, howdy pardner."

A crowd has gathered to watch the killing of the shark – or something. “What’s the TV here for?” asks one woman. “Hoping for some blood, as usual,” sneers her friend.

“Don’t even mention it. I get seasick looking at the ocean. The sight of blood will put me out like a light,” remarks the woman, who is currently standing on a dock where they are planning on baiting and killing a shark.

Briley then gives Bob a lengthy explanation of his “special” rifle, before signing his own death-warrant by saying dismissively, “It’s just a fish!” He and Doomed Cameraman join Gloria and the boys and several other people on the baited pier – hey, the more, the merrier! Bruno, always a good sport, shows up right on cue, grabs the bait – and drags the pier right off its supports.

Well, yeah. Duh.

A number of the screaming pier-ites fall into the water. The rest stagger around grabbing at the railing and each other in a desperate attempt to keep their balance. Personally, I’d sit down, but what do I know?

On shore, Bob grabs his other subordinate, Possibly Not Doomed Cameraman, and orders him to keep filming at all cost – “And I’ll buy you a lobster dinner!” Moments later, Bob is at Wells’ house, which I can only assume is right on the water, and rounds up his outdoor broadcast guy and their van. “We’re in business at last!” Bob chortles.

By this stage, the only people left on the floating pier are the ones with whom we are acquainted – surprise! Doomed Cameraman bumps into Briley, knocking him over and making him drop his special rifle into the water. So much for that.

Perhaps we should have thought this one through a little more...

Bob radios Doomed Cameraman – Jimmy, if you care – who begs him to send for help, “Before this shark has us all for lunch!” Bob promises to call the Coast Guard – suuuuure he will – but never takes his eyes off the footage being transmitted into the van.

Of course, Bob’s not the only one – no-one onshore has moved a muscle or called for help either, in spite of Briley’s bellowing for a boat to be sent out.

There’s been no actual sighting of Bruno through all this, but the six strandees continue to stare fearfully into the water. “He’s gone,” comments somebody. “He’s playing with us,” counters somebody else.

Bingbingbing! – give that man a cigar! Because even as the strandees all peer nervously off one side of their flimsy refuge, Bruno sneaks up on the other side – and ROARRRRS!!!!

Doomed Cameraman, true to his calling, keeps filming as Bruno bites a chunk out of the pier. Gloria helpfully goes into hysterics, which keeps Briley fully occupied. (I don’t think that’s what he signed on for.) Bruno then ducks out again, giving Doomed Cameraman, who is evidently a little slow sometimes to put two and two together, a chance to radio Bob. “Where the hell is he?” he cries in bewilderment when he gets no response.

Bruno then resumes the game, coming up fast under the pier – which would probably shatter the whole thing to pieces, really, but moving on – and knocking Doomed Cameraman into the water. He makes a frantic effort to get out of the water, but Bruno looms up behind him, and---

Ew.

Gloria has hysterics again, while our camera pans poignantly from Doomed Cameraman’s own camera, which he dropped on the pier, to Doomed Cameraman himself. What’s left of him.

"BEEE-HIND YOO!!"

Peter chooses this moment to come chugging back into port, and we get a wonderful shot of the stranded pier framed in one of his portholes. Either Peter’s eyesight is a lot better than mine or he recognises Gloria’s caterwauling, because he immediately gasps in horror and heads to the rescue. At that moment Bruno finally stops dicking around and wrecks the pier altogether. The survivors are plunged into the water. Gloria has hysterics.

Please, Bruno. I’m begging you...

But no, Bruno goes after Briley, who learns that hunting isn’t as much fun when it’s a fair fight. This, uh, diversion allows the others to scramble back onto the remains of the pier. They wave their arms frantically as Peter finally draws near.

Here we get a gem of stupidity. From onboard his boat, Peter helps Dave, Billy Joe and Not-Billy-Joe to safety, but then feels he has to step down onto the pier to help Gloria off it. The result is, when Bruno nudges the rickety structure again, the others are safe while Peter is stranded.

(The pier, by the way, is suddenly in much better condition than it was a few minutes ago.)

As the pier drifts away, Peter tries to defend himself with – a piece of wood? Bruno seems to find this as amusing as I do.

And then what should come floating by but Ron’s body?

Okay. This is indeed an outrageous coincidence, but at least the screenplay goes to the trouble of talking several times about “the currents around Eagle Rock”, emphasising that everything will end up around there sooner or later. (It’s where Peter suggests looking for Mike at the beginning of the film.)

"Thanks, mate. Human is a bitch to get out of your teeth."

Peter drops to his knees and starts hauling Ron out of the water – only for Bruno to grab him from the other end. (We see here very clearly the limitations of Bruno’s design: since he can’t really move his head, he has to duck down under Ron’s legs in order to get a grip on him.) This second tug-of-war ends with Ron jerked from Peter’s grasp. His body dangles oddly from Bruno’s jaws as the shark seems to taunt Peter with his friend’s gruesome demise.

And then Peter realises that (i) Ron still has the dynamite belt on, and (ii) the detonator came off in his hand in the struggle for Ron’s body.

Well...much as I love L’Ultimo Squalo, I have to admit that it completely botches its ending. We get the big build-up, with everything going into slow motion – a defiant cry of “DAMN YOU!” as the shark swallows Ron – and Peter doing a dramatic dive into the water as he presses the detonator – but instead of the big bang we’re expecting, we barely get a whimper!

Of course – not to labour the point – the ending might play better IF WE COULD ACTUALLY SEE WHAT’S HAPPENING.

But L’Ultimo Squalo does have one more surprise for us: the fact that against all known laws of killer animal films, Bob the media guy is still alive and kicking and pursuing his network dreams when the film draws to a close. We find him last doing a live broadcast from the shore and waiting to get the traditional “few words” from Peter – who responds by punching him in the face.

Which is odd, considering that Peter hasn’t been privy to Bob’s cameraman-abandoning, lobster-dinner-bribing activities.

However, given that Bob has escaped what to this point we would have considered his manifest destiny, he’s really got no cause for complaint. Of course, the fact that he has more sense than get anywhere near the water might have something to do with it...

You call that an earth-shattering kaboom?

So, to summarise:

Universal Studios sued L’Ultimo Squalo out of the cinemas to pave the way for Jaws 3-D, a film featuring a gigantic great white shark that roars; a shark that attacks a group of people on a detached, floating pier, and which is ultimately killed via the detonation of an explosive device that it swallowed along with one of its victims.

Super-duper-dickery.

 

Want a second opinion of L’Ultimo Squalo? Visit The Unknown Movies.
 
 
----posted 15/09/2012