Don’t Love the Ocean Too Much
By Helen Cox
It has come to my attention that there is some strange conspiracy going on in the film industry to keep human beings away from any large body of water. They also seem to be against people taking up jobs as marine biologists, fishermen or even as law enforcers in coastal communities. Anybody maverick enough to go swimming or study marine biology at university, we are taught, will get eaten by sharks, devoured by piranhas or slaughtered by killer-mermaids. With roughly sixty years worth of films graphically depicting all manner of man-mutilating creatures emerging from the depths of the deep blue sea the subtext is pretty clear and I’m quoting directly from Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus (2009) when I say: “Don’t love the ocean too much, it doesn’t love you back.”
But wait a cockle-picking minute I hear you cry. What about Splash (1984) or Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) and the sea lion smash hit Andre (1994)? These films teach us that the ocean and all creatures that live beneath it are our friends. Don’t be fooled. Hollywood save up all that Free Willy (1993), Whale Rider (2002) twaddle for film tourists; for the people who only ever go to the cinema with their kids during the school holidays. Watch Orca (1977) and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Anybody who watches films on a regular basis can tell you that the undertow of cinema definitely pulls in the direction of the oceans, lakes and rivers being very dangerous places from which one is not likely to return. Even Daryl Hannah changed her mind about the ocean being a nice place to hang out in, but we’ll talk more about that later.
It would be very easy to cut to the chase and start my argument with the release of Jaws (1975). This was certainly my personal awakening to the notion that the ocean could be a dangerous place, my parents thought it was a prudent idea to screen Jaws for me when I was just 4 years old, but there is a longer history to the subject than this and a lot of films were busy laying the groundwork before Spielberg was even on solids. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and She-Creature (1956) are perhaps the most memorable from the 50s when countless B-movies were made about countless things that could come after you. Neither of these films made it particularly easy to understand what’s really going on in them for the vast proportion of the time. The key point that I took away from them is that messing about in any stretch of water, no matter how shallow, can, and probably will, kill you.
The end of the 50s did not see an end to the film industry’s anti-aquatic prejudice in fact from here on in things get a lot more serious and a damn sight more realistic. Night Tide (1961) is not necessarily the best example of this but it is an important addition to the murderous-mermaid sub-genre so let’s take a look at it. This picture sees a very young and a very stiff-acting Dennis Hopper playing Johnny Drake: a sailor on leave that falls in love with a girl who is part of a mermaid attraction in a small sea-side town. Apparently Mora the mermaid girl, played by Linda Lawson, is a bit unlucky in love as everybody she’s dated before Johnny has died under mysterious circumstances. What’s more Mora is convinced she’s an actual mermaid and is drawn to committing murder by the full moon. This girl’s been to one too many shrimp buffets if you ask me and sadly her soft spot for the seas does not end well when she relieves herself of her oxygen tank at the side-show believing herself to be a real mermaid and thus able to breathe naturally underwater. Don’t love the ocean too much Mora, it doesn’t love you back.
The 60s naturally leads us on to the 70s and I can’t open a paragraph about ocean locations in film in the 1970s without talking about the big, fat, rubber shark in the corner: Jaws. As most of you will already know Jaws is one of the most influential films in existence. From the use of music to cue in a monster, the use of point of view (POV) camera work to hide the fact that your monster isn’t that scary lookin’ and even to the language used by the characters: it’s not uncommon to hear somebody facing a difficult situation say “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” Of course we now know that the music and the POV camera work were to make up for the fact that the shark Spielberg was using was broken most of the time and that Roy Schneider’s famous line was a fortunate adlib. In short: a lot of the really good stuff sort of happened by accident but Spielberg still had his say over the final cut and, as far as I can see, he was determined that nobody was going to want to go swimming for the rest of 1975. The scare, of course, lasted far beyond that as the next generation watched the super-shark bare his teeth on their parents’ TV sets and a string of sequels and spin-offs were hatched in Hollywood.
The Jaws sequels were not up to much. Jaws 2 (1978) is most famous for its tagline “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.” The tagline is the most famous thing about the film. What does that tell you? Jaws 3-D (1983) should have had the tagline “Just when you thought shark sequels couldn’t get any worse” and Jaws 4 (1987), better known as Jaws: The Revenge, proves the difficulty of focusing on a man-eating shark with Michael Caine grinning inanely in your face every 5 minutes. It’s probably the only film I’ve ever watched where I’ve been on the side of the shark. There were numerous poor-man spin-offs from Jaws including: Tentacles (1977), Orca (1977) and Monster Shark (1984). None of them were particularly life-altering but one that does deserve some acknowledgement is Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978).
The first thing in favour of this film is that it doesn’t pretend that JAWS never happened and that someone just decided out of the blue (pun intended) to write a film about man-eating fish terrorising a coastal community. According to the trailer: “Sharks come alone, piranhas come in 1000s” and furthermore: “These are the man-eaters that go beyond the bite of all other jaws.” Our heroine is also seen playing the fantastically retro Jaws arcade game in the first ten minutes – naturally she wins the game. Having made it clear that he knows Piranha and Jaws will be open to critical comparison Dante then goes on to make a very different film to Jaws that, despite its grizzly plotline, is a very likeable film. Okay so the first boob shot happens less than three minutes into the film, but Dante can’t help that: he’s filming in the 70s and the girl had just been told “A little law breaking will do you good.” If he doesn’t strip her off and kill her in less than five minutes he’ll be violating every major film convention known to mankind. Dante is an innovator but he’s not about to just throw away the handbook.
The best things about Piranha are as follows: the name of the scientific experiment which mutated the piranhas is Operation Razor Tooth. When a lab is uncovered with jars of experiential piranhas everywhere other experiments that have gone wrong sneak around our heroes undetected – they’re not quite Gremlins (1984) but they’re not far off. There’s a great scene where the piranhas eat at the lashing on a raft. One by one the logs drift away and our heroes come closer and closer to certain doom. Dick Miller makes an appearance as Mayor Gardner further connecting Piranha and Gremlins in which Miller later played Murray Futterman. An English scientist, played by Barbara Steele, goes about the place pronouncing it “piranya” and at the end of the film she leaves the audience with the strong impression that the “piranyas” may have escaped the river and swarmed out into the sea further proving my point that film-makers hate the ocean and want you to hate it too.
The 80s found all new ways of putting us off the ocean. If you didn’t happen across MONSTER SHARK there was always Piranha 2: The Spawning (1981) which had people petrified that at any moment James Cameron could emerge from the waters with his megaphone. “Make the flying piranha go faster.” That’s what he shouts in every nightmare I’ve ever had about him. You might also meet Michael Caine on his mission to kill the Jaws franchise dead forever and by 1990 an all-new fear awaited us: Cher sporting the most hideously tacky Halloween costume you’ve ever seen. Blue PVC is nobody’s friend. I don’t care how many work-out videos you have on sale in Woolworths.
Jaws spin-offs continued through the 90s and noughties with films such as Shark Attack 1(1999), 2 (2001) and Shark Attack 3: Megalodon (2002). Shark Attack 1,2 and 3 are all pretty terrible films that pretty much all have the same outcome: Shark Smoothie. Shark Swarm (2008) is differentiated from the rest of the other beasts in the shark pool because it stars Daryl Hannah, formerly of Splash fame. Now for the purposes of this article I’m going to claim that Hannah signed up to a film about pollution-enraged sharks killing off a series of swimming instructors, snorkelers and fishermen because she had bought into the film conspiracy against the ocean. (See, they get to everyone even former mermaids). I have an inkling, however, that what really happened is that she thought that any film that stars a shark and a Schneider (John) is destined to be a success. Sorry Daryl it was actually Roy Scheider who appeared in Jaws. She probably realised this when she read the reviews and, for that matter, when she saw the calibre of the special effects. Come back Bruce, all is forgiven.
Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus is differentiated from the rest only because it is possibly one of the worst films I have ever seen in my entire life whilst, at the same time, managing to be thoroughly entertaining. Basically some incomprehensible ice-cap accident takes place and unleashes two prehistoric monsters into the modern-day ocean. No prizes for guessing which two. This film teaches us that octopuses are inexplicably evil and will attack oil rigs for no good reason. It also teaches us that if we are flying above the clouds in a plane or crossing the golden gate bridge in a car then we are still not safe from the terrors of the ocean as a shark, be it made of rubber or be it CGI, could easily jump clear out of the water and bite the plane/bridge in half – prehistoric ones can anyway. They’re much bigger you see. To give you an idea of how truly terrible this film really is you should know that the most expensive thing in it is the Apple Mac that maverick marine-biologist Emma McNeal does her research on. The shark fin is clearly made of cardboard. There are flashbacks and montages that tell us things that we already know as we’ve already seen them in the film and it’s the only film in which a quickie in the broom closet has resulted in the solution to prehistoric creatures stalking the ocean.
The anti-aquatic conspiracy, for the record, does not stop at Sharks anymore than it stops at the ocean. Crocodiles, giant snakes and even just your common-or-garden lame-ass boyfriend have been used to warn us away from the water (Lake Placid 1999, Anaconda 1997, Open Water 2003). The oceans, the lakes, the rivers, they’re just not safe. Hell in some films taking a bath or a shower can prove lethal (Psycho 1960, Nightmare on Elm Street 1994, 2010, Slither 2006).
The conspiracy continues to the present day with the release of films such as Piranha 3D (2010). Piranha 3D is one of the most exploitative pieces of cinema ever made but it is also a very good laugh if you’ve got the sense of humour for it. The gore is graphic and the nudity is frequent but there’s also the opportunity to watch Elisabeth Shue doing an excellent stint in the Sheriff’s uniform, Christopher Lloyd doing his tried and tested mad-scientist routine and Jerry O Connell showing his seedy side as an experiential pornographer. It’s also got enough JAWS references to pull off the Dante trick of getting the critics on side by making them feel clever. As entertaining as this and all the other water-hating flicks are after writing this article I’m never going to think it’s safe to go back in the water. This doesn’t mean that the film industry has won. I look to you, dear readers, to be braver than I am. To swim in the ocean and to study marine biology. If, however, you ever see the water turn red or hear screams coming from a woman in a bikini: swim for shore, get back on the boat and call the Sheriff because you never know. There might just be a shark in your ocean.
A slightly less sharky sequel to this article is coming soon: (Don’t) Carry on Cruising. Think you’re safe once you make it to the boat? Think again.