There are very few post-Jaws shark movies from the 70s and 80s that don’t rip off Jaws. It’s understandable. Jaws is the ultimate shark movie experience. But when a film steps out from underneath Bruce’s mighty shadow, great things can happen. Great things like…
MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH
USA, 1976, William Grefe
Sonny is tricked into selling one of his beloved sharks to Barney (Buffy Dee), local millionaire and owner of a shitty bar. Morbidly obese Barney wants to use the shark in a sexy underwater act starring his wife (Jennifer Bishop). He promises Sonny not to hurt the shark, but it’s not long before he cackles madly and pulls out a sonar sound system to torture the performing fish.
Sonny is also fooled by an evil professor, Whitney (Ben Kronen), who fools Sonny into revealing his secret shark hot spot. Sonny is a pretty gullible guy. Whitney’s idiotic henchmen, Pete (Harold Sakata — yes, Odd Job) and Charlie (John Davis Chandler), go on a shark-murdering rampage. It is this massacre that sets Sonny over the edge.
Mako: The Jaws of Death opens with Sonny brutally murdering a trio of shark hunters and tossing their bodies into the ocean to be gulped down by what was once their prey. From this slasher-esque opening, it’s clear that Mako is not your average shark film. At this early point, despite the bloodshed, director William Grefe could probably still pass Sonny over as a clearheaded, animal loving anti-hero. But Jaeckel’s amazing performance does not allow for that.
Jaeckel gives it his all in this role, presenting Sonny as a seriously unhinged individual. Sonny stares down people. Then blinks uncontrollably. In a scene that genuinely made me uncomfortable, he has an incredible meltdown when he sees what Whitney has done to his beloved sharks. There is an almost Joe Spinell à la Maniac lunacy to his performance. Some may think he is over the top, but I bought it.
This is Jaeckel’s show all the way, but he is supported by an enjoyable cast. Buffy Dee looks like Divine out of drag, and his chortling, repulsive performance is so much fun. It helps that he gets all the best lines, like when he casually asks his wife, “What happened? You get raped or something?”
Sakata and Chandler chew scenery like mad, desperately trying to steal every bit of screen time they have — and they do. I’m not sure if it was scripted or added unconsciously by the actors, but there is a potent homoerotic undertone to their relationship. Jennifer Bishop is also a lot of fun in her sleazy role — I really like how everyone is a piece of shit in this film. Even bit actors give it their all, like Dick Sterling who plays an idiotic tourist and Don Sebastian who seems to be channelling Lou Costello.
Mako has to be judged somewhat differently in its shark rating. Sharks aren’t the monsters here, humans are — on both sides of the spectrum. Sonny is a loony killer (“a sickie”, as Jennifer Bishop calls him), and those who antagonise him are greedy assholes. Though their threat is diminished, the scenes with sharks are impressive indeed. The film proudly thanks its shark stuntmen in its opening frame, and rightly so. The underwater footage is impressive, presenting sharks in the majestic light they deserve. The few scenes where sharks chow down on humans are not gory but handled well (outside of a few shots obviously captured in pools).
Mako‘s ethics, like many sharksploitation efforts, are a little questionable. As it defends sharks and attempts to present them as misunderstood, a lot of (real) slaughtered sharks appear onscreen. I can’t say for certain if the filmmakers had the sharks killed specifically for the production — perhaps they were sourced from fishermen — but certain scenes leave behind an icky taste.
Shark genocide aside, Mako, despite its rather terrible reputation and a name that cashes in on Spielberg’s classic, is one of the few post-Jaws efforts to stand as an entertaining shark film. It does its own thing. It doesn’t parrot Chief Brody or Quint. At the centre of its success is its manic leading man. Richard Jaeckel ignores the film’s low budget and dull aesthetics and, for some reason, gives this role everything he has.
Mako, at one point in time, had a dodgy DVD release that you could pick up for five bucks. Now it’s long out of print with sellers charging absurd amounts. Dig through those bargain bins.