I first heard about Samuel Fuller’s Shark! watching Troma’s Terror Firmer (1999) as a young and impressionable teen. Terror Firmer – a film I absolutely worshiped at the time – promoted Shark! as if it were a long lost classic, a shark film to rival Jaws. In reality, Shark! is not really comparable with Jaws – they are completely different movies – and I realise now as a (only slightly) wiser adult that Lloyd Kaufman’s praise for Shark! was more to do with Troma owning the rights to it rather than an unadulterated love of a “forgotten masterpiece”. Still, I remained interested to see the film, partially because of the involvement of the legendary Fuller but also because of its strange behind the scenes story.
Shark! is a film born from a production studio’s greed. Its original (and far more appropriate) title was Caine, naming the film after the lead character. The tampering of this film didn’t end with a simple retitling. There was a certain amount of infamy surrounding Shark! at the time of its release. One of the stuntmen died shooting a scene with a supposedly sedated shark, and the production company tastelessly (but not surprisingly) used this to promote the film. Fuller, who had already come to blows with the production company over the film, saw this as the final straw and quit. Shark! was put into the hands of the producer who got to work re-editing and subsequently fucking up the film. Fuller, when he saw the film’s final cut, disowned the film and claiming it unrecognisable as his own work. He requested that his name be taken off the credits. The producers refused. Yes, it’s a classic heartwarming Hollywood tale. But production history aside, is Shark! (or Caine) any good?
USA/Mexico, 1969, Samuel Fuller
To get this film’s biggest problem out of the way, the studio tampering of Shark! is very much apparent. The editing and structure of the film was so jarring that it actually prompted me to pause the film and do a quick bit of research on Shark!‘s history. Scenes often cut abruptly, individual shots disappear in the blink of an eye and sometimes it feels as if chunks of the story were left on the cutting room floor. Shark! has a pretty foul reputation and most of its reviews are negative. While the obvious studio butchering is frustrating, I must say that I actually enjoyed the film. A lot. This is in no way Fuller’s best, not even close, but certain scenes give a glimpse of his talents. Despite the horrendous quality of the DVD (this seems to be a combination of dodgy source material and crappy authoring from Troma), Raúl Martínez Solares’s cinematography shines, especially the film’s tense and creepy underwater sequences. Rafael Moroyoqui provides a great score, which works perfectly the vision provided by Solares and Fuller.
The film also has an impressive cast. Reynolds is terribly wooden, but he is strangely likeable. (This is despite the fact that he punches a female character unconscious – twice.) It’s great to see Silvia Pinal, star of Buñuel’s Viridiana, who delivers an excellent performance. Arthur Kennedy is also fun as the permanently drunk doctor. The script – or rather what remains of the script – doesn’t exactly do the actors many favours, but for the most part, they rise above its limitations. While Shark! can be jarring, the film’s final act is exciting with characters back-stabbing each other left, right and centre. Fuller also goes all out in the film’s action scenes. There are many, many punch-ups. These fights feature characters collapsing into fruit stands, throwing each other against walls, falling downstairs, lunging at each other in impressively big jumps and just generally beating the crap out of each other. Fun stuff!
While I enjoyed Shark!, I can only give it two and a half sharks out of a possible five. The shark (or sharks?) in Shark! is a tiny, tiny shark. We must remember, this is pre-Jaws, back when it was okay for a shark to not be thirty feet long. The tiny shark takes away some of the impact of the underwater attack scenes, but it also adds a degree of realism. The shark scenes are also captured brilliantly. Shark! takes the unique approach of filming the sharks from a distance, which, while making them appear even smaller, adds an odd, unsettling mood to the scenes. As you might have guessed from the plot outline and the fact that the film’s original title was Caine, the shark’s screen time is limited. There are only three scenes that feature a shark attack or attempted attacks. Some shark fanatics might be left a little cold by this one, but if you consider this an exercise of quality of quantity and keep in mind the marketing of the film is a little misleading, then you should be fairly satisfied.
Shark! will perhaps be of more interest to those that enjoy the work of Sam Fuller rather than shark aficionados. It is a bizarre and compelling piece of cinematic history and a classic example of exploitative and offensive marketing. Shark! is a deeply flawed movie and in no way is it a classic of the sharksploitation genre (not that it was even intended to be). It is, however, a fun film with noirish characters and enjoyable twists. Not required viewing by any stretch of the imagination, but Shark! is an interesting watch for both the infamy of its production and the involvement of its well-known director and cast.