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The Last Shark
(a.k.a. Great White)
(1980)
 

Director: Enzo G. Castellani                  
Cast:
James Franciscus, Vic Morrow, Micky Pignatelli


There's an interesting story surrounding The Last Shark's American release - at least, its attempted release. Seems the good ol' boys at FVI (who gave us not-so-classic films like Survival Run and The Daaaaaarkkkk) got the North American rights to this Italian movie, and decided it would be their push into mainstream acceptance. Retitling it Great White, they gave it a major advertising campaign and a wide release into theaters. Despite all that, for some reason Universal Pictures didn't realize right away that the movie was a blatant rip-off of their own Jaws, the proof being that they didn't sue FVI immediately. But since they did eventually sue, I guess they stumbled onto that realization eventually. Anyway, the result of the lawsuit was that FVI had to withdraw the movie from theaters, and it has never been given a legitimate video or television release in North America.

Over the years, the movie has built a kind of mystique around it here, partly due to its being unavailable here, and also because it was directed by prolific director Enzo G. Castellani. Curious, I started actively searching for it several months ago, and I recently got my own copy (via the Japanese laser disc release). I had an open mind about it, having heard good things about it, but at the same time knowing how cheesy Italian rip-offs can be. This may explain why after watching it, my opinion is more or less indifference. It's certainly not a terrible movie - it's watchable, but it has no surprises. I don't really regret making the effort to see it, but I now know I wasn't really missing anything.

How blatant a rip-off is this movie? Well, let's take a look at what this movie has. Though other Jaws rip-offs have used bears, alligators, octopi, and other animals in place of a great white shark, the animal here is another great white shark. The shark in this movie pulls off part of a pier, and munches on visitors during a lucrative holiday season for the coastal small town this takes place in. The local politicians won't close the beaches because of the shark, since they would be losing tourist dollars. There's a half sunken boat found that appears to be abandoned, but they find part of the body (munched by the shark) of the owner inside the boat. And there is a crusty old loner, more specifically a skipper with both a mustache and an accent who thinks he can catch that pesky old shark. All of these scenes and characters appeared in Jaws. But this movie also has teenagers at sea who are attacked by the shark, and at one point the shark pulls down a helicopter below the surface of the sea. Yes, this movie rips off Jaws 2 as well!

So there is really no point in giving a plot description of The Last Shark, seeing how closely it follows Jaws, a movie I think I can safely assume every reader has seen at least once. With that taken care of, the only thing left to do is cover the few differences the movie has to offer, and how the movie pulls off both those differences and the similarities. Let's start with the actors. James Franciscus plays the hero, though he's a marine life writer, not a sheriff. I don't remember him being awful, though part of the reason was that the actress playing his wife (Joyce Lee) was so bad, any other performance would look better beside it! Another reason is that I don't remember him being bad is that although it's only been a short time since I've watched the movie, I can't really remember his performance - he wasn't especially noticeable, either in a good or bad way. One could never call Roy Scheider an action hero, yet he was memorable as the hero in Jaws. Vic Morrow here is obviously trying to imitate Robert Shaw's performance (and look) from that film. However, his character has such an outrageously bogus and overdone Scottish (or is it Irish?) accent, he unintentionally becomes the comic relief of the movie. Interestingly, his character here is more sympathetic than Shaw's Quint character - at one point, he actually defends the local politician when the angry public is accusing the man of not doing enough about the shark. Except for some annoying TV reporters, there is an attempt to make the characters kinder and gentler. However, this sometimes becomes quite laughable. I could accept the local politician feeling very guilty when the situation becomes very serious. But having him hire a helicopter and fishing for the shark by dangling a cable with meat attached looked even more silly than it sounds.

I've found that Castellani can usually be depended to give his productions a slickness that's higher than the usual for Italian movies, and generally speaking, The Last Shark has a very good look to it - at least on land. On land, everything looks brightly lit, and the crowd scenes and locations make it look like a Hollywood movie of the time. But all the action is out to sea, so when things are dry-docked for too long, it starts to drag. Never really boring, but one starts getting impatient for things to go out to sea again, since on land the characters are prone to go through bouts of fairly inane and standard dialogue. There is a common problem with both the land and sea sequences, in that in both locations there are scenes that suddenly stop where they are and jump to the next scene, leaving viewers bewildered for a few seconds.

The sea sequences have their own problems. Some of the underwater footage is so dark it's hard to tell what's happening, and it's especially unforgivable in the final scene because what would normally have been a spectacular scene can't be made out at all. There is ample stock footage of great white sharks used, making what the characters consider a gigantic great white actually looking pretty normal sized. Most disappointing is the gore factor; since this is an Italian movie, you would expect a lot of gore. Though we do get to see some people chomped, there's not much blood or gore to be seen.

Still, these sequences do provide some interest. There are a few very effective sequences from the P.O.V. of the shark on the prowl, where there is no sound except for a low water rumble. The opening attack is also well done, with the victim (and the audience) given a couple of surprises before ultimately getting chomped, and without seeing the shark at all. Though much of the shark footage is made up of stock footage (some of it actually reused), they actually did build a model shark for several shots. Yes, when the slightly plastic looking shark pops out of the water (always tilted at the same angle) and growls (!), it is a little cheesy. Yet at the same time, there is something pleasing about seeing this stiff looking model suddenly shooting out of the water, and I looked forward to seeing it every time. There does seem to be at least one sequence (the underwater cave part) where it looks like they did film an actual shark in action. Maybe it was faked, but the way the shark moved in his reasonably believable actions did make it appear they used a real life shark for this scene.

Though The Last Shark may drag here and there, I mentioned earlier that it isn't really boring at any time. It certainly passes the time as you watch it, but it doesn't make the effort to do anything else. For one thing, we have seen much of this material previously in the first two Jaws movies, and though the direction has its moments, there isn't a real effort to juice the proceedings up or present them in a new and exciting way. Those who are still determined to see it won't feel completely ripped off, but will probably wonder if they should have bothered going to all that trouble.

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See also: The Crater Lake Monster, Elves, King Cobra

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