June’s Movie of the Month, the 1980 natural horror Alligator, is fascinating for many reasons, not least of all for being s a sharkless Jaws ripoff that mostly takes place out of the water. The years after Spielberg’s runaway success with that game-changing big budget creature feature saw a slew of cheap knockoffs of many different flavors. Many post-Jaws natural horrors didn’t even bother hiding their mimicry by changing their central monster’s species (Mako: The Jaws of Death, Tintorera: Tiger Shark, Great White aka The Last Shark, Blood Beach, etc., but there were plenty of Jaws imitators that did reapply the film’s mythically-gigantic beast model to non-shark animalia. Alligator‘s ginormous, vengeful monster Ramón was clearly inspired by his Great White predecessor but he was far from alone. We already covered much of what makes Alligator special in our Swampchat discussion of the film, but what of the other sharkless Jaws knockoffs that terrorized the drive-ins & grindhouses of the late 70s & early 80s?
Here are the five best sharkless, non-Alligator Jaws knockoffs I could find lurking in schlock cinema’s murkiest waters.
1) Piranha (1978)
Piranha is a special case within the Jaws-knockoff continuum, because it forms a sort of schlock cinema ouroboros. A lot of what films like Jaws & Star Wars did in the late 1970s was elevate the b-movie genre film work folks like Roger Corman had been producing for years to a big budget Hollywood “event film” format. With Piranha, Roger Corman bit back, “borrowing” from (and in some ways openly mocking) a big budget film that had heavily “borrowed” from his own work. Piranha is not only special for creating a cycle of schlocky theft & for turning the water-bound threat of the Jaws format into thousands of tiny monsters instead of one gigantic one, though; it also introduced the world to the violent slapstick magic of director Joe Dante. Dante’s trademark touch of silly & violent parody is already very much alive & fully realized in Piranha, with every goofy murder & biting spoof revealing all-too-definitively that he loves the movies he’s making as well a the ones he’s blatantly ripping off. Bonus points: Perfect angel Paul Bartel stars as a short-shorts wearing camp counselor from Hell.
2) Grizzly (1976)
There are many ridiculous things to note about Grizzly, not least of all its Jaws-but-with-a-bear! premise (if there’s any doubt of its Jaws connection, just look to its sequel, which was brazenly titled Claws), but the one that strikes me the most is its PG rating. The film operates largely like a slasher flick, from its campsite setting to its wooden between-kills acting, which is not a genre that leads itself to a PG mentality. Many of the film’s kills are from the bear’s first person POV where you see a claw intruding from off-screen to rip an undeserving (and sometimes undressing) victim to shreds where you’d normally see a machete in Jason Voorhees’s gloved hand. Jaws & Friday the 13th are both properties children probably shouldn’t watch, but often grow up loving, so the idea of combining their two aesthetics and replacing their villains with a 2,000 pound grizzly bear is a PG-rated horror cheapie formula exactly calibrated to terrorize cult film nuts as children & amuse them greatly as adults.
3) Razorback (1984)
An Australian horror film about a supernaturally enormous wild boar, Razorback should not be worth much more than its value as an 80s creature feature Jaws knockoff, but there’s something oddly special about it, especially in its visual palette. This film is the most similar to Alligator‘s specimen on this list not only because it’s one of the only examples whose mayhem takes place on land, but also because of its darkly grotesque & vaguely magical tone.The wild boar of Razorback is far from the kind of cinematic swine you’ll find in titles like Babe or Gordy. It’s a disgusting, vile monster of a beast, tearing apart homes & vehicles and snatching up babies & women with wild abandon, his menacing tusks threatening to gore everything in sight. There’s a scene where the hideous bastard prevents a near-rape, almost shining as an unlikely hero like our vengeful gator Ramón, but that sentiment is severely undercut when he immediately devours the would-be victim. He’s allowed to be a natural, wild monster in a way that Ramón sidesteps in his more deliberately vengeful acts of violence (except for that one time the gator ate a child at a pool party for no apparent reason).
4) Orca: The Killer Whale (1977)
Instead of attempting to sidestep or obscure its Jaws, um, homage, Orca tackles the issue head-on. Early on in Orca a Great White shark not unlike the supernaturally gigantic one in Spielberg’s film is shown being utterly, effortlessly destroyed by a killer whale. There’s an air of superiority to this opening clash, an attitude of “You think sharks are scary? Ha! Get a load of whales!” It’s only fitting, then, that Orca spends the rest of its runtime openly mimicking some of Jaws‘s most iconic scenes, such as a climactic battle where the whale tips a block of ice to slide its victim towards its mouth, a moment that miraculously doesn’t end with the line “You’re gonna need a bigger iceberg.” There’s a lot that distinguishes Orca as its own achievement, not least of all its incredibly life-like orca models, one of which is spectacularly shown having a post-mortem miscarriage. Mostly, though, the film is notable for being incredibly faithful & blatant in its Jaws mimicry and also strange to watch in a modern context after our minds on orcas have been forever altered by titles like Blackfish & Free Willy.
5) Tentacles (1977)
There’s not much to see in the Italian mockbuster Tentacles that you won’t see done better in Jaws, but it’s done with an enraged octopus, which, you know, is its own kind of rare treat. The film is a fairly lifeless retread of the exact tourism-disrupted-by-gigantic-sea-creature plot of its obvious source of inspiration, but the novelty of watching an enraged octopus being air-dropped into Jaws‘s exact structure is amusing in its own way. I mostly included Tentacles on this list because it’s a fitting baseline to see just how blatant & uninspired the Jaws knockoff genre can be. It can also be amusing to see the mismatched stock footage attacks the film employs to save money on actual special effects. In its own charming way it’s a technique that feels lifted directly out of the 1950s creature features Jaws itself was paying homage to, not that it wasn’t outshined by the much more impressive physical models built by nearly every other title on this list.
For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the 1980 creature feature Alligator, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & this look at artist Ramón Santiago’s unlikely influence on its titular monster.