Alligator (1980) and 5 Other Must-See, Sharkless Jaws (1975) Knockoffs

EPSON MFP image

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.

-Brandon Ledet

The Phantom (1996)

EPSON MFP image

twohalfstar

campstamp

Common wisdom seems to be that the film market is currently flooded with so many comic book properties that mainstream audiences will soon be experiencing a wicked case of “superhero fatigue” and the whole Marvel/DC empire will crumble. So far I seem to be experiencing the opposite effect. All of these rampant comic book adaptations have sent me on something of a superhero tangent and I’ve been finding myself looking back to comic book cinema of the past for smaller titles I might’ve missed over the years. Sometimes this urge is a blessing, like when it lead me to Sam Raimi’s goofily masterful Darkman. In the case of The Phantom, however, I’m not so sure I’m on the right path.

Based on a comic strip that’s been running continuously to this day since the 1930s, The Phantom is a starring vehicle for 90s pop culture artifact Billy Zane. While dressed as his superhero alter ego The Phantom, Zane is decked out here in skintight purple spandex, black leather mask & boots, and a handgun he rarely touches. He also rides an immaculately white horse & keeps a gigantic wolf for a pet. Raised by Mongolian pirates 400 years in the past or some such nonsense, The Phantom is rumored to be an immortal ghost who protects the sanctity of the jungle from white archehologists & businessmen looking to plunder its resources. In the comics he does this through practical real world means (including some martial arts shamelessly designed to show off Zane’s fanny in purple spandex). The movie adds a supernatural element to the mix in some black magic skulls that can be exploited to bring on world domination. This addition threatens to make The Phantom entertaining as a campy trifle with half-assed old-world mysticism backing up its comic strip charm. Nothing significant comes of it, though, and after the novelty of seeing Billy Zane dressed up as a handsome, but deeply odd superhero wears off the rest of the film is a total bore.

The main problem with The Phantom is that it lacks any strong creative voice or soulful eccentricity required to make a comic book movie really work. Just match up your very favorite scene from this film to an 15 seconds of Darkman & you’ll see what I mean. There was a time when the legendary Joe Dante almost helmed The Phantom as a tongue-in-cheek camp fest and another where the delightfully sleazy Joel Schumacher could’ve dragged it down to the same so-bad-it’s-great depths he brought Batman & Robin (the one with the bat nipples & ice puns). Sadly, neither of those versions of The Phantom were meant to be and the film wound up in the dull, uninspired hands of the director of Free Willy & Operation Dumbo Drop. It’s easy to see how The Phantom could’ve swung in a more interesting direction. If nothing else, the slightly off performances of the spandex-clad Zane, O.G. Buffy Kristy Swanson, and a deliciously evil Catharine Zeta-Jones all feel like they belong in a much better movie (or at least a less boring one).

As with everything in criticism, my boredom with The Phantasm might’ve had a lot to do with personal taste. Once the wackier introductions to the film’s central scenario were out of the way, the movie would up playing like a second-rate version of the Indiana Jones franchise, especially in the way it mimicked the “Tune In Next Time!” structure of old, serialized action programs on the radio. There are Indiana Jones junkies out there who might be aching for more similar content to tide them over until the next inevitable reboot and those might be the only folks I’d recommend The Phantom to. Anyone who’s looking for an eccentric comic book movie here is a lot more likely to feel let down. The aspects of The Phantom that wound up fascinating me the most were more or less all related to its comic strip source material. The Phantom is credited as being the first superhero shown wearing the skintight jumpsuit that has become pretty much the standard for the genre and is often seen as a direct precursor to superhero titans like Batman, Superman, and Captain America. The artwork & narrative of the strip also has a distinct echo of the work of madman outsider Fletcher Hanks to it, especially of his character Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle.

It’s never a good sign when an adaptation is outshined this much by its source material and it seems audiences at the time of The Phantom‘s release shared wholeheartedly in my boredom. The film bombed at the box office and, despite strong VHS & DVD sales, never earned the two sequels in its originally-planned trilogy. I wouldn’t call this effect “superhero fatigue”, however. It’s more of a boring movie fatigue, as the superhero source material was the only interesting thing going for this slog, an effect that fades fast once the novelty of the live action comic strip wears off.

-Brandon Ledet

Burying the Ex (2015)

EPSON MFP image

onehalfstar

campstamp

Joe Dante is, without question, one of my favorite directors. Just a genuinely fun filmmaker. Where would my childhood have been without the subversively satirical live-action cartoons of Small Soldiers & Gremlins II: The New Batch? I shudder to think. As I got older, self-aware genre titles like Piranha & The Howling revealed themselves to be well within my wheelhouse and the genre-defiant fare of Explorers, The Hole, and Matinee have won my heart even as recently as last year. That’s why it hurts me so much to admit that Dante’s latest work, Burying the Ex, is such a crushing disappointment. At a mercifully short 90min, the film is a grueling test of patience, never even coming close to satisfying either the horror or the comedy side of its horror comedy genre. Worse yet, it dabbles in some light, MRA-type misogyny that suggests that Dante has transitioned from the youthful prankster role he’s filled for decades into some unbecoming grumpy curmudgeon territory. It’s truly sad to witness.

As suggested by the “burying the axe” pun from the title, Burying the Ex centers around a troubled romantic relationship that just will not end until the protagonist schlub puts his love & their differences to rest (literally). Max, played by a hoarsely bland Anton Yelchin, finds it difficult to end a longterm relationship with the beautiful Evelyn (Ashley Greene), despite their glaring, irreconcilable differences. This dilemma is complicated even more by Evelyn’s sudden death by speeding bus, which preempts Max’s final attempt to break it off. Somewhere in there is the cool nerd Olivia (Alexandra Daddario) who offers Max a glimpse into what a relationship with someone who shares his geeky interest in oldschool horror films could possibly be like. In comparison, Olivia makes Evelyn look like a megabitch. Evelyn’s violent mood swings, rampaging jealousy, disregard for Max’s monster movie memorabilia, and self-satisfied conviction that she’s saving the world through “green” blogging all make her out to be some kind of a monster, a position that’s only slightly amplified when she rises from the grave to reveal herself as Max’s crazy, undead zombie (ex)girlfriend. Olivia, on the other hand, is more or less just one of the guys.

Zombies as a metaphor for romantic relationships that just won’t die is not only a somewhat unoriginal idea, it was one that one done much better as recently as last year’s Life After Beth. However, the lack of an original concept could’ve been easily overcome if Dante’s typical zaniness had run the show instead of the faintly sexist “Aren’t women just crazy?” vibes that spoil the fun. That’s not even taking into account the nerd fantasy fulfillment that two beautiful women (undead or not) would be fighting over the protagonist Max, who is hopelessly mediocre in both looks & personality (I’ve enjoyed Yelchin elsewhere, just not here). The only part of Burying the Ex that does work is its loving references to older, better monster movies, including shout-outs to The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, Plan 9 from Outer Space, I Walked With a Zombie, Cat People, and the list goes on. When Max explains that horror films are important because they “challenge us to stop accepting the world & face our inner monster & find strength to conquer it,” you really want to find common ground with the film if not only to fulfill that admirable sentiment. However, Burying the Ex never faces its inner misogyny monster, thoroughly misidentifying the enemy as Crazy Women & Their Crazy Ways. All that’s left, then, is cheap, unfunny gags & some last second gore. Whoopee. It’s a highly undignified position for Dante to be in & I hope that this isn’t the part of a larger downward trend in quality for the director, who really should’ve known better than to make this film in the first place.

-Brandon Ledet