Richard J. Leskosky: Audiences still hungry for shark films

Richard J. Leskosky: Audiences still hungry for shark films

Every year, the Discovery Channel's Shark Week and the Syfy Channel's response with the latest "Sharknado" installment and other shark-centered sci-fi/horror movies start me thinking about sharks and film. Specifically, why are there so many shark movies, and why are so many of them so bizarre?

I've written columns before about weird shark movies, and they keep making them at a rate that warrants periodic updates about the latest shark mutations and appearances in unexpected places. Even Disney's mega-budget "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" threatened Captain Jack Sparrow with zombie sharks.

But Hollywood makes even more straightforward adventure stories involving sharks on a fairly regular basis, if not in such quantity.

Take, for instance, this year's "47 Meters Down," about two sisters trapped in a shark cage with only an hour's worth of oxygen and a great white shark circling the cage.

So what appeal do sharks hold for filmmakers?

Well, they're scary. They look scary and their longstanding place in popular culture has ensured that people immediately register them as dangerous, deadly, implacable.

Peter Benchley's 1974 best-selling novel, "Jaws," and Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning film adaptation went a long way toward establishing the shark as the perfect movie menace — creatures from the abyss whose attacks you generally cannot see coming.

Not only did the film display grisly scenes of dismemberment and of people actually being eaten by the shark, but it also featured well-written oral descriptions of the shark as an efficient killing machine.

It also included Quint's personal account of the actual sinking of the USS Indianapolis by a Japanese submarine in the last days of World War II, resulting in only 317 of the about 900 sailors who went into the water surviving, at least in part due to shark attacks on the floating men.

Over 40 years later, "Jaws" still figures as a top horror film. It comes in at No. 15 among Rotten Tomatoes' "75 Best Reviewed Horror Films." The American Film Institute ranks it second on its list of "100 Most Heart-Pounding Films," and the film's great white shark comes in 18th on its list of top 50 movie villains — well ahead of Dracula and Freddy Krueger. Just this June, Esquire magazine placed it at No. 37 in its list of "50 Scariest Movies of All Time." But the most significant showing might be its No. 10 ranking in the Time Out London list of "The 100 Best Horror Films," because they polled 100 people who actually make horror films, including Clive Barker, Simon Pegg, Guillermo del Toro, Joe Dante, Roger Corman and Stephen King.

Shark attacks in real life are rare, but they get lots of news coverage — especially shots of, say, a surfboard with a huge bite taken out of it or a beautiful young surfer with a missing limb as a result of an attack.

As a matter of fact, though, sharks are not that dangerous to humans statistically. You can find various lists online of the most dangerous animals. I'm not going to cite any figures because they vary from site to site, but hippos, for example, kill more people per year than sharks — by an order of magnitude. Sharks kill eight to 10 people per year — about the same as a weekend in Chicago in terms of homicides.

But the existing mythos about sharks and the occasional sensational news story mean that you don't need to write a back story for your shark to confirm it poses a threat.

Even if you're writing about a mutated shark ("Sharktopus") or a shark that shows up in unusual places ("Sand Sharks," "Ice Sharks"), once you account for the twist in a sentence or two, you can just fall back on the killer-fish image.

Then there's the economics of shark movies. Most of them are fairly cheaply made. Let's face it: In a shark movie, you don't often see the whole shark in one shot. That expanse of open water could have a shark below it (with or without ominous music on the soundtrack). Or if there is some sign of a shark approaching, it's more than likely just a fin (also likely just a piece of plastic glued to a float beneath the surface). And if there is an underwater shot of a regular shark, well, there's a lot of inexpensive stock footage of sharks available.

If for whatever reason you need to resort to computer-generated imagery, a shark is probably one of the cheaper creatures to produce. Aside from mutations with tentacles or extra heads, a shark is an easily rendered CGI figure — no facial expression, no limbs, a streamlined body, a single color.

Just consider this: All five films in the Sharknado series are full of sharks. This year's "Sharknado 5: Global Swarming" was the most expensive film in that series, and it cost about $3 million. Samuel L. Jackson was probably paid more than that in 1999 to (spoiler alert!) be eaten by a shark in "Deep Blue Sea."

Note: Though not nearly as deadly as hippos, the most dangerous large mammal in Britain is officially the cow. As of 2015, cows had killed 75 people over the previous 15 years.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net.

Topics (1):Film

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