May 27, 2020
The best Jaws knockoffs
On social media in recent months, some have compared the narratives of a few classic horror films such as Night of the Living Dead and Jaws to the coronavirus pandemic that the world is currently going through. But the purpose of this article is to point out the impact the latter film, which turns 45 this year, has had on Hollywood since its release. Many, including yours truly, have already written about how the great success of Spielberg’s film began the big studios’ practice of putting out big-budget films during the summer. For obvious reasons, 2020 has become an exception to that.
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But Jaws, like Psycho before it and Halloween after it, quickly spawned a number of imitators with the same “nature strikes back at humanity” theme. Here now is a brief look at five such films which stood out for me.
The title alone made comparisons to Jaws inevitable, even though this movie was already in production when Jaws hit theaters. Instead of a beach community, the film is set in a national park (filmed in Georgia) whose head ranger (Christopher George) soon learns that a huge grizzly bear is killing people throughout the park. The rest of the film’s narrative is basically the same as Jaws, with George in Roy Scheider’s role and Andrew Prine and Richard Jaeckel playing the Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw roles respectively.
But the film has a nice atmosphere to it and the moments where the beast strikes certainly make the viewer jump. Also, the production deserves credit for managing to get an actual Kodiak (named Teddy, who was the biggest bear in captivity at the time) to play the title creature. Jaws drew attention for the countless issues the mechanical shark was giving that production. But getting a large, real bear (claws and all) to act was quite the accomplishment as well.
The initial poor reviews the film received didn’t stop it from becoming successful and developing its own following over the decades.
This is probably the most infamous of the films Jaws inspired. Heck, the title (which is Latin for killer whale) was even the name of Quint’s boat in Jaws. Its producer, Dino De Laurentiis, made it clear that he wanted this film to outshine Jaws early on in the film, when its killer whale kills a great white shark. But the moment everyone remembers is when the title creature rips off the leg of a girl played by Bo Derek. And it did end up predating Jaws 3-D with its storyline of a sea monster getting revenge on those who killed its loved one.
Otherwise, the film plays out basically the way you would expect, wasting a nice cast, including Richard Harris and Keenan Wynn in the process. Although Harris certainly gave it his all, even insisting on performing his own stunts, and reportedly nearly killing himself in the process.
Like De Laurentiis, Piranha producer Roger Corman was eager to jump on the Jaws bandwagon. In the Corman retrospective Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Strip Nurses, Corman was quoted as saying that he needed to shift gears once Jaws was released, as its success quickly prompted the studios to focus their energy on pictures that would basically outdo the kinds that he had been by that point been building his empire on.
Fortunately, unlike Orca, Piranha is actually both fun and scary. A bumbling investigator (Heather Menzies) goes to a mountain area attempting to locate two missing people. With the reluctant help of a mountain man (Bradford Dillman), she learns that the couple’s last stop was at a military base, where she unwittingly releases a school of genetically engineered piranha into the area’s river, which itself leads to a summer camp full of kids. The super-frantic scientist who created them (Kevin McCarthy) informs them that the creatures were initially meant to bring the Vietnam War to a quicker end before the government abandoned the idea.
Although we see a Jaws video game at the beginning of the film, Piranha focuses on its own story, allowing the audience to accept it on its own terms. Considering that CGI still didn’t exist in 1978, the title creatures, co-created by the legendary Phil Tippett, look quite scary. Also memorable are the bizarre creatures we briefly see in McCarthy’s lab before all hell breaks loose. The cast is fun to watch too, and like Orca, one of the victims is played by Keenan Wynn. This poor guy just can’t catch a break! The ending is rather haunting as well.
This film became such a classic that it got an awful sequel in 1981, Piranha II: The Spawning (James Cameron’s directorial debut) and was remade twice, in 1995 and 2010.
The same year the dismal Piranha II: The Spawning was released, Stephen King’s novel Cujo hit bookshelves. At the time, pretty much every book King was putting out was made into a movie shortly afterward, so it’s not surprising that the film adaptation of Cujo came just two years later.
A woman (Dee Wallace) in an unhappy marriage takes her car to the rural home of mechanic for repairs. Once she and her family arrive, they realize that the only one there is the title St. Bernard, who’s been driven insane thanks to rabies he contracted from a bat at the beginning of the movie. While Spielberg’s film may not have been on the minds of King or director Lewis Teague, Cujo‘s attack scenes are every bit as intense as those in Jaws. The viewer’s heart certainly keeps pounding as Wallace and her son (Danny Pintauro) find themselves trapped in their small car with a bloodthirsty animal just waiting to pounce on them the instant they set one foot out.
Teague previously directed the film Alligator, which came out three years earlier, and was written by Piranha scribe John Sayles. While that film was entertaining, I consider Cujo superior. This may be because more than any of the other films listed here, I’ve always considered Cujo a tragedy. Cujo, while sweet looking at the beginning of the film, slowly gets a more horrific, monstrous appearance as the film goes on. The result is an onscreen transformation that’s both heartbreaking and astonishing. If any animal deserved an Oscar for acting, it’s the four St. Bernards who played Cujo.
To me, the story is also a good reminder of the importance of owners getting their pets their rabies shots.
This is the most recent film to draw comparisons to Jaws. Based on the book by Steve Alten, the movie centers on a rescue expedition to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean that’s interrupted by the appearance of a 75 foot-long megalodon shark. Obviously, the special effects are more elaborate in this film than in the others described above. Though truthfully, the coolest images in the film were those of the underwater laboratory from which our protagonists carry out their mission. The lab, like the Sea World depicted in Jaws 3-D, even has a lot of glass windows allowing us to see the title creature kill humpback whales.
While none of the cast stands out, they’re all pleasant and go though the motions without becoming irritating, which for pictures like this, is quite an achievement in itself. Hence, The Meg is fun, while not exactly bringing anything new to the table. This is no doubt why it made enough money for discussions of a sequel.