Wednesday, 4 June 2008

L'Ultimo squalo / The Last Shark

This is, of course, the Italian entry sullo stesso filone Jaws that was felt to be too close to its model and thereby barred from being distributed in the US following court action by Universal Studios. It's also, as with all Enzo Castellari's work, a technically well made, unpretentious piece of low-budget B-cinema that accomplishes everything it sets out to do – except perhaps bring in the money thanks to Universal's pack of legal sharks...

A big shark, eating people. What more can you really say?

The deja vu, cut-and-paste plot is as follows:

The resort community of Port Harbour is about to celebrate its centennial with a regatta and windsurfing competition. The favourite is out practicing his moves when he suddenly disappears from view.

The search party, led by chief of police Peter Benton (James Franciscus) and grizzled old fisherman Ron Hamer (Vic Morrow), later discovers part of the surfer's board with bite marks suggestive of a massive great white shark.

Unfortunately Mayor Wells (Joshua Sinclair) refuses to accept this possibility for fear it will disrupt the celebrations and thus his own election campaign, giving the shark opportunity to wreak further havoc, including going after a boat crewed by his son and Benton's daughter...

As Luigi Cozzi once remarked, the Italian popular cinema strongly privileged imitation over innovation: “In Italy [...] when you bring a script to a producer, the first question he asks is not 'what is your film like?' but 'what film is your film like?'. That's the way it is, we can only make Zombie 2, never Zombie 1.”

Cast in these terms, the success or failure of certain filone as a whole might be explained in terms of a combination of budgetary requirements and cultural background.

For an Italian filmmaker to make a science fiction film to cash in on Star Wars was relatively difficult, not just because of the cost of high-tech effects (as distinct from traditional Bava or Margheriti style smoke, mirrors and model-work) but also because science fiction had never quite imprinted itself on the public consciousness.

Indeed Cozzi is a case in point here. An avowed science fiction enthusiast who had made his debut in the genre, with the non-commercial, festival screened The Tunnel Under the World, he soon found that while he could easily smuggle science fiction elements into gialli it was near impossible to actually get a straight science fiction project off the ground in the early and mid 1970s.

For an Italian filmmaker to make a horror film to cash in on Halloween was relatively easy not only because slasher films required little in the way of resources, but also as the American slasher film had itself borrowed heavily from the Italian giallo – a fact which reminds us, along with the obvious influence of the spaghetti western on the post-spaghetti US western, that it was never just about Italians 'ripping off' Hollywood anyway.

Someone fails to get out the shark repellent bat spray in time

We can thus perhaps begin to get an insight into how and why The Last Shark works and the problems it faced on account of this.

The simple fact is that there is probably not very much you can really do here except follow the Jaws template, all the more so when Spielberg's film is itself little more than a big budget B-movie that rigorously adheres to an old, well-established narrative trajectory:

1) There is an monstrous threat to the community.
2) The hero realises the nature of this threat.
3) Those in a position of power refuse to acknowledge the threat until it is almost too late.
4) The hero defeats the threat.

Seen in this light, the only other real difference between Jaws and Invaders from Mars, The Blob or Invasion of the Saucer Men is that it also threws in a touch of Moby Dick, presumably in a Corman-esque appeal to the more cultured segment of its audience.

The problem with The Last Shark, I suspect, is that it is thus not just too close an imitation of its model – Benton = Brody; Hamer = Quint; Wells = Vaughan; the failure to make the syntygmatic substitution of a giant alligator or killer whale for the shark etc. – but also that bit too well made and thus threatening to Hollywood's own sequels and cash-ins, not least the tawdry and tardy Jaws 3D.

With Castellari at the helm, it really was a case of Italians doing it better, accomplishing more with less – yes, the shark here is unconvincing, but those in Jaws aren't significantly better despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on them – and generally knowing how to get round their limitations by acknowledging them, most notably when a ratings-seeking TV crew discusses the possibility of incorporating in some stock footage to spice things up on the grounds that their viewers wouldn't be able to tell anyway.

It's all about affecting the audience...


herman said...

Nothing to really add about this film keith- but lovely screen caps (clearly not the vhs rip)- so I am assuming this is the new release?

could you tell me a bit about the dvd? any special features in english? or subbed into english? This is the top of my shopping list (well just behind the latest shameless releases anyways), so anything to wet the appetite you can throw our way would be appreciated.

didnt morrows accent change a bit during the film? me and my wife were trying to work out if he was trying to be scottish or irish or both at different points in the film, maybe it was our imagination though.

herman said...

to take on your main points (or cozzi's point)

this is the major problem isn't. The anbitious sci fi of New Gladiatiors fails, the lest ambitious post nuke New Barbarians works. I firlmy believe that New Gladiators would have worked if the setting was similar to New Barbarians (just played the games out in an old quarry), after all this is what happens in the early scenes of The Fall Of New York before Sopkiw meets the weird robot clown.

While I take on board what you say about "what film is it like?" which certainly seems to be recurring theme through filone an original idea such as New Gladiators (way ahead of running man)though admittedly not a few others (rollerball maybe) is squandered because the director, producer etc were either oblivious to their budgetary limitations or were fully aware and simply weren't too bothered.

As too Last Shark, it is a movie that suffers no such problems, then again shark movies can be effective even at the budget end. Open water was apparently made for $130k for example and what is that about 65000 quid or so? Couldn't buy a flat for that.

I did nearly wet myself when the shark put in an appearance early on though.

One other thing about last shark is with italian genre cinema there seems to be a tendency to latch onto a particular aspect of the film they seek to clone rather than copy the whole thing. Jaws for example has a lot of suspense not actually a great deal of shark, Castellari seems to latch onto the shark aspect and so we get a Last Shark that maybe less suspenseful but offers a fair bit of big fish action.

As another example- Bianchi's Burial Ground is pretty mucha clone of the Night of the Living Dead, but is latching onto the zombie seige element instead of the dramatic interaction between those boarded inside.

For me I think this is why these films work so well, because as my#uch as we love drama and suspense when you pay money to see a shark movie you are paying to see big fish really and not some statement about greedy mayors and when you pay to see a zombie film you demand zombies. For all romero's social commentary it was fulci's film that was the success at the time cos all concerned understood this point- people may be interested on the anti consumerist elements of Dawn Of The Dead but it was the zombie getting his bonce cut of by a helicopter that had the replay value.

K H Brown said...

Thanks for the comments - insightful as always.

The screengrabs are from an AVI taken from an old Laserdisc release.

Morrow's accent slips a bit between Scottish and Irish; I didn't comment on it because I don't really think it's a point of distinction between Italian and Hollywood cinemas. I hear plenty of bad accents in big budget Hollywood films, while Sean Connery always sounds the same no matter who he's playing, so to get at The Last Shark for this felt a bit easy, I guess.

Italian cinema picking and choosing which aspects to rip of is spot on I think: they knew what worked with their audience and what worked according to their own strengths as filmmakers.

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