Shark and Awe: Shark Week on the SyFy Channel

Fish frenzy!

It’s the most wonderful B-movie week of the year! There are not many times when cult movies break out of their small niche market, to become a cultural phenomena. But Sunday will see the premiere of the fifth installment in the much loved, much hated, but certainly much talked about Sharknado franchise. Since the debut of the original movie in 2013, it has become SyFy’s equivalent of the Super Bowl, a tent-pole event in the schedule, and a rare chance for them to become water-cooler conversation in the same way as, say, Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead.

2014’s Sharknado 2 – still the best in the series, for my money – became the channel’s most-watched original movie ever, although part three and four failed to capture quite the same level of attention. Recently, SyFy has extended the concept, last year running an entire week of (mostly) similarly ludicrous, shark-themed movies, leading up to the obviously-named Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens. Of course, we watched and reviewed each one. We do what we must, because we can. And this year, there’s a whole new slate of B movies, from the deliberately bad to those which seem unintentionally so, all premiering on SyFy over an eight-day period beginning on July 30.

Once more, we’ll be plunging, head first, into this large vat of cinematic cheese. Will the results be tasty Brie or stale Cheddar? Read on…

5-Headed Shark Attack (2017)

Rating: C-

Dir: Nico De Leon
Star: Chris Bruno, Nikki Howard, Nikki Howard, Jeffrey Holsman

You don’t know how closely I came to writing a strongly-worded letter to The Asylum and the SyFy Channel half way through this one. Because it appeared that we had been sold a defective product here, with the shark which was terrorizing Puerto Rico possessing only four heads, not the five we were clearly promised in the title. Hell, even the characters specifically stated, on several occasions, it was a four-headed beast. What kind of post-truthiness world are we living in, I thought, where we have to put up with a 20% deficiency in the cranial department from our B-movie monsters?

Then I discovered the glorious truth. Yes, there were four heads at the front. But there was another at the rear of the shark, effectively on the end of its tail (something conveniently ignored by the poster, right). You must feel for that head, forever stuck looking backwards, and having to rely on its colleagues occasionally reversing into food. On the plus side, it was certainly a great deal less crowded back there, and the location in splendid isolation would have its advantages over being stuck between the Oversharing and Poor Dental Hygiene heads. I envisage a sequel, where the fifth head decides to go solo, citing creative differences.

It would probably be more interesting than this lackluster effort, which takes one of the more outrageous and potentially interesting monsters, and sticks it into a largely tedious plot. After the shark appears out of nowhere and begins eating people around Puerto Rico, Thaddeus Young (Holzmann), who runs a struggling aquarium, sees a lifeline. He tasks his marine biologist, Dr. Angie Yost (Howard, unconvincing beyond her stock scientist eye-wear), with capturing it. After initially poo-pooing the idea of a shark whose count of heads surpasses one – “What next, sharks that fly through tornadoes?” – she reels in a bunch of easily-digested yet bland interns, along with veteran shark hunter Red (Bruno), to take to the seas. Lazy digital carnage, featuring embarrassingly frequent repetition of footage, ensues.

This follows on the heels of 2-Headed Shark Attack and 3-Headed Shark Attack, though I have seen neither, so am unqualified to comment on how this compares. I’m not sure why they apparently chose to skip the four-headed version. If you’re going to do that, I’d have said you might as well miss out five- and six-headed sharks as well, instead going full hydra on us, with a 7-headed shark. It may simply prove the law of diminishing returns. A two-headed shark is certainly freaky, compared to a one-headed one. But once you’ve gone down that road, adding another one, two or three doesn’t do a great deal extra.

As a result, the head at the back was far more memorable, than all four at the front combined – even when they are leaping out of the ocean to drag down a rescue helicopter, in a scene which packs nowhere near as much a wallop as it should. I would likely have found greater amusement if this film had been entitled Reverse Shark and had been devoted entirely to a predator with its head where the tail should be. Call me, SyFy: let’s do lunch.

Mississippi River Sharks (2017)

Rating: C+

Dir: Misty Talley
Star: Cassie Steele, Dean West, Tahj Vaughans, Jason London

This goes to show that bad special effects – I would even venture to suggest the phrase “piss-poor” is appropriate – do not necessarily rob a film of all entertainment potential. Make no mistake: these are very bad. The screenshot above illustrates both the woeful quality and the poorly considered use to which they are put, suggesting that sharks can not only hurl themselves out of the water, they can also bore clean through whoever gets in the way. Even by the low standards of plausibility we’ve come to expect out of these movies – and, don’t forget, it is a genre whose pinnacle involves the sharknado – this is hard to swallow. They might as well just have made the victim wear a T-shirt with a picture of a shark’s head on the front, it would have been no less convincing.

And, yet, it proved rather more enjoyable than 5-Headed Shark Attack, with characters you don’t mind spending time with, and a sense of its own idiocy that defrays much criticism. It’s set in a small town on the Mississippi river, which is hosting a fishing contest. The special guest at the event is actor Jason London (playing a meta-version of himself), beloved by many for his starring role in the “Shark Bite” franchise of movies. In titles like “Shark Bite 5: Shark of the Covenant,” he sports an eye-patch and blows away the fish, while reciting his catch-phrase, “One fish, two fish, red fish… DEAD fish.” Naturally, when the shark hits the fan, he turns out to be nothing like his on-screen persona, and about as useful as a chocolate fish-hook.

Instead, it’s left to the locals to figure out how to counter the bull-shark threat. I’m afraid I’m going to have to remain extremely vague on things like character and even actor names – the end credits of this whizzed by in a tiny window, at about 8x fast-forward speed, while SyFy trumpeted a future program over the vast majority of the screen. There’s basically three heroes. One is a girl who has returned from studying science at college to help out at her father’s hardware store: this is important, as a source of weapons and material for pipe bombs –  because science, duh. The other two are guys with a tow-truck, which is useful for hauling nets full of digital bull sharks onto the town bridge.

One is black, and there’s an inter-racial romance angle between him and the girl, which is oddly progressive for this kinda film. I have to say, given this is Mississippi and the volume of stereotypically redneck locals here, the thought did cross my mind that predatory fish might not be the biggest threat to this character’s survival… Otherwise, the film ambles its way through the expected story-lines, yet demonstrates a tongue-in-cheek awareness of shortcomings – both its own and the genre’s in general – that leads me to give it a pass. The self-referential concept of the “Shark Bite” franchise is genius, and credit London in particular for being willing to poke fun at himself.

Toxic Shark (2017)

Rating: C

Dir: Cole Sharpe
Star: Kabby Borders, Bryce Durfee, Christina Masterson, Sean Samuels

Credit is due here for not being short of imagination. I’m not sure the quality of the ideas is worthy of praise, but there’s no denying the volume of them. We start with a shark that has a nozzle on its head. From this, sprays toxic and corrosive green goo over everything nearby, when it is not flying through the air like an Olympic-level gymnast, to engage in more traditionally piscine pursuits, such as the biting-off of heads. But, wait! There’s more!

For as if this combo of a shark flick and a bukkake video wasn’t enough, the goo also turns those whom it touches into flesh-eating zombies. According to the movie, it is one of the side-effects of arsenic poisoning, a major compoment of the green slime. Fortunately, arsenic is also highly inflammable, so in the end, all it takes to send the shark up like a roman candle is a well-placed distress flare. Damn, what percentage by volume of arsenic did this shark contain? I guess the even rarer sodium-based shark was an evolutionary dead-end [Hohoho, a little highly reactive alkali metal comedy there, folks]

Unfortunately, the invention begins and ends at the shark, with the characters here being the worst we’ve had to endure for a very long time. Like 5-Headed Shark Attack, it’s set in Puerto Rico, which appears to be ground zero for this kind of thing. Specifically here, an island singles fitness resort, where Eden (Borders) has gone for a bit of R&R with her gal pals after a break-up with Sam (Durfee). What are the odds, it turns out he and his bros have opted to do exactly the same thing. Awkward!

Goddamn it, these are immensely irritating people on both sides of the gender battle, so at least they’re equal opportunity annoyances. 10 minutes in their bickering, passive-aggressive company and we were signing up to be on #TeamToxicShark.  To give you some idea, one of the party was significantly more interesting and fun to watch, after she was turned into a flesh-eating zombie.  Things do improve a bit once they stop fighting with each other, and go after the shark. While there’s not much explanation of quite why an arsenic-laced fish evolved a spray blowhole, this is probably a good thing, given the loose grasp on science described a couple of paragraphs above.

So the characters – I absolutely refuse to use the word “heroes” for this bunch of sub-millennial slackers – find themselves stuck between the hungry shark and the no-less peckish zombies. It’s an odd mix, almost attention-deficit disordered as it bounces between the two threats. Yet, it’s still vastly preferable to what passes for witty banter between the friends. When they’re being chased from one peril to the next, they don’t have time for that kind of thing, and the movie is markedly improved as a result. However, I’d have been happier if the film had finished with the entire island, and everyone on it, being wiped out by an unexpected volcanic explosion.

And I’m disappointed no-one ever uses the phrase, “Toxic shark syndrome.” Surely, a missed opportunity…

Trailer Park Shark (2017)

Rating: B-

Dir: Griff Furst
Star: Thomas Ian Nicholas, Lulu Jovovich, Dennis Haskins, Tara Reid

This may be the Citizen Kane of SyFy shark movies, simply from a technical level. There’s a lengthy early tracking shot, following hero Rob (Nicholas) as he goes around his home territory, the Soggy Meadows trailer park, which is surprisingly inventive and well-staged. If it may not quite be Brian De Palma, it’s a hundred times more inventive than the prosaic camerawork we usually see. That’s the most obvious example, yet there are enough elements here, in both style and content, to lift it well above the average for the genre.

The plot sees Deconnard (Haskins), the millionaire owner of the land on which Soggy Meadows is located, blow up the levees protecting the trailer park to flush the residents out for redevelopment. However, this just allows the giant shark which has been floating in the river, to rampage around the flooded trailers, on top of which the surviving residents are stranded. In this, it’s a bit like Bait, the Australian film about a shark prowling a flooded underground supermarket, whose occupants were forced to huddle on top of the shelves.

Here, however, there’s an additional “shocker”. This shark – for reasons never truly explained – is electrically charged, after an ill-advised attempt by Rob and his uncle to provide power to the park by tapping into a wind generator. As Rob puts it, “Electricity and water: they don’t mix well.” It sets the scene for numerous close calls, as Rob tries to rescue his girlfriend, Jolene (Jovovich – and, yes, that’s Milla’s niece), and the other residents of the park. This is from both the shark and the developer’s minions, who want to ensure the evidence of their crime Rob unwittingly captured is sunk along with the trailer park.

I’m tempted to read some kind of subtle political point being made here, about how Trump supporters are being screwed over by the man they elected. On the other hand, flooding might be too good for Soggy Meadows, which looks about as salubrious accomodations as the pikey camp from Snatch. I’d be more inclined to take off and nuke the site from orbit. Though as we get to know the inhabitants, we did gradually warm to their down-home charms, such as Billie Jean (Reid), who fishes other people’s property from the flood-waters, with an eye to resale. Of course, Reid is a veteran from a certain other series of meteorological shark films, explaining her skeptical line, “A shark, here? Weather didn’t say nothing about no tornado.”

As this suggests, it’s all nicely balanced between self-awareness and parody. The characters here appear to be aware of how ludicrous the situation is, yet roll up their sleeves and deal with it. Of course, this ends in Deconnard deciding, after his minions have failed (largely eaten, let’s be honest), that if you want a job done, you’d best do it yourself. Which leads to the discovery that a shark can still be lethal, even when it’s out of the water and dangling from a tree. Never say these films are not educational…

Empire of the Sharks (2017)

Rating: D

Dir: Mark Atkins
Star: Jack Amstrong, Ashley de Lange, Jonathan Pienaar, John Savage

We almost didn’t bother with this one, initially thinking it was a re-run of Planet of the Sharks, one of the films we covered during last year’s Fishtival. On balance, we likely shouldn’t have troubled the DVR. It’s by the same director, appears to use the same sets, arranged in a slightly different way, and is little or no better than its predecessor. It’s part of that small sub-genre, the post-apocalyptic shark movie, though unlike Planet, the sharks are actually somewhat significant in terms of plot.

The setting, however, is almost identical: the oceans have risen to drown almost all of the land, yadaa-yadaa, and the survivors are eking out a living on small artificial islands. They survive at the whim of  Ian Fien (Savage), a feudal lord who owns the only desalination plant, powered by those he takes from the islands in his fiefdom. He enforces this discipline with his platoon of flying sharks. Ok, they don’t technically fly, but they’ve very good at leaping – which makes the open walkways everyone uses on the islands a poor design decision.

He controls the fish, through a pair of power gloves that are wired up to a device like a ham radio, and… something something mind-control. It turns out there’s a “shark-caller” out there, Willow (de Lange) who uses more organic methods, having inherited the skill from her father. She has just become part of the latest batch of abductees, scooped up by Fien’s minion, Mason Scrim (Pienaar), and is working on the wheel which powers the desalinator. When Fien realizes what he had, he tries to force her to give up the secret. Fortunately, her pal, Timor (Amstrong) puts together a plucky band of renegades, who plan an attack on Fien’s well-guarded fortress, with the aim of rescuing Willow and the other captives.

It’s every bit as blandly uninteresting as it sounds. Actually, re-reading the above paragraph, it’s a great deal more blandly uninteresting than it sounds. There’s a lot of sitting around chatting about attacking, rather than actual attacking, and if you’ve seen one scene of people being tied to flotation devices and dunked in the water, for the sharks to eat, you’ve seen them all. The poverty of the film leads to repeated use of the same footage: by the end, we were calling the sharks out in order, as they exited Fien’s underwater pen.

Pienaar makes something of an impression, coming over as a low-rent version of Severus Snape, though this may simply be in comparison to the utter lack of energy projected by the rest of the cast. Even Savage apparently can’t wait to get back to the beach-side South African hotel he was promised. It all ends with Willow and Fien playing a tennis match with a shoal of sharks: I can almost imagine them thinking in their little piscine brains, “Make your damn minds up, will ya, and let us eat someone!” Like its predecessor, you could remove the sharks entirely from this, and you’d have something resembling a film. It still wouldn’t be very good though: if 2018’s schedule shows us Galaxy of the Sharks or whatever, we are unlikely to make the effort.

 

Sharknado 5: Global Swarming

Rating: B

Dir: Anthony C. Ferrante
Star: Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, Cassie Scerbo, Billy Barratt

After a couple of entries which were pretty much the poster-child for declining returns, this returns to the deadpan ludicrousness which is necessary for the series to succeed. As a result, it’s the best entry, certainly since Sharknado 2, and possibly in the series [a final decision would likely require rewatching both. Don’t hold your breath]. It’s a high-paced gallivant around the globe – though sadly, at no point do the sharks actually attack the Great Wall of China, as certain promo pictures would have you believe. They do, however, visit a number of other global landmarks, to thoroughly satisfactory effect.

The traditionally thin excuse for a plot see Fin (Ziering) separated from his child Gil (Barratt) by a sharknado which – for reasons never made clear – has a teleportal inside it. To rescue Gil, he’ll have to follow the trail through that portal to…wherever the other side lands. Which, conveniently, is inevitably beside those global landmarks, rather than the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Alongside him is wife April (Reid) and sharknado hunter extraordinaire, Nova (Scerbo). There are also the inevitable abundance of celebrity cameos, most of which will make no sense when post-apocalyptic historians restore this nugget of 21st-century culture.

Action starts in Britain. where Fin and Nova are retrieving an ancient artifact from the extensive cave system which, as we all know, lies under Stonehenge. Turns out sharknados have plagued mankind since prehistory, and this fin-shaped icon could be the key to deflecting them. From there, it’s to London, for an extensive sequence, at which I laughed like a drain. Not least, because it’s the absolute worst depiction of Britishness since Dick Van Dyke’s accent. I presume this is a deliberate stab at such previous failed efforts, beginning subtly with the usual London/Tower Bridge mix-up, but eventually escalating to… Well, if you’re not American, you probably won’t know Charo. But this is Charo playing the Queen of England.

It’s so utterly inappropriate, it can only be deliberate – though if more proof is needed, Fabio later plays the Pope. I am, however, willing to let it slide, since it allows Ziering to deliver the line, “Forgive me, father, for I am Fin…”, before receiving the Holy Chainsaw from His Holiness. This was presumably held in the same secret Vatican vault as the Hand-Grenade of Antioch. After London, the film bounces through various other cities, two being particularly notable. Sydney sees Olivia Newton-John and her daughter turn the Opera House into a missile-defense system, with the aid of Tony Hawk. And in Tokyo, the city is threatened by a gigantic shark, formed from thousands of smaller sharks (it reminded me of “In the Hills, the Cities”, from Clive Barker’s Books of Blood). Nice to see the Tokyo Tower is still a monster magnet.

The ending is certainly the best in the series, not least because it’s remarkably bleak, compared to the obviously lighthearted tone of the franchise. Fin is left, alone, wandering a blasted post-apocalyptic landscape, until a Hummer shows up, driven by… the best cameo in the series to date too. Let’s leave it there. What transpires makes it clear that, if this film played fast and loose with geography, the next entry will do the same with the dimension of time. I’m intrigued by the possibilities here, and am genuinely looking forward to Sharknado 6: Shark to the Future, or whatever it ends up being called.

But, goddammit, if there’s not a cameo from Bruce Campbell – or, at least, a blue police-box – I’m going to be slashing the seats.