Shark Absorbers: Shark Week 2018 on the SyFy Channel

The Fin-al Countdown

This year’s all-you-can-eat feeding frenzy of shark cinema is tinged with some poignancy, for it’s apparently intended to be the last breath for the Sharknado franchise. After five years and six entries, The Asylum and SyFy are touting this one as “The Last Sharknado”, with the delightfully double-edged taglines, “It’s about time,” and “History’s biggest disaster comes to an end.” While I always prefer to see any artist quit while they’re ahead, rather than continue flogging a cinematic dead horse, I confess to being sad at the prospect. For no B-movie franchise of the past decade has captured the public’s imagination in quite the same way, for good or bad.

I’m fairly sure this will not mark the end of the partnership – or “unholy alliance”, if you prefer – between SyFy and The Asylum. But what direction it will take going forward remains to be seen. It feels as if this week represents a significant chunk of the studio’s annual output, so will they now redirect their efforts into other areas? The Sharknado series has helped Asylum redefine themselves: they’re no longer “the company which makes low-budget copies of big movies”… Okay, they’re no longer JUST that company (though we’ll see in about two paragraphs, they still can be). They’re also the company who took a loopy original idea of one word which should never have made it off the drawing board, and turned it into not one, but six feature films.

What’s perhaps most remarkable is how the process has come full-circle, Hollywood now following the path opened up by The Asylum (I imagine a shark eating its own tail, like a fishy version of the Ouroboros). After all, you have probably to go back to 1999 and Deep Blue Sea, to find the last shark film which made more than pop culture ripples. Maybe The Shallows would not have had a chance to gross close to five times its budget, if Sharknado had not paved the way, showing there was still an audience with an appetite for killer shark films. And what is The Meg, if not an Asylum movie with a $150 million price-tag? It’s even being deliberately sold as a horror-comedy.

But for now, let’s not worry about what the future may hold. Let’s just enjoy this week o’ sharky goodness. Below, you’ll find reviews of each of the new films premiered by the SyFy Channel, leading up to the big fish itself on Sunday night. After all: It’s about time…

Megalodon (2018)

Rating: C-

Dir: James Thomas
Star: Dominic Pace, Caroline Harris, Ego Mikitas, Michael Madsen

Anyone who has watched B-movies in the past 20 years will likely have seen their share of Madsen, who appears never to have met a pay-check he didn’t like. I say this not in a spirit of criticism, because while often not very good, these films are almost all better for having him. So thank you for your efforts, Michael; I fully understand you have a family to keep and bills to pay. He filed for bankruptcy in 2009, citing debts of $4 million; had a warrant out two years later for unpaid child support; and settled with the IRS for $640,000 in 2013. You pretty much have to keep working in those circumstances.

Yet he seems ashamed of his life as a jobbing actor, telling The Guardian as far back as 2004, that he was appearing in “these horrifying straight-to-video things for very little money.” While he has expressed similar emotions elsewhere since (2016: “When people offered me work, it wasn’t always the best, but I had to buy groceries and I had to put gas in the car.”), I’m hard pushed to look at his filmography and detect any uptick in quality, resulting from his apparent disdain for the field. But, hey: any actor can have a rough decade. Or two. For this is one of twelve films the IMDb lists Madsen as appearing in this year already.

If it sounds familiar, 2002 saw a video release by that name. It was also the sub-title on Shark Attack 3, a movie infamous for an early appearance by John Barrowman, in which he delivers the line, “What do you say I take you home and eat your pussy?” And confusingly, The Meg is known as Megalodon in Spanish-language territories. This Asylum version supersizes its shark. While the “real” Megalodon topped out around 60 ft, the one here gobbles down whales whole, like they were breadsticks. We first meet it tearing into a Russian sub on an espionage mission, which comes to the attention of a U.S. Navy vessel under Captain Streeper (Pace).

He sends his second-in-command, Commander Lynch (Harris) to investigate in her drone. She rescues three survivors, including Captain Ivanov (Mikitas), commander of the sub, only for the drone to become shark food on their way back to the surface, I’m sure there’s a joke in there about swallowing seamen. Streeper goes against the orders of Admiral King (Madsen), staging a rescue mission, and the giant creature then turns its anger onto their ship, for some ill-explained reason. Meanwhile, the Russians escape custody and start running around, which is possible because the entire destroyer has a crew of about 12. No, seriously: at the end of the film, they literally all fit in a single life-boat. Those defense budget cuts are clearly worse than I thought.

There’s just not enough sharkarnage in this one. When you’ve got a creature roughly the size of a football field, it needs to be creating mayhem of equivalent volume, rather than just occasionally banging its face off the side of the boat. It kills hardly anyone after semi-accidentally drowning the Russkies at the beginning – two people in a pleasure boat is about the extent, though admittedly, scalewise nutritionally, we’d be roughly equivalent to a piece of trail mix. Various crew members instead get electrocuted, killed by the Russians or bravely sacrifice themselves, just not eaten. So, really – what’s the point? The performances are actually pretty good, with Pace giving things more gravitas than they likely deserve, and they keep this watchable. Still, it’s a sluggish way to start Sharknado Week, with a disappointingly passive monster.

Santa Jaws (2018)

Rating: B-

Dir: Misty Talley
Star: Reid Miller, Hawn Tran, Courtney Lauren Cummings, Scott Allen Perry

While The Asylum are the Great White in the field of killer shark movies, there’s still room in the cinematic ecosystem for littler fish to survive. Talley is a good example, having managed to nibble out a career at the lower end of the sub-genre. She started as an editor on Ghost Shark in 2013, then moved to the director’s chair two years later for Zombie Shark, becoming the first woman to direct a SyFy Original Movie. Talley has contributed to Shark(nado) Week each season since, first with the boringly awful Ozark Sharks and last year, the amusingly awful Mississippi River Sharks. I guess this counts as career progression, and Santa Jaws continues this upward trend.

Of course, on one level this is a terrible, terrible idea. It’s bad enough that some radio stations start to play Christmas music before Thanksgiving. Having a blatantly festive-themed movie premiering in August leaves me wanting to call down the Spanish Inquisition on the makers’ heads. But the SyFy Channel cares not for the traditional calendar, even if there are grounds to suspect the creative process here began and ended at, “What rhymes with ‘Jaws’? Paws… Cause… CLAUS!” Counter-point: in Mississippi River Sharks, Jason London, playing a meta-version of himself, said he had an upcoming film called Shark Bite 6: Here Comes Santa Jaws. There may be a Talley Cinematic Universe at work here.

To the film’s credit, this is not just a shark swimming around with a Santa hat on its fin [even if that’s obviously the hook]. Nor is the IMDb explanation entirely accurate – “Trying to survive the family Christmas, Cody makes a wish to be alone, which ends up backfiring when a shark manifests and kills his entire family” – because the makers, perhaps surprisingly, put genuine effort into creating a back-story. Teenage, aspiring comic artist, Cody (Miller, channeling the young Edward Norton) acquires a pen that makes whatever he draws, come to life. Unfortunately, the first thing he uses it for, is his “Santa Jaws” strip, about a vengefully festive shark. She soon starts munching her way through his family: for obvious reasons, he has great difficulty in getting anyone beside schoolmates Steve (Tran) and Jena (Cummings) to believe him or help defeat the threat. Not least since Santa Jaws can only be harmed by Christmas-themed weapons…

This does a very good job of hitting the sweet spot between silly and stupid, to the point a finale where the now candy-cane enhanced creature (below) is bombarded with gunpowder-stuffed turkeys… Well, “makes sense” might be a bit of a stretch, but in this genre, anything more than “does not provoke derisive snorts” has to be regarded as a win. Perhaps most impressively, the lead characters do a remarkably good job of managing to avoid being annoying teenagers, to the point where it’s actually quite sad when they get eaten. Again, it’s pretty rare not to be cheering actively for the shark. However, the same can not be said for the Mom and Dad. I could well have done entirely without them, seeing as they roam the plot, doing little more than getting in the way. Typical parents, really, from what I remember of my teenage years.

The special effects are best described as functional, and we get the required scenes of the shark leaping out of the water to snare unwary humans. The CGI is certainly improved over the feeble efforts in Mississippi River Sharks, yet there’s good reason why Talley sticks to flashing it in short bursts. There’s also a remote-controlled fin version with the hat, cruising around in the water, looking a strange hybrid of menacing and daft. This is likely an appropriate metaphor for the movie as a whole. It did feel weird watching a Christmas film on a day when the temperature in Arizona was about 110F, and I trust the SyFy Channel will re-screen it at a more appropriate time. Still, Die Hard was released in July, and that hasn’t stopped it from becoming an all-time Christmas classic.

It goes virtually without saying. this is not at the level of “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfisher”. However, few are, and Santa Shark proved rather more entertaining than the one-joke movie I expected. It was an especially pleasant surprise to be laughing with the film, rather than at it. As a twisted festive fable, whose tongue is firmly in its gills, the movie gave me a vibe similar to Gremlins, albeit on a considerably smaller scale. Perhaps this will inspire an entire franchise of holiday-themed shark movies? Coming soon: Halloween Hammerhead? Call me, SyFy – let’s do lunch.

Frenzy (2018)

Rating: D

Dir: Jose Montesinos
Star: Aubrey Reynolds, Gina Vitori, Taylor Christian Jorgensen, Lanett Tachel

It was nice of the SyFy Channel to interrupt their shark-themed programming with a slice of vintage Alfred Hitchco…

Wait, what? This is more of the same? I guess I should look forward to the upcoming Asylum production, Psycho, in which a fleeing woman is eaten by a shark in a motel shower. The frenzy here is strictly of the feeding variety. Travel blogger Paige (Vitori) takes her kid sister Lindsey (Reynolds) with her on a scuba-diving trip to a remote beach in Thailand. The plane taking them there crashes, leaving Lindsey to fend off a trio of hungry white sharks, with nothing but her deeply concerned expression. Well, that and an inflatable dinghy, scuba equipment, a spear gun, gasoline, flares and a conveniently abandoned speedboat. It’s amazing what you find just lying around.

This one got off on the wrong foot, because I recognized Vitori from the really shitty Lara Croft knock-off made by The Asylum, Tomb Invader, which largely consists of people wandering around a forest. I was thus not pre-inclined to look kindly on this, expecting it to be a really shitty knock-off of the recent wave of shark-vival movies: The Shallows, 47 Meters Down, etc. Probably with people wandering around the ocean. My guess proved roughly accurate, which would not necessarily have been a fatal blow, except for the stupidity of the script.

This started when Lindsey instinctively knew how to activate the transponder on their sunken plane [a plot point which, incidentally, went absolutely nowhere thereafter]. Hell, I wouldn’t recognize a transponder without looking it up on Google Images, and would probably have turned on the plane’s wi-fi. But I can pinpoint the exact moment this jumped the shark, as it were. It was when Paige and Lindsey kill one of the fish by yanking a boulder out of a cliff-face onto its head. Imagine playing Dungeons and Dragons, say, and coming up with such a harebrained scheme: what kind of super-critical roll would the DM require from your character, in order to pull it off?

After that, the subsequent scene where a couple of pints of gasoline poured onto the ocean are sufficient to create a raging inferno and barbecue another of the fish, provoked little more than a tired sigh. Though I did hoot loudly at what must be the Worst Rescue Attempt in Cinematic History: a pair of speedboat bros show up and wave from a distance, before both being knocked into the water by the sharks bumping their craft. As a zoological aside, the three predators here act as rather more than lone hunters; maybe they were killer whales in disguise? [Aside to this aside: it’s high time to bring back the killer whale movie. Surely it has now been long enough for everyone to have forgotten the abomination which was Orca]

To the film’s credit, it doesn’t waste much time before the plane crash. To the film’s debit, it then keeps interrupting the sharkfest with repeated flashbacks to the teen angst of Lindsey making puppy-eyes at team-mate Seb (Jorgensen), while big sis glares at them. There is a Big Reason for this, which only gets revealed under circumstances clearly intended to be dramatic. It isn’t. Instead, remember when in the Santa Jaws review, I wrote, “It’s pretty rare not to be cheering actively for the shark”? Two words sum up this film very nicely.

Go, sharks…

Nightmare Shark (2018)

Rating: C+

Dir: The Brothers Furst
Star: Tony Amendola, Bobby Campo, Rachele Brooke Smith, Lulu Jovovich

The wraps were being kept very tightly on this one. No IMDb page. No trailer. No poster. And I couldn’t even locate the name of the director – or directorS, as it turned out – before it screened. All we had to go on was the photo below, and a one-sentence synopsis: “A group of shark-attack survivors are hunted by a supernatural shark that haunts their dreams.” Still, it seemed more than enough, with the pic in particular clearly riffing on a famous scene, to dismiss this as a ludicrous fish-flavoured version of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Not quite. While sharing some elements, such as the communal dreamscape, the ability to bring in objects from the outside, and the notion that if you die in your dreams, you die in the real world, there are others that are novel and surprisingly interesting. Not least of which being, this ties in to at least two previous SyFy movies: Atomic Shark, starring Smith, and Trailer Park Sharks, in which Jovovich appeared – the latter incident also pops up in press cuttings shown on screen. The idea that all SyFy shark movies take place in the same universe is an eye-opener. We should have a cross over between this one and Santa Jaws, and call it The Nightmare Shark Before Christmas.

In contrast to the other movies this week, the shark here is not “real”, or at least is of uncertain objective reality. It’s more a manifestation of the oceanic PTSD which brings a group of photogenic young people to the remote facility of Dr. Novak (Amendola – or G. Murray Abraham as we called him, since the similarity is striking enough for him to be a low-rent knockoff). They are there, supposedly part of a drug trial to help cure them of the nightmares which have plagued them since their traumatic experience.

Except, naturally, it’s not that simple, and we soon discover Novak has an agenda of his own. We don’t find out what until almost the end, and if certainly a stretch in plausibility, it has a certain Lovecraftian charm. While skirting vaguely around spoilers, the subjects’ presence is no coincidence. Turns out he’s using their fear with the intention of prying open something which should very definitely remain shut. It’s this aspect which separates the film most notably, both from an Elm Street clone and what I was expecting, along with the entirely non-jokey tone. Nightmare shark is serious business, it would appear.

The film does a nice job of blurring the lines between reality and the dream world: at any given time, you are usually unsure on which side of consciousness you sit. However, the rules governing this are so vague as to be non-existent, and I did wonder where Novak had gone in the middle of the film. After dumping one into what appears to be the world’s slowest MRI machine, he all but vanished, leaving his patients to scurry around in increasing concern. Outside of G. Murray Abraham, the performances are a bit generic, to the point of forgettable. Yet this was a pleasant enough surprise, definitely exceeding expectations. Admittedly,  considering the half-baked disaster for which I was braced, that’s not very difficult.

6-Headed Shark Attack (2018)

Rating: C+

Dir: Mark Atkins
Star: Brandon Auret, Thandi Sebe, Cord Newman, Naima Sebe

If Sharknado is the longest-running shark movie franchise, then the _-Headed Shark Attack series is getting up there. This is the fourth entry in the saga since Carmen Electra first faced off against a fish with a mere two heads, back in 2012. Though I am still bothered by the fact that they skipped the 4-Headed version, going straight from three to five. No such problem here, as they tack on just the one extra; after adding the fifth at the ass-end in the previous installment, they opt for a more symmetrical arrangement. There are two at the front, which do most of the biting, and four on the sides, a pair at the front and back which are used for… Well, we’ll get to that.

The plot has a couples’ therapy group, taking place on an island off the coast of Mexico. It is, shall we say, a bit crap, because the man in charge is going through a messy divorce with his wife, the actual therapist. Thus leaves him flailing around to stave off the whiny guests, who are none too happy about the offered course. Things go from bad to worse when a storm threatens and the titular creature shows up to start munching on the registrants, the product of a secret government lab (points for referencing Plum Island), trying to use sharks’ regenerative capabilities in humans. Yet there are things with which mankind is not meant to meddle. For they succeeded only in creating a monster who, when you lop off a head, grows it right back… [I’d have saved the hydra motif for 7-Headed Shark Attack, but that’s just me]

There are many aspects of this that fall well short of competent. The shark is remarkably variable in size. At one point, it’s small enough to be able to get multiple heads up through a trapdoor. At another, it’s a true behemoth. The supposedly threatening storm never actually shows up, and the claim the abandoned lab (which either hasn’t been used in 30 years or was abandoned last week, I’m not sure) is the only place to shelter, is given the lie by shots showing very high, presumably water-resistant cliffs in the background. The film also jumps from the dead of night to broad daylight in consecutive shots near the end. These are failures of basic cinema technique, and I’m not even bothering to discuss the annoying characters, who make for the least convincing “couples” I’ve seen.

Fortunately, things improve significantly when it becomes less “people vs. people” and sticks to “people vs. shark.” The creature does not mess around, and is amazingly irritable – more than once, it gnaws one of its own heads off, albeit temporarily as explained above. The deaths are frequent and gory, though mostly with CGI blood, and there’s one glorious moment which justifies the entire escapade. For it turns out, land offers no safe haven, because the creature will haul itself up, using its side heads to scamper across the ground like some demented scorpion, roaring as it goes. This insanity sums up perfectly why we watch these films, and left us super-stoked for the next edition. How high can the head-count go? Only time, and the SyFy Channel, will tell.

The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time (2018)

Rating: C

Dir: Anthony C. Ferrante
Star: Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, Cassie Scerbo, Vivica A. Fox

What the FUCK did I just watch? Even the loose standards of plotting employed in previous movies – and that’s being generous – are abandoned, for reasons that can only be summed up as “because time-travel.” The end of the last film hinted at Fin (Ziering) and son Gil (played there, deliciously by Dolph Lundgren) entering the fourth dimension, in a sequel that was part Sharknado 6, part Back to the Future mockbuster. The reality is considerably more disjointed. The bulk of this is a series of sketches in which Fin, April (Reid), the head of the robotic version of April, and various other people you probably thought had died four entries earlier, fight a sharknado in some time period alongside “celebrity” cameos of various effectiveness. Rinse, repeat.

This is all in pursuit through time of Gil, for reasons best described as vague. Though even this only becomes clear after the original stated goal, of destroying the “patient zero” of sharknados, has been achieved and then discarded without explanation. If that was the actual goal, then starting in the modern era, and working their way back, would have made more sense. Hang on, did I just use the phrase “more sense” in regard to the sixth entry in a franchise about shark-filled tornadoes? My mistake. The bigger problem is the thoroughly intermittent entertainment offered, to the point I think I may have dozed off momentarily during the Revolutionary War segment. They literally throw everything including an actual kitchen sink into this entry, inevitably to declining impact.

Even the celebrity cameos are disappointing. Neil DeGrasse Tyson frankly looks embarrassed to be there, though Dee Snider made for a surprisingly decent Old West sheriff, and gets to deadpan various appropriate lines, e.g. “I’m not going to take this anymore” and “I think I know who’s twisted, mister.” I was amused by Ziering being re-united with former 90210 partner, Tori Spelling, who plays his mom. However, the only segment to get out of the painfully obvious has them sent forward in time, to the year 20,013. Robotic April had apparently gone insane after her head was left on the ocean bottom for years and constructed an entire cargo-cult of Fin worshipping clones: “Planet of the Aprils,” as one character quips. It’s actually imaginative enough to work, and if you’re not creeped out by an entire army of robotic Tara Reids, I’ve got nothing.

Going out on their own terms and getting to draw a line under itself, is a privilege offered to few B-movie franchises. These instead tend to end up flogging the deceased equine, for as long as any money at all can be squeezed out [see the Hellraiser series, still going 31 years after the original, with the tenth movie released in February]. So, give the makers credit for pulling their own plug, and they do a half-decent job of tying up the loose ends in the final reel, giving Fin an at least slightly poignant farewell speech as they all head off into an apparently sharknado-free future. Complaining this is a mess is probably missing the point: so were the previous five, yet at least three (1, 2 and 5, if you’re counting) were considerably more fun. For this is an underwhelming mess: it’s a sad way to end, with my biggest takeaway the discovery that there exists a drag queen operating under the name Alaska Thunderfuck.

Sharknado: 2013-2018.
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!