When JAWS premiered on June 1, 1975, no one could have anticipated it’s (continued) effect on the cinematic landscape. In no time at all, it seemed like everybody was trying to hop onto the JAWS gravy train. Soon more sharks were devouring hapless humans on the silver screen, as were killer whales, piranha, alligators, crocodiles, bears, and warthogs. It was the Renaissance of the “nature strikes back” sub-genre, and it was glorious!
While many JAWS knock-offs would go on to gain some commercial success, and develop large cult followings of their own, some fell through the cracks, like MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH. Starring genre vet Richard Jaeckal (GRIZZLY, DAY OF THE ANIMALS), this oft-forgotten killer shark flick does indeed feature sharks devouring humans, but in a surprising twist, the sharks are actually the real victims here.
Richard Jaeckel stars as Sonny Stein, a shark-loving oddball that lives a life of solitude on a small private island. Though most people seem to write him off as a harmless hermit and shark activist, Sonny actually has a darker side. In the opening moments of the film, he rescues a Tiger Shark (not a Mako!) from a trio of fishermen, climbs aboard their boat, then murders them in cold blood. To dispose of the evidence, he tosses their corpses overboard for his finned friends to snack on.
You see, Sonny was gifted with a powerful talisman by the shaman of a Filipino tribe, that allows him to telepathically communicate with sharks. Because of the mystical shark tooth that hangs around his neck, Sonny has developed an understanding and appreciation for the denizens of the deep. In fact, he seems to prefer the company of sharks to humans most of the time.
As the film progresses, two major things happen that eventually send Sonny off the deep end. First, he meets a gal named Karen (Jennifer Bishop) who works at the local pub as an entertainer. Sonny rescues her from being raped, befriends her, then helps her with her nightly aquatic show by supplying her with shark to swim with. He’s clearly smitten with her, so it’s no surprise that Karen’s husband Barney easily dupes Sonny into signing a bill of sale for said shark.
Eventually Sonny realizes that Barney is torturing his fishy friend with high-frequency sounds (in order to “improve” the shark’s performance for patrons), but discovers that he doesn’t have any legal claim to the imprisoned fish. Coupled with the discovery that a seemingly friendly scientist named Whitney murdered a pregnant shark and it’s litter, Sonny goes on a short, but awesome vengeance spree. Utilizing his telepathic link to any and all sharks, Sonny thins out the cast before his ironic demise.
MAKO: JAWS OF DEATH is a slow-paced flick that doesn’t feature a single Mako shark. But those are probably the only complaints I can make about it, because I actually enjoyed this obscure little gem quite a bit. Unlike the majority of films that popped up in JAWS’ wake, this movie doesn’t paint sharks as monstrous people eaters. Humans are the real monsters here, catching and killing sharks for sport, and treating them cruelly in captivity. It’s a refreshing reversal on what you’d expect to see in a film entitled THE JAWS OF DEATH.
Richard Jaeckel is great as Sonny, and you sort of feel bad for him because he doesn’t mesh well with the rest of society. And it’s almost legitimately heartbreaking when he discovers that his gilled pal “Mathilda” has been killed, and that her shark pups have been heartlessly aborted, all in the name of science. Part of you wants to cheer when he begins delivering his unique brand of vengeance to those that have wronged him and his “friends.”
What truly astounded me about MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH, was that this low-budget production utilized a lot of stunt work with actual sharks. The film’s tagline boasts that it was “Filmed without the benefit of cages or mechanical sharks to offer protection,” and it definitely seems to be more than just ballyhoo.
Divers grab on to the dorsal fins of passing sharks and go for a ride, and there are numerous scenes of sharks slamming their open mouths into people. How they got some of this footage is a mystery to yours truly! (This screening report by Critical Outcast’s Chris Beaumont shines some light on said mystery.)
I really don’t have too much else to say about William Grefe’s MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH, except that it was a pleasant surprise. It’s pacing is lethargic at times, but there’s a lot to love here for fans of exploitation cinema. Honestly, where else can you see Richard Jaeckal murder “Odd Job” (GOLDFINGER’s Harold Sakata) to protect some sharks? Nowhere!
Though it’s far from perfect, I was thoroughly entertained by this sharksploitation oddity and hereby give it an enthusiastic rating of:
MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH is currently out of print, which saddens me, because I think its ready to garner a large cult following. I’m not quite sure who owns the rights to it at the moment (it was released theatrically in ’76 by The Cannon Group), but someone needs to give this film a legit DVD (and/or Blu-ray) release sometime soon, preferably with a director’s commentary!