Review: The Last Shark (1981)

A quiet, restful summer in the lazy coastal town of Port Harbor is abruptly about to end.

A quiet, restful Summer in the lazy coastal town of Port Harbor is abruptly about to end.

THE LAST SHARK (1981)
Rated PG / Color / 88 minutes
Directed by Enzo G. Castellari
Also Known as: Great White
Purchase it: Amazon.com (DVD-R)

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!

As the Vault’s 2016 Summer of the Shark celebration comes to a close, I find myself reflecting on the miniature parade of terrible JAWS rip-offs I have sat through. And it occurs to me that maybe I should start giving newer shark-themed films a chance, because while they are all ridiculous, and loaded with bad digital effects, they at least seem to be trying to bring something new to the table.

Snow sharks, ghost sharks, multi-headed sharks, hybrids and mutants, science experiments gone wrong, Sharknados, flying jet-powered sharks ridden by Nazi zombies, prehistoric land-sharks, satanic sharks, penis sharks, house sharks… the list just goes on and on! There is so much insanity to choose from that I’ll really need to think about what I’ll watch next year, during Summer of the Shark 2017! But for the moment, let me cap off this year’s “shark party” with what is truly the Quint-essential king of the JAWS knock-offs: Enzo Castellari’s infamous THE LAST SHARK!

After hitting screens across Europe in April of 1981, Castellari’s JAWS clone eventually reached U.S. theaters in March of 1982. This soon brought about the wrath of Universal, who was eager to protect its own killer shark franchise. An injunction was filed against THE LAST SHARK’s distributors on grounds of plagiarism, and within a month, the movie had vanished from theaters. (But not before grossing a surprising eighteen million at the box office!)

To this day THE LAST SHARK hasn’t seen a legitimate release in any format since its U.S. theatrical release (aside from the extremely limited DVD release from RetroVision Entertainment), and that pisses me off! To be fair, this film does borrow heavily from JAWS (and JAWS 2), but I think that THE LAST SHARK changes things up enough to become something entirely different. I will attempt to illustrate this later in my review.

"You sunk my battleship!"

“You sunk my battleship!”

THE LAST SHARK begins with a lengthy montage of a windsurfer practicing his moves while the super catchy tune “Hollywood Big Time” blares in the background. Moments after the song ends, a POV shot takes a bite out of the man’s windsurf board. Panicked, the boarder tries to escape, only to be ejected violently into the air before being yanked beneath the waves. It turns out that this first victim was Michael, a local champ that was expected to win an upcoming regatta, and his sudden disappearance is immediately noticed.

Jenny Benton (Stefania Girolami Goodwin) and some of her friends rush off to tell her father, renowned author Peter Benton (James Franciscus), about Mike’s vanishing act. They hop in a boat and search for the missing windsurfer, but instead come across local shark hunter extraordinaire Ron Hamer (Vic Morrow). It turns out that Hamer found a chewed-up chunk of Mike’s surfboard which, coupled with the discovery of a mangled boat, assures him that a Great White is on the prowl in the waters around Port Harbor.

Both Benton and Hamer then attempt to warn the town’s mayor, William Wells (Joshua Sinclair), and strongly suggest that he should cancel the annual regatta. Busy with his campaign to become Governor, Wells refused to cancel the event, and then surprisingly takes logical safety measures. The town’s bay is surrounded with anti-shark nets, and armed patrols are posted around the perimeter. Despite these efforts, the Great White chews through the barrier, and ruins the windsurfing regatta by eating Wells’ campaign manager.

Luciano Jaws-arotti makes his television debut!

Luciano Jaws-arotti makes his television debut!

Ron Hamer and Peter Benton decide to take matters into their own hands after this attack, and take the fight to the shark. They enter the Great White’s domain, and attempt to wound it with bangsticks. The shark has other plans though, and purposely traps both men inside an underwater cave! (This is just one of several moments where the shark outsmarts its human foes.) Luckily they have some explosives on hand, so they blow the cave entrance and escape.

In the meantime, Peter’s daughter Jenny has rounded up several friends to go after the shark. Armed with a shotgun and some bait, Jenny and her pals successfully lure the aquatic predator up from the depths. But things go wrong and Jenny ends up going for an impromptu swim, resulting in a short game of tug-of-war with the shark. Though Jenny survives the ordeal, she loses a leg, causing both her father and Mayor Wells to declare open war on the Great White.

Peter and Ron go after the shark again, planning to blow it up with a belt full of plastic explosives, while Mayor Wells comes up with a half-assed plan involving one of his helicopters. Neither scheme goes as expected, leading to a final confrontation between Peter and “Italian Bruce,” which is further complicated by the addition of a scheming reporter desperate to make a name for himself, and a hired gun in a cowboy hat.

"It's time to send that damned shark to flavor country."

This guy is ready to welcome the shark to flavor country.

THE LAST SHARK is derivative of JAWS, but what killer animal flick made after 1975 isn’t? You can draw many parallels between this film and Spielberg’s classic, but as I said earlier, Castellari’s movie is its own beast. Let’s make a few comparisons and see how much of JAWS is plagiarized here:

* In JAWS, the first victim is a female skinny-dipper, swimming alone late at night. In THE LAST SHARK, the first victim is a man that is killed in broad daylight while windsurfing.

* In JAWS, a police chief, an oceanographer, and a grizzled World War II vet team up to hunt a Great White, save a small island community, and become friends during their adventure. In THE LAST SHARK, an author and a professional shark hunter, who are best buds, team up to save their town, and avenge the maiming of the author’s daughter.

* In JAWS, the mayor refuses to close the beaches, fearing that it will hurt tourism and destroy the local economy of Amity Island. He takes some safety measures, but the shark sneaks by and claims a victim anyway. In THE LAST SHARK, the mayor refuses to cancel the annual windsurfing regatta, and takes various precautions to ensure the safety of the surfers. The shark still gets by the protective netting and armed guards, and claims a victim.

Looks like the shark brought his own balloon to the regatta.

“Last shark through the net is a rotten fish head!”

* JAWS features a cameo by author Peter Benchley as a reporter. THE LAST SHARK features James Franciscus as an author named Peter Benton. (An obvious nod to Benchley.)

* In JAWS, Robert Shaw plays Quint, a shark-hating sea dog that makes his living by killing sharks and drinking beer. In THE LAST SHARK Vic Morrow plays Ron Hamer, a shark-hunting sailor with an indiscernible accent.

* In JAWS 2, the Great White drags a helicopter underwater. In THE LAST SHARK, the Great White drags a helicopter underwater. However, the scenarios leading up to both chopper chompings are both vastly different.

* In 1977’s TENTACLES, a giant octopus wrecks a sailboat regatta and devours a child. In THE LAST SHARK, the Great White wrecks a windsurfing regatta, and devours a political campaign manager.

* In THE LAST SHARK, the shark roars when it pops its head above water. In JAWS: THE REVENGE (1987), the shark roars when it leaps repeatedly out of the water during the climax. Hmm….

* In JAWS, the shark is blown up when Chief Brody successfully (and improbably) ignites an oxygen tank in the shark’s mouth with a lucky gunshot. In THE LAST SHARK, the Great White is fed the body of Ron Hamer, who was wearing a belt full of plastic explosives, and is then blown up. In JAWS 3D, the shark eats Simon McCorkindale but doesn’t fully swallow his grenade-wielding corpse. The heroes of the film manage to pull the pin on said grenade and blow up the shark. You know, it kind of seems like JAWS 3 ripped off THE LAST SHARK a bit there. Interesting….

As you can see, there are many similarities between JAWS and THE LAST SHARK, but the latter film is more like a greatest hits album of various aquatic horror flicks. It uses the template of JAWS, and sprinkles in moments from other films, while also utilizing ideas that are totally exclusive to itself. And hell, it almost seems like Universal may have borrowed a few elements from THE LAST SHARK for their later JAWS sequels (as mentioned above). So who’s the real villain here?

THE LAST SHARK is a slightly above average knock-off of a much better film. Nothing about it screams “must see,” until you take into account that its basically been banished from North America. That being said, I actually enjoy this movie quite a bit, and it was truly refreshing to finally sit down and watch a shark flick that wasn’t completely atrocious. (I’m still reeling from Joe D’Amato’s DEEP BLOOD.)

THE LAST SHARK is a competently made film that makes great use of the full-size mechanical shark that was built for the film. While not nearly as realistic (or terrifying) as JAWS’ “Bruce,” the shark looks great in certain scenes, particularly during its brief battle with Mayor Wells and his helicopter.

Sharks hug with their teeth!

Sharks hug with their teeth!

Along with a healthy dose of stock footage, the rest of the effects involving the shark were done with hilariously fake miniatures. But this doesn’t detract from the film at all. In fact these moments actually enhance the proceedings, making the movie much more fun to watch.

The cast is a mixed bag with Vic Morrow standing out the most, in his role of Ron Hamer, who seems like a bizarre parody of Robert Shaw’s Quint. He delivers delightfully goofy dialogue (“One thing’s for sure. It wasn’t a floatin’ chainsaw.”) while making a futile attempt at an Irish accent. James Franciscus and Joshua Sinclair both put in some effort and deliver strong performances. Franciscus carries the bulk of the movie’s more dramatic moments, while Sinclair bows out with the best death scene in the film.

Honestly, I don’t have much else to say about this flick Vault Dwellers: THE LAST SHARK is an interesting piece of cinematic history, that pays tribute to arguably the greatest film of all time. It’s mostly fun, frequently absurd, and is guaranteed to satisfy most fans of killer shark fare. Though not as good as its progenitors (e.g. JAWS, PIRANHA, ORCA, etc.), Castellari’s film delivers the goods, and easily earns a rating of: