WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
I hate to say it, but sharks have become a cinematic punchline. The ancient denizens of the deep that once ignited our primordial fear are now goofy movie monsters. Some swim on land (SHARKANSAS WOMEN’S PRISON MASSACRE, SAND SHARKS), others have been genetically altered (SHARKTOPUS), and still others are literally ghosts (GHOST SHARK) or emissaries of The Devil. (SHARK EXORCIST)
Then in 2016, it happened: A well-made mainstream killer shark film hit theaters. THE SHALLOWS came out of nowhere and became a sleeper hit, and has since paved the way for other films in its sub-genre. We have since gotten 47 METERS DOWN, and will eventually be gifted(?) with OPEN WATER 3, DEEP BLUE SEA 2, and THE MEG. But before this sudden shark movie renaissance, there was a modestly-budgeted 3D shark film released in 2011 that many seem to have forgotten about: SHARK NIGHT!
The film features a group of college undergrads that travel to a private island in Louisiana for a weekend retreat. Unfortunately for them, the murky saltwater lake surrounding their party destination is filled with man-eating sharks! They make this startling discovery when the athlete of the group, Malik (Sinqua Walls), is attacked while wake-boarding. Upon reaching dry land, Malik is short an arm, which sends everyone into panic mode. Assuming it was a boating accident (because Matt Hooper wasn’t around to explain otherwise), Nick (Dustin Milligan) leaps into the water to retrieve his friend’s arm, and narrowly avoids becoming fish food himself.
The remainder of the film revolves around several desperate attempts to get Malik some medical attention, only to be stopped time and again by the voracious sharks. And things begin to take a strange turn when they kill a large Hammerhead, and find a video camera attached to its underbelly. Soon it becomes clear that these sharks have been purposely released into the lake, and those responsible aren’t about to let these college “kids” escape and alert the authorities.
I first saw SHARK NIGHT during its initial theatrical run and had a blast with it. The 3D was passable, I dug the little plot twist towards the end of the film (more on that later), and I was just plain happy to see a new shark movie on the big screen! Now having revisited the film (in 2D) a full six years later, I have to admit that I did not enjoy this contemporary sharksploitation flick nearly as much.
SHARK NIGHT has a surprisingly good cast, but I honestly did not give a damn about most of the protagonists. That’s because the majority of these characters are so bland! Sara Paxton (Sara) and Dustin Milligan (Nick) are really dull, and it sucks that their budding romance is a main focus in this film. The remainder of the one-dimensional cast members are utilized mostly as eye candy (Katherine McPhee and Alyssa Diaz) and shark bait (Joel David Moore and Chris Zylka), which allows actor Sinqua Walls to really shine.
Sinqua is fantastic as Malik, a fun-loving athlete with a bright future, and the worst luck imaginable. He’s also the film’s resident bad-ass! After losing his arm (and his girl), the forlorn Malik wades into the lake with a harpoon. Moments later, he is further injured after (quite literally) single-handedly killing a Hammerhead with his weapon. Then shortly after that, he martyrs himself to give a would-be savior a wider berth from a pursuing shark, during the film’s jet ski chase sequence.
As for the sharks, we get a good mix of them here, including a Bull Shark, two Great Whites, a Hammerhead, a pair of Sand Tiger Sharks, and a handful of Cookie Cutter Sharks. (A Thresher Shark is loose in the lake as well, though we never get to see it.) They are mostly brought to life with (occasionally sub-par) CGI, and full-scale animatronic sharks, created by industry veteran Walt Conti. As expected, the practical sharks look far better than their computer-generated counterparts.
In regards to the blood and gore in the film, SHARK NIGHT is extremely tame due to it being chained to a PG-13 rating. The bulk of the shark attack sequences lack some much-needed tension, and typically involve someone splashing and screaming until they are dragged underwater. Though there are a few surprise attacks by leaping sharks, the camera never lingers for long, and we never see the aftermath. (C’mon! Even JAWS was ballsy enough to show audiences a severed head and leg!)
But there is a silver lining here Vault Dwellers… (WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!)
The movie’s human villains prove to be its main saving grace. Red (played by Joshua Leonard) is a crude redneck shark enthusiast who has filed his teeth into sharp fangs. He’s partnered with Dennis (Chris Carmack), a scar-faced local with a huge chip on his shoulder. Dennis was Sara’s former boyfriend, and their relationship didn’t really end on best of terms, because they apparently tried to murder each other.
Sara broke things off with Dennis because she was going away to college, but she took up his offer for one last dive in her favorite spot at the lake. She nearly drowned while scuba diving (her air tank was suspiciously empty), and was horrified when Dennis didn’t attempt to rescue her. Luckily Sara managed to reach the surface, then purposely ran Dennis over with a jet ski, resulting in his scarred visage. (Whoa! Their breakup is more interesting than this movie! I demand a prequel!)
Unsurprisingly, Dennis and Red are responsible for unleashing various shark species in the lake. (By Hollywood movie logic, pretty people = Good Guys. Ugly/scarred people = Bad Guys.) What does turn out to be a bit of a shocker is that they have an accomplice in the form of the lovable Sheriff Sabin. Donal Logue completely steals the show as the seemingly clueless Sheriff, and it’s actually a bit surprising when it’s revealed that that he’s the brains behind Red and Dennis’ operation.
But why sharks? And why strap cameras to them? Well apparently Sabin and his goons are out to corner the market on shark snuff films, geared towards Shark Week’s more depraved fans. And in true Bond villain fashion, the Sheriff shares all his diabolical plans as he gleefully prepares to kill Nick, who quickly turns the tables on him. (Tip to other villains prepping to dip their victims into a shark tank: Don’t offer any final requests, and never discuss your evil plot! Just drop them in the water and get it over with!)
SHARK NIGHT was the final film from stunt coordinator turned director David R. Ellis (FINAL DESTINATION 2, SNAKES ON A PLANE, et al.), who passed away back in January of 2013. While some may be quick to point the finger at Dave for this movie’s shortcomings, I attribute the bulk of its problems to a weak script. Ellis had the necessary experience, a talented cast, and Walt Conti on his effects team. And yet, all of that wasn’t enough to overcome the lazy writing.
Had more effort gone into the screenplay, and if the film was bumped up to an R-rating, I think people would still be talking about SHARK NIGHT today and looking upon it with kinder eyes. But as it stands, this movie is fated to be a minor footnote in shark cinema history, only to be brought up in film discussions involving JAWS 3 and BAIT, if only because of its initial 3D release.
SHARK NIGHT has some redeeming qualities, but ultimately fails to be a memorable entry into the killer shark sub-genre – even Graeme Revell’s score feels generic. That being said, I do believe that this movie is good enough to warrant at least a single viewing (especially if you enjoy shark flicks as much as I do), and deserves a rating of: