PG | 91min | 1976 | (USA) | William Grefe
In the pantheon of sharkploitation films, Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976) stands apart as a legitimately interesting take on the shark in horror trope. Unlike its predecessors, the audience isn’t asked to identify with those seeking to wrangle the flesh eating oceanic monsters. Rather, the sharks and their somewhat psychotic human caretaker become the heroes of the piece. Directed by known exploitation auteur William Grefe, the film includes all of the ridiculousness you’d expect of a B film with an underlining message about the importance of protecting the natural world from humans. The end result is a bizarre film that still resonates years later.
Our hero comes in the form of Sonny Stein (Richard Jaeckel), an everyday Joe who possesses the unique ability to commune with the sharks he keeps beneath his Key West home. His unique ability is quickly recognized and exploited by the community, first by a scientist who conducts cruel animal experiments and then by a strip joint owner who tortures the shark as it performs in a tank. Stein then decides to exact revenge on anyone who poses a threat to his beloved sharks.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this film is how it inverts the traditional depiction of Otherness in horror. As Robin Woods notes, “Otherness represents that which bourgeois ideology cannot recognize or accept but must deal with in one of two ways: either by rejecting and if possible annihilating it, or by rendering it safe and assimilating it.)[i] Usually, this translates into the Other being vilified, especially in shark horror where the shark poses a risk to the normalcy of human life. Yet here, the Other is presented as the ideal. From the Filipinos shaman who presents the medallion that allows Stein to commune with the sharks to Stein’s own inability to interact with society, the Other works to establish the humans of the film as the real monsters.
The exaltation of the natural world over the human world is a welcome break from traditional shark horror because it forces a certain level of introspection that one doesn’t often associate with the genre. The ethical questions posed in the film are subtle but effective and hold up surprisingly well. For instance, Barney’s abuse of the shark for entertainment and profit certainly brings to mind the debate over the ethics of places such as Sea World. It is our identification with the sharks, and Stein by association, which allows us to forgive Stein’s psychotic and often brutal acts.
Viewing a film almost forty years post its release date means that certain elements of the film may not be experienced in the same way as experienced by initial audiences. For horror, especially, this can be problematic if those elements in question tie in to creating a sense of repulsion on the part of the audience. And so I was fascinated at the way obesity was used as a means of creating disgust for the Barney character. Certainly, his actions are distasteful enough to be repulsive, but the film makes a point of showcasing the character’s physicality in less than a favorable light. We are treated to numerous shirtless scenes in which the camera almost seems to linger on Barney’s fat. This struck me because, unlike other forms of societally acceptable prejudices that have fallen out of favor in the intervening years, these scenes would have no problem being incorporated into modern horror.
With acting just shy of abysmal and dialogue that is at times stilted, it’s hard to say that Mako: The Jaws of Death is a good film. It is, however, an interesting one. Sharkploitation operates by fusing together a camp aesthetic with a very real sense of dread of the natural world. By inverting that expectation, the film poses some very real questions worthy of consideration.
[i] Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 73. Print.