In my first post on shark horror, I wrote about “naturalistic horror,” which puts us firmly in the terrain of the shark, in a world relatively indifferent to humans (except as food), in which the good guys don’t necessarily come out on top (or even alive), and death is random. In this post I want to write about something very different, what we might call “humanist horror.” In this variant, sharks come into our terrain, events (including death) seem governed by human rules (a few unsavory jerks or insignificant extras are eaten), and the good guys come out on top. These films tend to be horror-comedy—and really not that scary.
The hallmark of these films is that they eschew the existential dread invoked by sending humans out into the ocean—into the shark’s world. Instead, they bring the shark to where we live.
The Australian-Singaporean film, Bait (Kimble Rendell, 2012), originally released in 3D, is perhaps the best of these films and illustrates its formula perfectly. A tsunami hits a coastal Australian town and several characters are trapped in a flooded supermarket: the tsunami has also, they soon realize, brought a Great White Shark into the store. The film follows their ultimately successful efforts to escape: the shark gets only the characters we’re supposed to dislike and a couple of supremely marginal good guys who sacrifice themselves for the greater good (both of them apparently from Singapore, in a troubling national/racial subtext).
Because pretty much all of the film is set within the flooded grocery store and parking garage, we only ever see the shark in human territory, mostly cruising the aisles of the grocery store like a shopper who can’t find what he’s looking for. Except, eventually, it does.
While the shark in Bait racks up an impressive death count, it’s not particularly terrifying, in large part because it’s constantly framed by the stuff of the human world—walls, a roof, shelves. This containment suggests from the very beginning that the humans will come out on top. And they do. All the “good” (white) characters emerge at the end (most of them uncannily coupled up, like a nod to Noah’s Ark) to survey the damage wrought by the tsunami. Main girl Tina (Sharni Vinson), standing just a little behind main guy Josh (Xavier Samuel)—clearly female subordination is part of this human order—looks adoringly at him and asks: “What are we going to do now?” Strong jaw jutting, Josh replies: “Start over,” and the triumphant music swells. While naturalistic horror cares little for man-made gender hierarchies—its sharks eat male and female alike—humanist horror is apparently adept at reproducing conventional gender relations and normative heterosexuality.
Indeed, Bait, and other films like it, partake more of the generic imperatives of the action film (particularly the natural disaster variety). Having just watched San Andreas (Brad Peyton, 2015), I was struck by the fact that its ending was identical to that of Bait. Standing above the San Francisco Bay Area and looking down on what the earthquake has wrought, one of the female characters (either newly-reconciled wife or daughter—it really doesn’t matter which) asks hero Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock), “What do we do now?” He replies, “Rebuild,” as the camera pans to the American flag and the music swells. Natural disasters—tsunamis, earthquakes, sharks—may strike, but the human spirit (and the heterosexual couple) will save the day and carry on.
SyFy channel’s highly successful Sharknado (Anthony C. Ferrante, 2013), another humanist shark horror film, follows this formula to a T. Swept up by tornados in a super-storm that hits Los Angeles, sharks are suddenly everywhere they’re not supposed to be: on piers, overpasses, roadways, pools, mansion foyers, and trying to bite through the roof of a car.
The good characters triumph and emerge as age-appropriately-coupled at the end of the film, as hero Fin (Ian Ziering) reconciles with his truly unlikeable ex-wife April (Tara Reid), in a re-fusing of the married couple that’s become a staple of the disaster film; there’s nothing like natural disasters, it seems, for solving the divorce problem. Nova (Cassie Scerbo), who had been nurturing a thing for the much older Fin, ends up, more fittingly, with his son, Matt (Chuck Hittinger). There’s kissing and then the turn to face the wreckage of the city, dead shark in the foreground of the parking lot, hope, nonetheless, in their hearts.
In the end, the main reason such films as Bait and Sharknado are not particularly frightening is because they turn sharks into props in strictly human dramas. The sharks are divested of their own reality, forced to live only in one constructed by humans expressly to keep “nature” as far at bay as possible. As a result, they become scary-fun (if that) not scary-dread-inducing.
P.S. Look out for Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! premiering on SyFy on July 22, 2015!