While most horror movies tend to feature darkened autumn and winter settings with spooky graveyards and haunted mansions, shark movies set the perfect scene for summer with beautiful beaches crowded by summer tourists and an apex predator lurking just off shore. However, sharks weren’t known as the aquatic serial killers people tend to think of today until Peter Benchley’s bestseller “Jaws” erupted on the market in 1974. The book depicts a great white shark off the coast of Long Island, New York, terrorizing a fictional seaside resort over the summer holidays. The book demonized sharks, and even though Benchley later became an ardent defender of oceans and sharks, the slaughter of these animals only increased. But consumers of the “Jaws” plotline may be looking at the story all wrong.
Obviously, the first movie on a summer-shark playlist would be “Jaws.” It’s a classic and it paved the way for the subgenre of shark horror movies. The movie opens with a classic scene where a couple decides to go skinny-dipping in the dark of night. The next day, the woman’s body (well, some of it), washes up on the beach and alerts the town that they might have a shark problem. After a child is killed in the shallow waters, a bounty is placed on sharks. Once a particularly large one is killed, the mayor, whose only motivation is to keep the vibrant tourist season alive and well, declares the problem solved. Through the involvement of a clumsily assembled team consisting of the local police chief, a gruff fisherman and an out-of-town intellectual, the town discovers they are being stalked by an unnaturally large great white who indiscriminately hunts its prey.
“Jaws” has been so profoundly influential on American culture that it was added to the Library of Congress. In 2022, however, viewers might want to take a new look at “Jaws.” The idea of sharks being rogue killers has largely been debunked and it’s common knowledge that humans have been far crueler to sharks. Also, in the movie, none of the characters are particularly likable: They’re unpleasant, demanding and crude. It’s no surprise the shark comes across as the most likable character.
Next on the playlist, “The Shallows” takes the murderous shark trope to a whole new level when an attractive medical student flees to an isolated beach to cope with the death of her mother. On the beach, she’s stalked by a shark who is determined to eat her despite there being a perfectly fresh whale body just a few meters away. While the information that is known about shark behavior makes the premise of the movie ridiculous, “The Shallows” still manages to deliver a heart-stopping emotional rollercoaster. The action is so unrelenting that viewers won’t have time to question why the shark is so fixated on one particular woman who continues to fight back. There is a shocking number of kills made by the shark on a supposedly isolated beach, but the ending is heartwarming and counteracts the bloodshed.
Ramping up the audaciousness of shark movie plots is 1999’s “Deep Blue Sea.” In the noble pursuit of Alzheimer’s research, a team of scientists has created and accidentally released a herd of genetically engineered mako sharks onto the public. Susan, a doctor turned mad scientist, admits they have engineered the sharks to be smarter than normal and so they are faced with the problem of the sharks trying to flood the laboratory and kill their handlers. While the special effects may be dated over 20 years later, “Deep Blue Sea” delivers thrills and humor through well-written, likable characters and a very high body-count courtesy of the sharks.
Skipping genetically engineered sharks and instead featuring an extinct shark, the most recent movie on the summer-shark playlist is “The Meg.” Like “Jaws,” “The Meg” started out as a best-selling novel but unlike “Jaws,” the plot of the movie drastically veers away from that of the book. Both movie and book explore the idea that deep in the most unexplored parts of the ocean lies a killer who’s been waiting for its chance to terrorize people for millions of years; however, the movie chooses to focus more on the action and confusing character relationships. Unwittingly, a team of scientists has extracted a megalodon, a prehistoric shark, from deep in Mariana Trench and unleashed it onto a local beach-going society. This summer blockbuster keeps viewers on the edge of their seats with surprise appearances and epic scenes of destruction. The number of deaths attributed to the giant predator directly correlates with the size of the beast.
Lastly, it wouldn’t be a summer-shark-movie playlist without the mention of “Sharknado,” perhaps the most absurd shark movie of all time. Sharknado is a prize entry into the world of cult classics as it delivers everything from gruesome shark scenes to comedic punchlines and even an off-shore cyclone full of SHARKS. One can picture the amount of carnage sure to follow a cyclone of sharks should it hit land and that’s exactly what happens. In the initial release of “Sharknado,” the concept was not a comedy but after its popular reception, the creators embraced the silliness and the franchise branched off into five more films, comics and even a video game.
The summer-shark playlist is sure to get movie watchers in the right frame of mind to hit the beach … or on second thought, maybe not. But after watching the whole list of shark movies, be sure to pop over to Discovery Channel at the end of July to participate in the annual Shark Week to get the real story on some mostly peaceful animals who are incredibly important to ocean ecosystems.