Theater of the Sea is one of the oldest marine mammal facilities in the world and has been operated by the McKenney family since its inception in 1946. Thousands have thrilled to its daily aquatic shows, yet somehow, it became the host for an Italian made for TV and then direct to video opus known as Cruel Jaws or The Beast and best of all, Jaws 5.
Yes, just imagine if the excitement of a film crew coming to your local otter park, shooting a movie in your neighborhood, and then the man you were told was William Snyder ends up being Bruno Mattei – the very same madman behind The Other Hell, Shocking Dark and Rats: Night of Terror.
An excitable Miami Herald article from December 4, 1994 proclaimed the big news that the town of El Portal was now Hampton Bay, which is perhaps Amity Island’s sister city. If they only knew what mania lay in wait. For Bruno Mattei was about to craft not just a shark movie, but a remix of all of his favorites. Yes, much like Girltalk or similar DJs mix together multiple songs to create a new patchwork narrative, Mattei was about to throw copyright laws and common sense to the wind to create an entirely new shark movie.
It all starts with a ship evading the Coast Guard to pilfer the remains of a sunken ship called the Cleveland because possibly Mattei had no idea what the Edmund Fitzgerald was. Within seconds, the scuba scavengers are beset not by pilfered footage from Enzo G. Castellari’s Great White. Yes, a movie that was sued into oblivion for ripping off Jaws has now suffered the very same unkind cut! That’s when the credits roll and promise us “Original Shark Design And Special Effects Created By Larry Mannini.” I’m here to inform you, dear reader, that none of these effects are original. Even more to the point, I refuse to believe that Larry Mannini is a real person. Much like Lewis Coates, David Hills and Raf Donato, I think it’s an alter ego to cover up that Mattei just simply spliced sharks from a variety of movies into this opus.
Soon, we meet Billy Morrison, who is not like Matt Hooper in any way, as he drives with his girlfriend Vanessa as she chides him for leaving her last summer to chase killer whales. This year, he promises her sailing, tennis and disco until dawn. If only, Billy. He’s on the way to meet his pal Dag Snerensen, a Hulk Hogan lookalike with two kids — Bobby and the wheelchair-bound Susy — who also owns a bottom tier Sea World.
Susy lost the use of her legs in the accident that also took Dag’s wife out of this world. And now it’s time to meet Sheriff Berger, who serves the Hulkster’s brother with an eviction notice. Turns out that he’s three months behind on his rent to the evil land baron Samuel Lewis and only has 30 days to pay up.
But where are the sharks, you ask? Fear not. A bunch of kids running along the beach trip over the remains of one of the scuba guys from before and unlike an American movie that would just show their frightened faces, this film lingers over the gory latex aftermath. One autopsy later and Brody and Hopper – whoops, I mean Berger and Morrison — want to close the beach during the busiest weekend of the season.
After several party scenes and moments of cavorting on the beach, Mattei grows bored with presenting human beings that act like no real people you’ve ever met before and decides to start the killing anew, as a girl runs smack dab into the Chrissie Watkins scene from Jaws. Again, I’m not saying it’s a similar shot. It’s the exact same footage grafted into this film.
It turns out that the antagonist in this movie is a tiger shark engineered by the Navy to be a superweapon. Now, it’s killing people all over Hampton Island, so this film is also stealing the plot of Piranha, another movie directly inspired by Jaws. Along the way, the Mafia subplot from the novel Jaws was based on, the windsurfing race from The Last Shark and a Regatta stolen from Jaws 2 all happen. It’s like K-Tel’s Greatest Shark Attacks of the 1980’s with all your favorite great white super hits!
If none of this convinces you that you need to see this film — made by an Italian crew shooting a largely amateur group of Americans — then let me add that Mattei included some of John Williams’ music from Star Wars on his soundtrack, where it sits alongside screaming synth music and generic disco. Truly, this movie has something for everyone.
“You’re a piece of shit! You’re vomit! You’re nobody!” one character yells at another at one point. It’s dialogue like this that keeps me coming back to Italian bootleg cinema. In fact, the word shit is thrown around here like a racist epithet in a Tarantino film; allusions to feces fill nearly every story beat of this epic. Yet the greatest line is when the sheriff yells, “We’re going to need a bigger helicopter.” You really can’t write dialogue that great, It just has to happen.
Scream Factory, a subsidiary of Shout! Factory, once planned to release this movie on blu ray as a double feature along with Exterminators of the Year 3000. However, once they realized how much footage this movie cribbed from the Jaws trilogy and other Italian shark epics, they canceled the release.
That’s cowardice. Was Bruno Mattei worried about stealing directly from Spielberg even after years of lawsuits against any film that came close to Jaws? Nope. He didn’t just take from the original, but its two sequels as well. It was if he was daring the American judicial system to come after him.
Please keep in mind that this is no Sharknado or sub-Troma effort. Mattei was really trying to make a great shark movie. And that’s why I love this movie, particularly the big shark attack sequence about an hour into the film where everyone devolves into screaming morons. There were no second takes in this movie, no ADR re-recorded audio, no one in wardrobe to tell one of the girls that her white leotard outfit is ridiculous, no focus group to warn the filmmakers that this movie is borderline incomprehensible.
Yet with every viewing, my romance with Cruel Jaws grows more passionate. How can you not love a movie that ends ninety minutes of body munching gore and profanity-laden dialogue with a Scooby Doo-laugh filled close where a seal launches the newly redeemed bad guy into the ocean?
This article originally appeared in Drive-In Asylum Special Issue #4, which you can buy here.