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Italian Jaws

By Ed Glaser | Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Before “Jaws 3-D”, there was THIS “Jaws 3.”

Deja View is a Telly Award-winning series that explores foreign remakes of popular American films.

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A lazy coastal town is gearing up for its summer festivities, but on the eve of the big event tragedy strikes. A massive, bloodthirsty Great White shark has invaded the the shore and claimed a life. Yet in spite of the danger the mayor refuses to close the beach, and his terrible mistake will deliver untold innocent lives into the waiting jaws of the ravenous beast.

In this familiar tale, the heroes are American, the imperiled coastal town is American, but the movie… is Italian.

And I’m getting a fishy feeling of Deja View.

Back in 1975, when Universal Studios announced a summer release date for a killer shark film called “Jaws”, it was not a good sign. Summer was a cinematic graveyard — a dumping ground for films that distributors considered inferior.

But when 28 year-old Steven Spielberg finally finished his film, the studio realized it had quite a different animal on its hands. “Jaws” was an unprecedented success, becoming the highest grossing film to date and earning its place in movie history as the first summer blockbuster.

You can’t achieve that kind of fame without spawning imitators, however, and in 1981 Italian filmmaker Enzo Castellari made quite a splash with his film “The Last Shark”.

“The Last Shark” follows local writer Peter Benton, whose name is strikingly similar to “Jaws” author Peter Benchley, as he investigates a shark attack on a local teenager just days before the big windsurf regatta. When the mayor refuses to cancel the event, Benton teams up with shark hunter Ron Hammer to find and destroy the killer Great White.

“The Last Shark” is one of many Italian “tie-ins” or variations on popular American films. Such films were common practice and often mandated by Italian producers. Filmmaker Luigi Cozzi once explained:

In Italy, when you bring a script to a producer, the first question he asks is not “what is your film like?” but “what film is your film like?”

So they would sort of distill a popular American film down to its most recognizable elements, and make similar films that contained those elements. As a result, those original films would effectively spawn entire subgenres.

And because they were targeting an international market, Italian producers would often try to make their films seem more American by casting English-speaking actors in key roles.

Which is exactly what happened with “The Last Shark”. Director Castellari hired bankable American actors James Franciscus and Vic Morrow for the leads and — in classic spaghetti western fashion — dubbed the Italian cast into English.

“The Last Shark” is unquestionably a “Jaws” cash-in, but it’s peppered with differences. And as the film runs a half hour shorter than its model, it’s forced to condense, rearrange, and jettison certain elements. Many of the changes relate to the film’s characters. One notable difference is that the protagonist is merely a resident of the town rather than the police chief, and as such he’s not personally responsible for the safety of the other citizens.

But perhaps the most striking character in “The Last Shark” is Mayor William Wells, who is vastly more sympathetic than his “Jaws” counterpart, Mayor Vaughn. Vaughn is almost one-dimensional in his callousness, refusing to take action against the shark until he actually witnesses the death of the third victim.

Mayor Wells, on the other hand, at least has the presence of mind to take some precautions: installing shark-proof netting, posting lookouts, and hiring a small fleet of armed men at the perimeter of the regatta. And by the end of the film, he even takes the responsibility upon himself and sets out on his own to kill the shark.

Other characters, however, did not change so much. Take, for example, shark hunter Ron Hammer, who is crafted to look and sound so much like Quint from “Jaws” that it borders on the hilarious.

But Castellari was not content to borrow solely from “Jaws”. “Jaws 2” had been released just a couple of years prior, and that film also proved to be prime fishing ground for ideas.

And so, like “Jaws 2”, a substantial amount of screen time is given to the local teenagers, secondary characters are accidentally cast adrift, and — in an unmistakable bit of cinematic larceny, the titular shark even takes on a helicopter.

Believe it or not, “The Last Shark” was actually picked up for a theatrical release in the US under the title “Great White”. But as soon as Universal Studios caught wind of it, they filed a lawsuit, had the film pulled from theaters, and banned it from ever being released in America again.

However, that didn’t stop it from being released in Spain as the third entry in the Jaws series, or in Japan as “Jaws Returns” — for which they even went so far as to appropriate the “Jaws” font!

At the end of the day, “The Last Shark” gives the impression of “Jaws” misremembered. It all seems so familiar and yet not quite right, as if the same events were taking place in an alternate universe. Nevertheless, with plenty of action and some outrageous moments, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable fish story.

Enzo Castellari was hardly the only Italian filmmaker to cash in on the success of “Jaws,” nor was his film even the most blatant. In fact, in 1995 notorious remakesploitation director Bruno Mattei made “Cruel Jaws,” occasionally released as “Jaws 5.” This one actually lifts all of its shark footage from other movies — not just from the Jaws series, which it does — but also from Castellari’s “The Last Shark”! Which is to say, it’s a “Jaws” knock-off that pilfers from another “Jaws” knock-off. It doesn’t get much fishier than that.

Thanks so much for watching, and I’ll see you next time.

One more new episode goes up next week before a short hiatus. And check back this Friday for a new episode of Press Start Adventures!

8 Responses to “Italian Jaws”

  1. Being a film student, I’m loving this video series. It’s great to get a look back at some of the very best (and sometimes very worst) of remakesploitation flicks. However, those puns at the start of every video are cringe-worthy! I’m really sorry, Ed, but they’ve got to go.
    Other than that, keep up the good work! I can’t wait for Press Start 2

  2. Steve Ulven says:

    Cool! Are you gonna make a DVD for this series?

  3. Storyteller says:

    I actually saw this film in the theaters as “Great White” when I was a kid. Took me years to find it again.

    Really enjoyed this review Ed. Please keep them coming.

    Side note: Just got my order from you and am loving Rampage. I sincerely hope Dark Maze will be releasing more of these turkish delights. 🙂

  4. Ed Glaser says:

    Sorry Jens, the puns stay! Muwahahaha! 😀

    Steve, probably no DVD for “Deja View,” but the online versions won’t be going away.

    Storyteller, congrats on being one of the few to see “Great White” in theaters! As I understand it, it only lasted a few days before getting pulled.

  5. Sabaah says:

    Very interesting that is was “almost”released here in the US. Too bad it wasn’t, after all, imitation is the highest form of flattery! But really, Spielberg got the idea off of the 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks, so it’s not like it was an original story. Now, if only someone would make a film about the actual event in 1916, THAT would be interesting!

  6. Storyteller says:

    Ed, It showed the whole week. But this was a small town in upper Michigan called Alpena. I doubt anyone was checking on us there. 🙂

    I also got to see Godzilla Vs. MechaGodzilla at this theater. So I really had no idea just how good I had it as a kid.

    Fred

  7. Storyteller says:

    Sorry, Alpena is in the upper part of Lower Michigan. Hit submit a little too fast.

  8. Gab says:

    Very well produced, dear Ed. Good show quality in every episode!


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