Summer classic Jaws was released back in 1975, and we’re still feeling its effects. It helped launch both the summer blockbuster and Steven Spielberg’s career; it influenced how we perceive sharks in real life; and it spawned a tsunami of inferior (but often stupidly entertaining) movies about shark attacks. With that in mind, here are our favourite so-bad-they’re-good Jaws wannabes.
1. Orca (1977)
A man. A giant sea creature. A vendetta that spans miles and miles of ocean waters. Orca, which is based on Arthur Herzog’s 1977 novel, rips off Jaws by way of Moby Dick, swapping in a killer whale instead of a shark and giving us Richard Harris in a saucy spin on the Quint role. As directed by Michael Anderson (Logan’s Run), the film has some finer points that make it sound classier on paper than it is in execution, including a supporting turn by Charlotte Rampling, a score by Ennio Morricone, and location shooting in gorgeous seaside Newfoundland.
But Orca’s become a cult classic because of jaw-dropping moments like the sight of a whale fetus ejecting itself from its captured mother (aaah!), and the many spokes in the grieving father whale’s wheel of revenge, which include starting fires, destroying boats and piers, and just straight-up eating people, not to mention the sassy victory flip it does each time it scores a point against humankind. Rooting for the whale is very easy in this one, though Orca’s message about respecting orcas because of their superior intelligence is totally undermined by its use of trained animals borrowed from a Sea World-esque water park.
2. Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976)
William Grefé, a director whose filmography is heavy on Florida-sploitation, directed this very odd, low-budget tale of a Key West man named Sonny (Richard Jaeckel) who’s able to telepathically communicate with sharks. He’s also protected from shark attacks thanks to a magical amulet he wears around his neck at all times, as you do.
These are the two things that propel his off-the-grid life as a swimming vigilante, putting the hurt on unscrupulous boaters who’re trying to catch sharks as trophy fish. But Sonny is weirdly trusting of his fellow man for a guy who prefers his friends to have fins; not only does he allow a pregnant female to be taken by a sleazy aquarium for observation, he also helps a local bar snag a prop shark for its “aqua-maiden” show (think, uh, water ballet meets go-go dancer). It all ends badly, as you might expect – though despite some slow pacing and very murky lighting, Mako and Jaeckel remain fully dedicated to the movie’s truly bonkers premise until the end.
3. The Last Shark (a.k.a. Great White) (1981)
Maybe the most egregious of the Jaws mockbusters is this entry from Enzo G. Castellari (he made the original 1978 Inglorious Bastards that very loosely inspired the similarly-titled Quentin Tarantino film; he also made the very unoriginal 1982 1990: The Bronx Warriors, which borrowed heavily from Escape From New York). It stars B-movie “that guy” James Franciscus and future Twilight Zone movie victim Vic Morrow in the Brody (except, an author instead of a police chief) and Quint roles, respectively, though the real star is the tremendously fake prop shark, which makes the shark that leaps out at you on the Universal Studios Jaws ride look like a life model decoy.
All the Jaws beats are there – a quaint seaside town that doesn’t want to admit it has a shark problem during high tourist season, despite the fact that something very large and toothy has started feasting on windsurfers, swimmers, and boaters – but they’re delivered without any suspense or narrative tension, or any characters you actually care about. However, there are a couple of delightfully trashy kills that almost justify The Last Shark’s copycat routine, including a sequence that sees the smarmy local rich guy dangling from his helicopter, screaming his head off as the shark bobs up out of the water and chomps him in half. Spielbergian, it ain’t...but it’s certainly something.
4. Devil Fish (a.k.a Monster Shark) (1984)
Devil Fish was directed by Lamberto Bava, best-known as the son of Italian horror legend Mario Bava, though his filmography (highlighted by cinema gorefest Demons) leans way more cult than critically acclaimed. Case in point: Devil Fish, which stars no one recognisable and is about an Everglades-adjacent Florida town with a very hungry young sea monster prowling its waters.
Twist number one: The monster is a top-secret lab creation gone rogue. Twist number two: It’s not a shark – it’s a vicious hybrid of, like, an octopus and a giant prehistoric fish, with a huge maw of choppers and several tentacles (useful for snatching victims off boat decks, rather than waiting around for them to fall overboard) trailing behind. The monster shark, which is always filmed in conveniently cloudy water, is so terrible it’s almost adorable. But really...if a movie’s most-accessible format is as part of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode, that should tell you all you need to know about its quality.
5. Jaws: The Revenge (1987)
This hilariously diluted Jaws sequel brings back Lorraine Gary as Ellen Brody, widow of Chief Brody – who died of a heart attack brought on by his fear of sharks, or so she claims. Then, in the film’s opening moments, her younger son, now an Amity Island cop himself, is fatally attacked by a you-know-what in the line of duty, stoking Ellen’s fear that sharks are specifically targeting her family. A change of scenery seems like a good idea for the fragile Ellen – and it might have been if she moved to, say, the middle of the desert. But instead, she moves in with her surviving son, a marine biologist whose young family lives a beachy life in the Bahamas.
Things initially seem to improve, thanks in part to the jovial presence of island-hopping pilot Michael Caine (who’d just won an Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters, a fact that makes his presence here even more bizarre) – but then, of course, a Great White that has no business being anywhere near the Caribbean suddenly appears. Holy shit, Ellen was right! Not only do sharks hold grudges, they’ll swim thousands of miles guided by a compass made of vengeance! Did you not read the movie title?!
The production values in Jaws: The Revenge may be better than just about every other movie on this list, but the fact that it’s an official sequel actually makes its premise even more ludicrous. The scariest thing about the shark in Jaws(other than its teeth) is that it doesn’t have a motive (other than hunger), a tension that’s completely lacking here thanks to Ellen’s Mako-esque shark ESP. Even John Williams’ iconic theme, repurposed here as part of Michael Small’s score, can’t work its usual magic – but the movie’s overall commitment to cashing in on the Jaws name by any means necessary is actually pretty impressive.