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the-last-shark-2013-dvd-cover

The current state of home entertainment is becoming a bit of a sorry one.  While a few of the old guard still remain afloat and viable (Criterion, Synapse), and a few of the newer faces on the scene are still out there, pounding the beat (Scorpion, Shout Factory), for the most part, DVD appears to be in a state of gradual if not severe decline.

With a concerted push by the majors towards a pay per play or monthly fee based streaming milieu, even many of the outsiders have jumped on the bandwagon, shifting focus from pressed commercial grade DVDs to DVD-Rs in imitation of the majors, who view this as an interim direct marketing measure – even low budget archivists Alpha have gone this route.

So it is with somewhat lowered standards that we come to view the modern DVD purchase – grateful for each and every one that comes in the proper standard of commercial grade, with professional, poster-based artwork (something the majors have eschewed since the dawn of the medium – do we really need to see the original theater artwork of something like Meteor replaced by a Mount Rushmore sized view of Sean Connery’s glowering head?  As if this made the film in any way different from a hundred other films he did, marketed in the EXACT SAME MANNER?), and groan with every purple backed, star-head marketed “artwork” bedecked, menuless (or chapterless, or extra-less) substitution that comes in the mail to our collective chagrin.

But every now and again, you get an exception to the rule.

A new startup company called Retrovision, run by an enterprising young man named Brannon Carty with a thing for shark films, has just appeared on the scene, and while the product he’s selling are in fact DVD-R, the quality of said releases otherwise would seem to be anything but.

Last Shark_promo

Carty, who appears in the extras, conducts his release with a professionalism that belies his age – while there are other similar youth-run startups out there, they tend to be more on the line of SOV (Slasher Video or Massacre Video, just to name two examples) and tackling an ostensibly lesser grade of cinematic endeavor (despite cooperation from the directors in question, there seems a wide gulf between a comparatively expensive series of Italian B-pictures and a nigh-forgotten VHS based mom & pop video store obscurity from the late 80’s).

While director Enzo Castellari is nowhere to be found, the very idea of a young man still in high school (!) not only working the rights, promotion and release on a number of these Italian Jawsploitation pictures, but further handling a fairly impressive job of digital remastering and soundtrack re-sync seems positively awe inspiring. So if I give a little extra credit on this project, keep this bit of information in mind, and you’ll understand my sense of appreciative surprise.

Pleasantly self effacing and even a bit on the nose, Carty describes himself as “just a teenager who loves movies and wants to make movies for a living”, and bills Retrovision as the “home of rare and obscure shark films”.  And that would certainly appear to be the case, as the next release on tap would seem to be Bruno Mattei’s Cruel Jaws, with (if I’m not mistaken) the Franco Nero vehicle The Shark Hunter and Lamberto Bava’s Monster Shark somewhere on the horizon.  None of these pictures have recieved domestic DVD release to date, and speaking for myself, I certainly look forward to Castellari’s Shark Hunter finally making its way to my collection.

What gave me a particular frisson of surprise, for what is in essence a one man home grown operation, is that while this is a DVD-R release**, not only do you get an actual professional-grade cover, with poster art, proper film description and all (MGM and Sony MOD, oh thou of the half sentence back cover and miniature film still serving as a front, take notice…), and not only is the image quality quite good (certainly on par with, if not noticeably superior to similar R2 releases of obscure Italian cinema of my experience), but there are honest to God extras here.  Yes, you get a trailer…in fact, three of them.  But you also get a pair of brief deleted or extended scenes, a short comparison of the original soundtrack (which I’ll address momentarily) and an extra titled “30 years later”, which features a fellow named Ed Tucker, who runs the site popretrorama.com and bills himself as a film historian.

While unknown to me, Tucker certainly knows at least the local release history of the film (he relates his own experience in theatrical screening of the picture way back in 1981), and is a hardcore collector of memorabilia, displaying and discussing three of the film’s posters, as well as its brief resurgence post-lawsuit in a double bill with William Grefe’s Mako: Jaws of Death (!).  He also makes note of US distributor Film Ventures and how the Columbia lawsuit against them effectively ruined the company, who folded not long after (as well as kept the film from distribution on video or DVD in the States to date).  Carty drops in for a minute or two to discuss some of his own memorabilia (including a Japanese big box VHS and a promotional inflatable shark!) as well as the variant lengths of differing countries’ releases of the film.

Utilizing the lengthier and presumably uncut international print of the film, Carty has painstakingly resynced the picture to the US soundtrack by Morton Stevens, in order to match the original domestic release of the film (as apparently Film Ventures had lost or failed to acquire the rights to the original Italian soundtrack by mainstays Guido & Maurizo DeAngelis, and thus were forced to substitute – presumably much akin to what happened with Zombi Holocaust cum Dr. Butcher MD).

That being duly noted, we do still retain the cheesy and very Euro-catchy theme song “Hollywood Bigtime” by Yvonne Wilkins, and if what is shown in the brief soundtrack comparison in the extras is in fact representative of the score, little was lost. While Guido & Maurizio often deliver some excellent soundtrack work (as in the case of Torso, or their many poliziotteschi efforts), the sections displayed here appear to be quite schmaltzy and subpar by comparison to their usual output.

The only caveat I will hazard to mention here is that the sound comes in what tends to be somewhat standard for English language dubs of foreign cult film releases: a somewhat hollow and vaguely tinny mono mix, which is likely endemic to the frequent necessity of having to match VHS-based audio with a more pristine print master in the original language.  Again, this is fairly common, and not all that significant or annoying in the eyes of this reviewer, but nonetheless, caveat emptor for the more particular of audiophiles out there.

It would only be fair to note, however, that Carty and Retrovision did make a concerted effort to beef up the original soundtrack, and music and sound effects are in fact boosted to prominent stereo, with spoken audio falling somewhere along the lines of stereo while still retaining some measure of the aforementioned mono-related hollowness to many of the tones.

Filmed in the isle of Malta and, of all places, Savannah, Georgia, the Last Shark (also known as Great White) seems at times like a cast of the prematurely aged, with grizzled old Vic Morrow, of Humanoids from the Deep and Enzo Castellari’s 1990: Bronx Warriors, delivering dialogue in what appears to be an attempt at a Greek accent (which fails miserably)* as drunken sailor Ron Hamer, and the hard lined visage of Micaela Pignatelli, of Michele Soavi’s The Church and late period Dario Argento effort, The Card Player as Franciscus’ wife and general nuisance Gloria Benton.

* even more amusingly, I am informed that he is actually attempting a SCOTCH accent, which he achieves to an even lesser degree than what I had assumed to be a sorry take on a Greek one!

No stranger to Euro-cult cinema, James Franciscus, of Lamberto Bava’s Killer Fish, Ruggero Deodato’s Concorde Affaire ’79, Dario Argento’s Cat o’ Nine Tails, Nico MastorakisThe Greek Tycoon and the Chuck Norris-when-Chuck-was-still-cool vehicle Good Guys Wear Black essays the leading role of Peter Benton.   Unlike most films of the type, his actual role in the proceedings appears to be undefined and nebulous throughout – he would appear to be something of a marine biologist from a pan around his home during his introductory scene, but is identified from early on solely as “a writer”.  Further, beyond his daughter mentioning the disappearance of windsurfer Mark Patterson – is that an uncredited appearance from our old pal Ottaviano Dell’Acqua (Zombi 3, among dozens of others)?, we have no real clue as to why he’s so prominently involved, and close to Mayor Wells.  It’s all a mystery…

We also get Castellari regular Giancarlo Prete of Castellari’s Street Law, Escape from the Bronx and Warriors of the Wasteland as Bob Martin, who appears to be the PR man for Wells in the upcoming election,

and in a supreme act of Italianate nepotism, Castellari’s daughter Stefania Girolami (as Franciscus’ daughter Jenny) who was also present in his The Heroin Busters, The Big Racket and 1990: Bronx Warriors, as well as being credited as Assistant Director on a number of films ranging from Bronx Warriors to Super Mario Bros., slacker-era bomb Empire Records and the emo teen television show Dawson’s Creek (!)

Likely the strangest story relating to the cast belongs to Joshua Sinclair (Mayor Wells), who appeared in such films as Lady Frankenstein and the Castellari films Keoma, The Big Racket, Heroin Busters, Inglorious Bastards, 1990: Bronx Warriors as well as the Franco Nero/David Hess picture Hitch-Hike, yet held a tripartate sideline as a novelist and screenwriter (Shaka Zulu), professor of comparative theology, and literal MD as specialist in infectious diseases, in which regard he worked alongside the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta (!)

Perhaps due to his work with Mother Teresa and fight against apartheid, Wells never really comes off as the baddie usually essayed by those taking some variation of the same role.  If not entirely sympathetic, he seems far more stoically restrained, and even somewhat concerned over the fate of Jenny Benton than a regular viewer of these sort of films would expect from the part,  which leads to his own more final comeuppance…

Last Shark_poster

As part of a small run of mainly Italian “Jawsploitation” efforts, The Last Shark holds up as a fairly solid entry, and probably one of the closest to the source material.  That said, the source material…wasn’t all that great.

While likely the best directorial attempt by the generally inept and ridiculously overhyped Steven Spielberg, 1976’s Jaws made a surprisingly pervasive mark on the zeitgeist, setting at least a generation (if not two) on edge when heading out to the shoreline.  For a decade or more, its one iconic theme became the stock in trade of mischievous boys terrorizing their girlfriends at the local pool, with said percussive theme standing out from the otherwise predictable and generally horrible hackwork of the similarly and head scratchingly beloved John Williams, who never met a film whose score he didn’t butcher.

An ultimately boring effort, the picture is peopled by the ugly (forget about the leads and ladies of the film, check out the townies and beachgoers, who are across the board overweight, sporting man-boobs, and generally disgustingly out of shape).

Spielberg is a director who works from the same template without fail: an unlikeable nuclear family, with an annoying, not particularly attractive and shrewish wife and obnoxious child, headed by a neurotic, obsessed and possibly crazed husband and father, faces “the unknown”, whatever that may entail.  Generally, like the similarly minded (and similarly overpraised) Stephen King, the world they inhabit is peopled by hateworthy, backwards local yokels and hick types, and the entire proceedings, particularly when bolstered by an amazingly obtrusive and schmaltzy score by the inept Williams, prove a hard pill to swallow for those unaccustomed to suffering through Hollywood based, emptyheaded and thematically insubstantial hoopla.

While the Europeans (particularly the Italians) are ostensibly “ripping off” the financial “successes” of Hollywood, without fail even the smallest scale versions they provide prove to be fast paced, entertaining, and packed with enough prurient interest to keep a modern filmgoer happy.  With pleasantly recurrent casts and some really silly lines, the “on the way down” US talent and local Euro types deliver far more of an enjoyable experience than the hamfisted “naturalistic” overacting of Strasberg obsessed Method worshipping “AC-tors” like the stammering Roy Scheider (the town hall meeting scene, with its roving camera and Scheider’s affected pretend-I-forgot-the-lines schtick particularly grates).

Interestingly enough, the entire proceedings are saved solely by the atypically likeable performance of Richard Dreyfus (What About Bob?) who seems to be channeling Bob Balaban here.  As for the rest of the film?  Even my wife made the offhand comment that “I thought this was supposed to be scary,” and audibly groaned when I mentioned it ran just over 2 hours.

The films that came in its wake, however, were amusing right across the board: the domestic Barracuda (Harry Kerwin), Orca (Dino DiLaurentiis), Up From the Depths and Humanoids from the Deep (both Roger Corman) and Piranha 1-2 (Joe Dante on the first and the only watchably amusing effort ever to issue from top dollar hack James Cameron on the second) as well as the Italian Tentacles (Ovidio Assonitis), Monster Shark (aka Devil Fish) and Killer Fish (both Lamberto Bava), Cruel Jaws (Bruno Mattei), Great Alligator River (Sergio Martino), and two from Enzo Castellari, The Shark Hunter and the effort under discussion, The Last Shark.

While many (including Universal’s lawyers) have noted how close Castellari’s humble effort supposedly is to Spielberg’s highly praised hack job, I didn’t find that close of a resemblance.  What it did in fact closely adhere to was some of the other entries in the “jawsploitation” subgenre, particularly those related directly to the basic template of a shark or whale, a beachfront community holding a tourist-attracting event, a sleazy local official who refuses to shut down the event or beach in the face of mounting evidence, and two loons who head out to face the killer beast.

There’s a sub-theme of the obnoxious son of said official trying to impress the father by taking out the shark on their own and losing life and limb thereby (as in, at the very least, Cruel Jaws and The Last Shark), and going back to revisit the original Jaws in their wake as I did before writing this review, one is struck at how many of these themes evolved organically and independently of the source material.

The few that were present in Spielberg’s film and Benchley’s script (he would go on to do much better in the Jacqueline Bissett pirate gold vehicle The Deep), like the official, the obsessive scientist/writer/specialist and drunken or crazed friend who serve as ostensible heroes, and the failure to shut down the beach, were better fleshed out at least plotwise in subsequent adaptations, homages and supposed ripoffs than the rather bloated, slow moving and talky original.

Were it not for Dreyfus, the original Jaws would boast the following: a horrid, strangely noticeable and obtrusively inappropriate score (the infamous shark theme excepted), a surprisingly unattractive cast, overly obvious camerawork that brings the artifice of the proceedings to the fore, a blatant attempt to ape Howard Hawks in the various crowd scenes (the town hall scene, the scene where everyone is talking to various media sources via phone simultaneously), and some perfectly atrocious Method acting.

In place of that, The Last Shark offers the Euro cult film regulars mentioned at the start (first and foremost the likeably boozy Franciscus, who brings to mind similar faves like David Warbeck and especially Christopher George in his performance and general persona), a pleasant and inobtrusive score, and a swift pace that still manages to capture sufficient character development and bits of acting business to keep the viewer engaged throughout.

Finally, the shark, which like most genre film SFX is widely denigrated as supposedly laughable (and which is drily noted by Ed Tucker as looking a bit like it was taken from a miniature golf course – a line that left me laughing for a minute or two thereafter), is combined with enough intimidating stock footage to prove sufficiently believable if not relatively impressive for the genre and era.  While scenes towards the end of the film which rely on closeups of Giorgio Ferrari and Giorgio Pozzi’s creation, much less the exploding rubber inner tube shark of the final scene do tend to amuse, strong reliance on well blended (and for the most part, convincing) stock footage keeps things from falling too far over the edge into comedy.

What was more surprising to discover, on revisiting the ostensible source material, was that the original mechanical shark prop from Jaws turned out to be little better than Castellari’s (and in fact, looked and behaved in a similarly ridiculous fashion in certain scenes).  So much for the hegemony and superiority of Hollywood…

The Last Shark is available directly from Retrovision here.

** I should also note that this review was based on a screener copy, which came with proper case and artwork as noted, but appeared on a standard home grade DVD-R, however I have been informed that the final product will be an actual limited run pressed DVD.

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