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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Monster Shark (1984) review


Michael Sopkiw (Peter), Valentine Monnier (Stella), Gianni Garko (Sheriff Gordon), William Berger (Dr. Donald West), Lawrence Morgant (Dr. Davis), Iris Peynado (Sandra Hayes), Cinzia De Ponti (Florinda), Paul Branco (Miller), Dagmar Lassander (Sonja West), Dino Conti (Dr. Hogan), Darla N. Warner (Dr. Janet Bates)

Directed by Lamberto Bava

The Short Version: When it comes to JAWS inspired movies riding the waves of its success, MONSTER SHARK is usually placed well below the depths in its sub-genre. Like Spielberg's movie, you see very little of the Monster Shark; but unlike Spielberg's movie, this doesn't play in the film's favor. Looking like a giant shuttlecock with oversized chompers, the blunderous creation is seen mostly in quick flashes at infrequent intervals--denying B-movie lovers of an abundance of low-rent entertainment they've paid to see. Released on American shores as DEVIL FISH, this version had more monster shots but was horribly re-edited by someone apparently high on recreational drugs. Superior in its original European cut, it's still an overly talky, low budget fish fry with little flavor. Fans of Italy's lost art of bandwagon movies will be the most attentive audience for this MONSTER SCHLOCK.

Scientists working on illegal genetic experiments for the West Ocean International corporation create a monstrous creature and hire an assassin to keep their nefarious plans a secret. Combining DNA of an octopus and the prehistoric Dunkleosteus fish, the beast gets loose on the Florida coastline and proceeds to eat the locals. Scientists soon learn the monster is asexual and that any time it loses cells it will form into another sea beast. An electronics expert and a dolphin specialist try to stop the thing before local authorities blow it up, creating potentially thousands more Monster Sharks.

With the success of JAWS in 1975, it was only a matter of time before similar movies (or outright rip-offs) began breaking the surface. Italy, then famous for producing shameless bandwagon pictures modeled on moneymaking American films, wasted no time sinking their teeth into underwater creature features. The limited sub-genre of Italian aquatic horrors began with Ovidio Assonitis's TENTACLES in 1976 and peaked with an absurd level of plagiarism in Enzo Castellari's THE LAST SHARK in 1981 (released briefly in America as GREAT WHITE)

Lamberto Bava's MONSTER SHARK is less a clone of JAWS than it is merely inspired by it. There's no thriving resort with plentiful opportunities for human food in the water; nor any scenes of a concerned sheriff to close the beaches. It's all down to a script that's much bigger than the budget allows to breathe; and an unnecessarily stacked cast of characters made up of doctors, an electronics wiz, and a hired killer used to cover up the mess created by an unscrupulous scientist. There's even that old mainstay of the evil corporate entity that wants the creature for some nefarious purpose. That's not to say Bava's movie doesn't contain elements of the JAWS films, because it does. The main problem is the movie spends way too much time on mystery as opposed to the main attraction. The whodunit portions of the film lags when the monster isn't onscreen. Boasting that the beast moves at 30 knots, it's a shame the film doesn't move as fast.

The numerous characterizations end up muddled in the simplistic script that, for whatever reason, required a multitude of writers. After its initial story idea and script were handled by Sergio and Luciano Martino and Luigi Cozzi respectively, it eventually fell to four additional writers--Gianfranco Clerici, Dardano Sacchetti, Herve Piccini, and Vincenzo Mannino--to finalize what ended up on screen in 1984. Everyone used pseudonyms, including Bava, directing as John Old Jr., a nod to his dad's old alias.

Italian sources of the film's production suggest it was a chaotic shoot with Sergio Martino and his brother Luciano devising the idea and asking Luigi Cozzi (STARCRASH; HERCULES) to write and direct but with the film originally set in Venice, Italy. For whatever reason, the Martino's decided to abandon the picture to make another movie--returning to the sea monster story a few months later. Upon returning, Cozzi streamlined his initial script; reportedly inspired by the 1961 novel 'Creatures of the Abyss' written by Murray Leinster (William Fitzgerald Jenkins). With the Martino brothers handing the film over to producer Mino Loy, Lamberto Bava was then hired to take over directing duties. 

Not one to candy-coat things, Bava has stated his dissatisfaction for the film, citing the poor special effects and monster built by Ovidio Taito, a crewman who has very few credits behind the camera and only one in front of it--as an actor in another Italian monster flick, PANIC (1982); a film that's even schlockier than MONSTER SHARK.

In some shots looking like a big balloon and others resembling a giant shuttlecock with teeth, views of the life-sized critter was purposely kept to a minimum. Two smaller versions of the monster were built and reportedly got the bulk of the screen time. With the shoot already troubled by a disagreeable sea beast, the Italian cast grew homesick for Italy and their families as summer was approaching. Italian audiences got to see the result in September of 1984. It would be two years before the MONSTER SHARK would surface in America as DEVIL FISH. 

The US version is a re-edited cut of the film that does feature additional shots of the monster not found in the Italian original. Examples being the daytime chase just prior to the finale when Peter is luring the monster into the canal. He leaps from his boat and the thing, giving chase, swims underneath it. This isn't seen in the Italian version. The same goes for a shot of the Sharktopus trying to snatch Peter as he's being hoisted into the Coast Guard helicopter. As Peter goes up into the air, we see the monster descend below the depths.

Aside from the additional bits of the sea monster, the US version's erratic editing moved scenes around or chopped them up--wrecking havoc with what little suspense Bava was able to create. For example, an attack scene that occurs nearly 40 minutes into the movie is placed at the beginning. This was likely done because nothing much happens till over 20 minutes into the picture. By comparison, the original cut of the movie is superior to the ineptly edited, more widely familiar DEVIL FISH release.

Fabio Frizzi's unremarkable score doesn't even sound like a soundtrack for a movie about a man-eating shark with tentacles. There's one cue that resembles the main theme from JAWS but it's heard fleetingly in the original cut of the film while it dominates the soundtrack in the inferior, drunk edit for the US. It was released on CD in 2016 through Beat Records. 

Michael Sopkiw stars as the womanizing electronics expert who creates a device to track the monster. He's top-billed but the screen is so crowded he never fully takes hold as the film's hero nor does he figure significantly in the finale; it's more of an ensemble affair.

This was Sopkiw's second of four Italian exploitation pictures. He began his 4-picture deal under Sergio Martino's direction in 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983); then moving on to MONSTER SHARK for Lamberto Bava and BLASTFIGHTER (1984), again for Bava and both shot in Florida and Georgia respectively. Sopkiw's last was the penniless in budget but million dollar titled MASSACRE IN DINOSAUR VALLEY (1985) for Michele Massimo Tarantini.

If you're a fan of Italian westerns MONSTER SHARK is made more tolerable for the tumbleweed set by the participation of William Berger and Gianni Garko. The Austrian Berger famous for such six-shooters as FACE TO FACE (1967) and SABATA (1969); while Croatian Garko garnered international fame for the SARTANA series of trick gunslinger movies among several others.

As obscure a title as it is, MONSTER SHARK is on the list of movies that got an unacknowledged remake of sorts. Whereas it was inspired by JAWS (1975), Bava's SHARK influenced the Roger Corman produced SHARKTOPUS (2010)--an irrefutably asinine movie that gleefully piles on the typically shoddy CGI of all your finer SyFy Channel fodder. Remarkably, the quality isn't much better than Lamberto Bava's quasi-shark fest. The Corman one is played for laughs and the Italian original (there's something you don't hear very often) is unintentionally so.

The filmmakers do get a lot of mileage out of the Florida locations. It's not totally ocean-set, some of the most important sequences take place in canals such as the finale when the Coast Guard assail the monster with flame throwers. Italian genre pictures were taking full advantage of US locations for their movies during this time period. Both Georgia (Margheriti's CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE) and Arizona (Martino's HANDS OF STEEL) were popular states where these types of movies were shot.

With more budget and time this could've been an immensely entertaining picture regardless of how lousy the special effects are. Just a few more attack scenes would've been beneficial. One wasted opportunity could've seen the toothsome, tentacled monstrosity latching onto the helicopter Gianni Garko is firing from and pulling it into the water, a la JAWS 2 (1978). GREAT WHITE homaged that famous sequence as did the Corman distributed DEMON OF PARADISE (1987); itself a remake of another Corman pick-up, UP FROM THE DEPTHS (1979). There's simply not enough of the Monster Shark to hold viewer attention. Tolerable in its original European version, it still pales to similar movies made in American waters. Simply put, as an underwater monster movie the MONSTER SHARK Is Not Working.

This review is representative of the Code Red bluray. Specs and Extras: Brand new HD scan done in America; 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; audio commentary with Michael Sopkiw; trailers; reversible artwork; running time: 01:33:47

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