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Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976) review



 
 
MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH 1976 aka THE JAWS OF DEATH
 
Richard Jaeckel (Sonny Stein), Jennifer Bishop (Karen), Buffy Dee (Barney), Harold "Odd Job" Sakata (Pete), John Davis Chandler (Charlie), Ben Kronen (Whitney), Paul Preston (2nd Patrolman), Milton "Butterball" Smith (Butter), Bob Gordon (Bartender), Jerry Albert (Ship's Mate), George Johnson (Captain), Ric O'Feldman (1st Patrolman), Luke Halpin (3rd Patrolman)
 
Directed by William Grefe
 
The Short Version: Richard Jaeckel in a rare lead role plays Sonny Stein, an outcast with a mystical connection to sharks. After a series of betrayals by fraudulent and immoral individuals, Stein's fin-ship with dangerous fish comes in handy to lower the human population in a seaside Florida town. William Grefe's uniquely off-beat do-over of his own WILLARD-influenced STANLEY (1972) ups the danger meter by diving head-first into the carnivorous waters to get striking footage of the apex predators. You won't find major studio, JAWS-level thrills, but fans of Drive-in movies and the wild and weird side of cinema will find plenty to sink their teeth into.

 
Sonny Stein is a hermetic man who acquires a telepathic link with sharks after he's saved by them while on a diving job in the Philippines. Stumbling upon an old shaman who is part of a shark cult, he gives Sonny a medallion that protects him from harm by the deep sea denizens. Sonny tries to lead a life of solitude in Florida; but ultimately ends up using his fishy friends to get revenge on the duplicitous individuals who have wronged him.
 
 
After the success of WILLARD (1971), there were several similar movies centered around outcasts whose only friends were of the non-human variety. There was William Grefe's STANLEY (1972) about a boy and his snakes; KISS OF THE TARANTULA (1975) about a girl and her spiders; KILLER SNAKES (1974), about a tormented youth and his reptiles, hailed from Hong Kong. Then there was JENNIFER (1978), a Canadian combination of CARRIE (1976) and WILLARD (1971) about a young girl with a telepathic link to snakes who uses them to exact revenge on her persecutors. William Grefe returned to the form with MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH in 1976; which was essentially STANLEY with sharks.

JAWS (1975) had just come out and the millions it made at the box office sent swimmers screaming out of the water; or kept them from going into it.  
 
 
What's unique about MAKO is that it was released at the height of JAWS-mania, and was an entirely different style of shark movie. Spielberg had an infinitely problematic mechanical shark; Grefe had real-life sharks as his stars. The shark in JAWS was a terrifying, mostly unseen maneater that gobbled up random victims in the water; while the sharks in MAKO are depicted as the victims of man--used for experimentation and exploitation, or the preferred catch of local fishermen for profit.
 
 
The 1970s (even more so than the 1980s) was a prime era for independent filmmakers. Low budget films--particularly the exploitation variety that populated Drive-in's across the country--often had little to no money to fully realize a director's intentions. Something like MAKO was shot during a time when movies were made entirely by hand; it was left up to the ingenuity and the creativity of the filmmakers wielding it.
 
 
Sometimes you come across a movie that makes you go, "how did they do that?" MAKO: JAWS OF DEATH is one such motion picture. If it were made today, it would largely be done with CGI. The way Grefe and his crew made the movie is nothing short of incredible (which you'll read about shortly in the director's own words).

 
In MAKO, popular character actor Richard Jaeckel plays Sonny Stein, a loner who is isolated from society. People have given him a lifetime of reasons to distrust them; so he finds solace in the company of sharks; and he doesn't hesitate to kill those who would maim or kill them. The key to his fin-ship with the cartilaginous species is a mystical medallion given to him by a Filipino shaman. So long as he wears it, sharks will never harm him. Two of his best friends are Sammy and Matilda. Sonny confides in them as you would a human friend. This sounds a bit silly, but it fits perfectly within the carnivalesque atmosphere Grefe's movie resides in.


When Sonny mingles in "normal" society after catching the eye of a bar dancer who does an aqua-maid act, he finds himself swimming with a different breed of shark. An unscrupulous research scientist convinces Sonny to let him study Matilda that takes a disastrous turn. Then there's the shady bar owner who wants one of his sharks to use in the underwater go-go dancer's act. And then there are two double-dealing shark hunters who help send the already murderous Sonny spiraling further into a state of revenge.

Arguably the film's greatest asset are the astonishingly well-filmed shark sequences; some of which look incredibly dangerous, leading viewers to wonder just how in the hell did they do it.

Below is an interview conducted with William Grefe, the director of MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH. He was kind enough to give an hour of his time to discuss this picture and the details of its making.
 
Venoms5: I read you wrote the story for MAKO before JAWS. It's similar to your earlier movie STANLEY (1972). Did you base your story on that?
 
William Grefe: STANLEY was so successful, I figured I should come up with another animal movie. Since I was a skin diver and did some action direction on LIVE AND LET DIE (1973) where I did a lot of shark footage there, I came up with the concept of a man who loves sharks. What was interesting was I shopped the story around to distributors and investors and nobody would finance it. Then Spielberg came along with JAWS and everything, and I mean everything... Time magazine, Life magazine... everything was JAWS, JAWS, JAWS... biggest grossing movie at the time. When that came out my phone rang off the hook. I immediately got the money and started shooting. 
 
At that time JAWS (1975) hadn't been released in Europe yet, just the United States. So when I finished shooting I edited together a seven-minute promo reel and took it to Europe. We got advances from Germany, France, etc, and we got our money back before JAWS was released over there. I hadn't even edited the movie yet, just that promo; so I had to work like the Devil to get the movie edited and sent over to the European countries. With JAWS out, there was so much publicity on sharks so that's how my movie came about.

V5: Was it difficult filming the shark scenes? JAWS had a mechanical shark and you had real ones. Was this a much greater challenge than you expected?

WG: We shot in Bimini, one of the Bahamian islands, which is about 50 miles off Florida. We wanted to film there because it's very clear water and a beautiful area for underwater photography. The way we got the sharks is there's a big reef there; so every night we had about ten cement blocks with a log rope and a big shark hook and we'd get a snapper or some other fish and put it through their tail. We'd go back in the morning and there'd be one or two sharks on the hooks after the bait. They'd drag those cement blocks around till they got tired. We had a big casket on the boat we put them in and had to shoot oxygen into them. We used 10 to 12-foot tiger sharks. 
 
Down in South Bimini there's a little motel that had a big harbor. We rented the whole motel and the harbor. We wired off the entrance to the harbor and when we brought the sharks in we'd put big manila ropes around their tails. We had maybe 10 sharks swimming around in the harbor so when we needed them we used a gaffing hook as they swam by and hoisted them out and into the casket. 

V5: I didn't recognize any Mako's in the movie. Was there a decision to go with tiger sharks due to the Mako's aggressiveness?

WG: With a Tiger shark, when you grab them by the tail, they can't turn around to bite. We couldn't do that with a Mako. I called it MAKO JAWS OF DEATH because I didn't want it to be too similar to JAWS. The distributor ended up changing it to just THE JAWS OF DEATH. If it hadn't been for Spielberg, it probably wouldn't have got made, or been as successful as it was.

V5: How did working with sharks compare with working with snakes in STANLEY (1972)?

WG: Snakes of course are smaller to handle. When you get a 10-12ft Tiger Shark that's a pretty heavy load to haul around (laughs). There's one scene where three sharks are released. When we were filming that scene, one of them turned right toward me and I kicked him in the head. Their skin is like sandpaper so my foot got scratched up (laughs)
 
There's another shot in the movie with Jordan Klein, the cameraman. He was fantastic; a great, great underwater photographer. When you turn on an underwater camera it makes a buzzing sound. He was doing like a dolly shot following a shark. So when he turned the camera on one of the sharks turned and went right after him and Jordan put the camera right in his mouth and shot down his tonsils. That shot is in the movie. 
 
I ended up selling that footage to Walt Disney Productions and some German outfit for just that shot. That camera housing was at least 18 inches wide so that's how big that shark was; took the whole thing in its mouth. I give Jordan all the credit in the world, he just shoved that camera into the shark's mouth (laughs).
 

V5: Was that Richard Jaeckel swimming with the sharks in some of the scenes? It sure looked like him.

WG: Yes, that was Richard. Of all the actors in the world I've worked with, Richard Jaeckel was the most cooperative, most professional actor of them all. I'll give you an example of the kind of guy Richard was. On the first day of filming, it was the worst day I've ever had in filmmaking. My whole plan was to use an Arriflex BL camera. It's a camera that doesn't make any sound. So Arriflex had just come out with the Arri BL. There was only two of'em in the United States then--one in Florida and the other in California. My initial plan was to use the Blimp because it was a handheld camera. Working on a boat is a nightmare because it's always rocking; and those other cameras weigh about 200lbs. 
 
So the assistant director comes in and tells me, "We just wiped out the Arri." And I said, "You wiped it out? What the hell happened?" He says, "The assistant cameraman had it on the tripod and he was putting the lens on and the magazine fell and when he went to pick it up the camera fell off the tripod and broke the housing." I was like, "Oh my God, what am I gonna do?" So I sent the camera back to the equipment house and they sent me that 200lb monster I wanted to avoid using in the first place (laughs). 
 
I had a handheld Arriflex but it made that buzzing sound so I figured I could use that for the scene by the dock where Johnny Chandler and Harold Sakata pull up. Richard was not in the first scenes we did. So now I'm back in the trailer rehearsing the other actors. The AD comes back in and said, "Bill, are you sitting down?" And I said, "Now what the hell is wrong?" He says, "We were bringing the boats in and it's low tide and they got stuck on a sandbar so we can't use the boats for 2-3 hours till the tide goes out" (laughs). So I told him to go get Richard Jaeckel. 
 
I told Richard we have this scene we can shoot with the handheld but where it makes noise we'll loop it later. Richard says, "No problem, Bill, no problem. I'll get into makeup and be right with you." So I go back to the trailer with the other actors while Richard is in makeup. The AD comes back again and says, "Bill... " And I say, "What the hell is it now?!" (laughs). He tells me Richard hopped up onto the prop truck to see his prop and split his head open. We had to rush him to the hospital and about 2-3 hours later Richard comes back with stitches on the top of his head. He insisted on working and did the entire movie with those stitches in his head. That's what a trouper he was. I've worked with so many actors who will say they need a week off for this or that and Richard just went right to work with an injury. We finally shot that scene and looped it. And that was the very first day of filming (laughs).

I didn't really start shooting till the other camera came back, so the rest of the movie I had to use that 200lb monster; on the boat and everywhere else, which I hated. It's ridiculous how big that thing is (laughs).
 

V5: How long did you shoot for? Was it longer than you had planned?

WG: This statement you'll never hear from anybody that's ever directed more than 20 movies. I have never been one day over schedule; I have never been one dollar over budget. I shot MAKO JAWS OF DEATH in fifteen days, and I did underwater shots in Bimini for one week. So I filmed a total of 20 days. My record is seven days of filming for DEATH CURSE OF TARTU (1966). 

V5: The scenes where the sharks are biting people--Richard Jaeckel has two on him at the end and the stuntwoman in the tank--how did you pull that off? Did you have the sharks teeth removed?

WF: What happened was we were in Bimini and we wanted to use a dead shark for the girl in the tank at the bar standing in for Jennifer Bishop. As I said earlier, back then everything was about sharks because of JAWS (1975). The crew told me we could make $10-$15 bucks a tooth for shark's teeth because everybody was makin' necklaces and stuff. They asked if it was okay to pull the teeth out and I told them, 'yeah, go ahead'. So the shark's on the beach and they pulled the teeth out. We took it to the pool with Gay Ingram, the stunt girl, and shoved it towards her and the damn thing was alive! That damn shark had been out of the water for 30 to 45 minutes and you can see in the movie where he grabbed the girl's leg. If we hadn't pulled the teeth out that would've been a serious problem. I was in the water and almost choked to death when that shark came to; we had to grab him by the tail and pull him off because he was gumming her to death (laughs). More people have commented on that shot and it's a terrific shot.

We used dead sharks for the end when they latch on to Richard. I didn't want to do any more harm to Richard (laughs). When I did STANLEY (1972) I offended Alex Rocco. You remember where he goes into the pool off the diving board? Alex came up to me and said, "Bill, I've been an actor for twelve years and I've never refused to do what a director tells me, but I'm scared to death of snakes. Is there anything you can do?" So I told him it wasn't a problem, that I had a bunch of rubber snakes I can do fast-cuts and edit around it. I had two or three snake handlers so when he went off that diving board they hit'em with about 10 or 12 real snakes (laughs). And he panicked, you know. And the soundtrack, when we were editing the movie where he's fighting off those real snakes he yells at me, "Grefe, you son of a bitch!" (laughs)

Alex won an Emmy for the comedy series THE FAMOUS TEDDY Z (1990) and he was on GOOD MORNING AMERICA in New York and they asked him if he ever had trouble on any movie he acted in and Rocco says, "There's this insane director in Florida who dumped real snakes on me..." (laughs) So I couldn't use real sharks on Richard; I had to use dead ones (laughs).
 

V5: Richard Jaeckel is one of my favorite actors. He's in so many movies and had so few leading roles and you gave him one.

WG: I loved him in THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) and so many others. But again, Richard was the most cooperative actor; no ego, just ready to work, knew his lines. He was fantastic. I loved Richard. Unfortunately, he died too soon. He got melanoma, skin cancer. He was a California boy. He surfed all the time and got a lot of sun when he was young.
 
V5: What about Johnny Chandler and Harold Sakata?

WG: I just loved Johnny Chandler. I used him in three of my movies. He did something for me that is unheard of in Hollywood. I was shooting WHISKEY MOUNTAIN (1977) and I was producing and directing. We shot that in the mountains of North Carolina. I was gonna use Neville Brand and I'm out in the woods shooting and the production secretary sent a PA out that Neville's agent just called and he's got pneumonia and he can't fulfill his commitment to the film. So I thought about it for a minute and I told the production assistant to go back and call Johnny Chandler and tell him I don't have time to send him a ticket. In Hollywood, no actor will do anything unless you send them a round trip ticket or their salary in escrow. So I tell the PA to tell Johnny I need him to fly here so he flew in and I picked him up and the next day I started shooting with him. He trusted me enough to do that. He was a real pro so I really liked working with Johnny. He did a wonderful job on that movie.

Harold Sakata was a professional wrestler. The way he got the part on GOLDFINGER (1964) was he was wrestling in London and Cubby Broccoli, the producer, happened to be watching the wrestling match and said, "Boy, he'd be good in my movie" . Harold was a real gentle guy. After MAKO, I had him at my house for three days as a house guest and my poor wife (laughs), he would eat a dozen eggs for breakfast so all my wife did was cook for him the whole time (laughs). He almost bankrupted me from feeding him (laughs). He was a real good guy. I wouldn't wanna get on the wrong side of him because he was a good professional wrestler. But a very gentle man. 

 
V5: Did you film the ending during an actual storm?
 
WG: No, we used swamp boats with the big propellers. We had two or three of those we used to whip up the water and the shrubbery to give the impression of a big storm. That scene where the guys are chasing Richard back to his houseboat and the boat flips over from the wind, that's how strong it was.

V5: Was there anything you had to cut from the movie to get a PG or did you want that rating all along?

WG: I don't know how we got a PG but everything is there that we shot. A lot of that was up to the distributor who did have to fight for the rating. Sometimes that kind of thing is taken care of with a payoff because you don't want to turn away young people from your movie.
 
Robert D. Morgan's script (based on a story by William Grefe) is surprisingly good; giving Jaeckel a complex, if disturbed, main character with a boat-load of eccentricities while surrounding him with a gaggle full of sordid antagonists.
 

The vastly underrated Jaeckel did virtually every genre during his long career, and is just as well known for his exploitation roles as his classier dramas and westerns; and not to mention his numerous television appearances. Some of his movies include: SANDS OF IWO JIMA (1949); 3:10 TO YUMA (1957); FLAMING STAR (1960); THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967); THE GREEN SLIME (1968); LATITUDE ZERO (1969); CHISUM (1970); ULZANA'S RAID (1972); PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (1973); WALKING TALL PART 2 (1975); GRIZZLY (1976); DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977); MR. NO LEGS (1979); THE DARK (1979); STAR MAN (1984); BLACK MOON RISING (1986); DELTA FORCE 2: THE COLOMBIAN CONNECTION (1990). He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award in 1972 for SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION (1971). 
 
Of special mention is his third appearance (four if you count 2-parter 'The Raid') on GUNSMOKE (1955-1975) in the season 20 episode, 'Larkin'. Jaeckel is Clay Larkin, a gunman who tries to stay alive the duration of the episode. It's one of the best things the actor did.


MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH (1976) is a 'B' movie, but it has some 'A' movie qualities, and is better than its reputation suggests. Whether you like the film or not, the maverick style of filmmaking it and other low budget movies were made with came during a time that will never be replicated. If you're a fan of Richard Jaeckel this is a rare opportunity to see him carry a picture. And if you're a fan of maneater movies, Grefe's film is the most unique in the school of sharksploitation cinema.
 
A huge Thank You to director William Grefe for spending an hour of his time to discuss the making of his movie.

This review is representative of the Dark Force Entertainment blu-ray double feature. Specs and Extras: Brand new 2K scan from the original, uncut 35mm camera negative; 1080p 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; paired with main feature BOG (1979); trailers; intermission/snack bar ads; BOG Press Gallery; Drive-in Mode; running time: 01:33:22
 

4 comments:

Unknown said...

Thank you for another stellar article . I read every one and can't wait for us next .

Dave S said...

`Great interview! Any idea how the Dark Force version compares with the picture quality of the Arrow release? The stills you share look superior to what Arrow delivers.

venoms5 said...

@ Unknown: You're very welcome, and thanks! Next one is this disc's main feature, BOG (1979).

venoms5 said...

@ Dave: I'm not sure as I don't have the Arrow set. There's a Grefe commentary on there so hopefully everything we discussed here wasn't covered there as well. Also, the DF blu states the print is from the original 35mm camera negative.

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