Somewhere off the coast of Key West, Florida, a chartered fishing trip turns deadly when a rogue scuba diver cuts loose a shark they've got hooked on a line, then boards and proceeds to slaughter the passengers and crew. And though he never takes the mask off during the attack, once he reaches shore we recognize a certain shark-toothed pendant worn by Sonny Stein (Jaeckel), self-proclaimed protector of the local shark population.
Most of the locals are aware of his obsessions, just not the homicidal tendencies as several fishing charters have gone missing over the last several weeks, and have branded him as the kook who likes to talk to fish. And after saving the local aquabat (three underwater shows daily at the Dewedropp Inn) from an attempted rape, Stein confides in a seemingly sympathetic Karen (Bishop) his origin:
Seems while diving for gold near the Philippines, Stein's boat was attacked and sunk by pirates but he managed to escape through shark infested waters with nary a nibble, earning him that pendant from the local shark-worshiping tribe, which does, indeed, grant him a telepathic link with sharks, including his best friends Sammy and Matilda (-- who are not Makos as the alternate title would suggest but Tiger sharks). Matilda is also very, very pregnant. And here, the plot really gets going when Stein agrees to loan her out to a local marine biologist, who seems just a bit too eager to witness a live shark birth in a controlled environment -- he typed ominously; and then Karen helps to dupe him into the loan of another shark to help spice up her aquatic act to save her belligerent, beached-whale of husband's dive of a bar. Multiple decisions Stein will soon come to regret...
Okay, then, William "Bill" Grefe was bit by the acting bug early. But after spending several years in summer stock, his dreams were interrupted by the Korean War. And after his stint with the Navy was up, he found himself married, with three kids, and paying the bills as a fireman in Miami. However, his showbiz desire would not go quietly and he stayed in the game, shifting from acting to writing screenplays. And after several years of rejections, a local south Florida outfit headed by Herb Vendig optioned his script for The Checkered Flag (1964). Grefe was invited to the shooting location in case rewrites were needed and, here, fate stepped in when the slotted director fell ill and withdrew from the production. And after a quick meeting in a hotel room, Grefe was suddenly promoted to director; and this simple twist of fate launched one of the most fascinating runs in independent regional exploitation filmmaking.
Over the next decade, Florida's answer to Roger Corman churned out about one film a year, cashing in on trends, be it beach party monster movies [Sting of Death (1965)], outlaw bikers [The Wild Rebels (1967)], dropping out and tuning in [The Hooked Generation (1968)], or killer animal / nature's revenge [Stanley (1972)]. Always odd, often downright bizarre, and usually blessed with some trippy musical interludes, Grefe always had a distinct visual style and the Florida sun, green swamps, and clear blue waters always made the colors just pop onscreen. Too bad the excruciating padding, limited acting ability of his stock players, and the always present animal cruelty in nearly each and every feature kinda kills the buzz and ruins things a bit.
Now, considering the timing of its release, one would definitely assume that Jaws of Death (1976) was made to cash in on the runaway box-office of Jaws (1975) but, no, it really isn't -- at least not in the way we've come to know them. (A lack of a lawsuit by Universal backs this up.) There's no metaphoric man vs. beast action, no knock-off Indianapolis speeches, or no grief over closing or not closing the beaches. If anything, Jaws of Death is just a rehash of Grefe's own Stanley, where he just subbed in sharks for rattlesnakes; and both actually rip-off Daniel Mann's Willard (1971), where a bullied anti-social uses his army of rats to gain revenge on his tormentors. Grefe also claims to have written the script long before Jaws came out but couldn't sell it until Spielberg's film exploded, and suddenly, several distributors were beating down his door with Cannon Films winning out.
The film's notorious reputation is well-earned on the surrogate shark's revenge premise alone and, turns out, Jaws of Death is as dumb as it sounds and yet it's nowhere near as gonzo as you'd hope because there's something in the mix that elevates it just a notch above those noxious expectations. And what that is an arresting performance by Richard Jaeckel as our faux Aquaman and designated shark protector. The character is clearly insane, and the actor’s performance brings a certain manic twitch that really grounds things instead of amping them up to ludicrous speed.
The scene that triggers the final rampage, where Stein discovers the evil marine biologist has killed and vivisected one of his beloved sharks, killing Matilda's unborn litter in the process, and his total meltdown over this is so jarring it kinda jolts you out of the mise en stoopidity of the film, making it hard to readjust when he gruesomely takes out the biologists, a couple of shark poachers, the duplicitous bar owner, and finally, Karen, sabotaging her show, allowing the shark -- well, a reasonable facsimile, to pounce on her in the pool once the curtain rises. And then, soon surrounded by the authorities, Stein, still wracked with guilt for betraying his true friends so badly, does the honorable thing, discards the amulet, and then jumps in the water, teeming with sharks, to accept his fate.
Now, while nowhere near as bad as the wholesale shark slaughter of Rene Cardona Jr. [Tintorera (1977), Bermuda Triangle (1978)], Jaws of the Death does commit the same atrocities with at least a dozen sharks put down for the film both onscreen and off. Also of note, the film’s much-ballyhoo’d claim of filming with live sharks sans safety cages loses all of its luster when you realize each and every 'live' shark used had all their teeth removed. Sadly, if you watch a lot of shark-themed genre films from this era most equated as shark snuff films. Sadder still, Grefe really could have had something here, with the hero fighting for conservation, turning the tables on those who would hunt them to extinction (the moment when one of the poachers takes a bang-stick to the head was actually kinda cathartic), but, alas, in the end he had some trouble practicing what he was preaching.
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Jaws of Death (1976) Mako Associates :: Universal Majestic Inc. :: Cannon Film Distributors / EP: Doro Vlado Hreljanovic, Paul Joseph / P: William Grefe / AP: Bob Bagley, Robert Plumb / D: William Grefe / W: Robert W. Morgan, William Grefe / C: Julio C. Chávez / E: Julio C. Chávez, Ronald Sinclair / M: William Loose, Paul Ruhland / S: Richard Jaeckel, Jennifer Bishop, Buffy Dee, Harold Sakata, John Davis Chandler