Monday, January 9, 2017

The Celluloid Zeroes Proudly Present: A Franchise Kill :: This Time, It's Personal. Also, Very, Very Stupid as We Sink Deep into Joseph Sargent's JAWS: The Revenge (1987)

What we have here, Boils and Ghouls, is an experiment inflicted on my fellow Celluloid Zeroes. An experiment where we tackle a whole film franchise and take it down in one fell swoop -- a Franchise Kill, if you will, with each member responsible for one film in the series. And after some friendly debate and logistical analysis, it was decided that we'd tackle JAWS first and its trio of sequels and a few assorted knock-offs. And so, if you'd like to do this in the proper order, scroll down to the bottom of this post for the appropriate linkage as the reviews trickle in and we all scramble to meet the deadline. And while this experiment was voluntary, and everyone seemed eager, since this was all basically my idea, I got stuck with this one:

In the waters off Amity Island, as Christmas carols waft across the lapping waves, deputy Sean Brody (Anderson), youngest son of Martin and Ellen Brody, is puttering around the harbor in a patrol boat, responding to a call to remove some debris that’s threatening to topple an anchored channel marker. But as he works to remove the offending obstruction, a monstrous shark attacks from below, biting off the majority of Brody’s right arm. And as those same cacophonous carols drown out his desperate cries for help, the shark presses the attack, defying physics, plucking the wounded man off the stern floor, sinking the boat in the process, and then toys with the victim a bit as he flounders in the water, still screaming unheeded, until finishing him off. And judging by how the shark stalked his prey before pouncing, one could almost read or construe the sabotaged buoy was bait contrived by said shark to lure Sean Brody out onto the water in the first place -- especially when you consider the gnaw marks on said obstructing pylon!

At least that’s the conclusion his mother, Ellen (Gary), comes to as she views (what little is left of) her son’s recovered body. Convinced his battles with not one, but two monster sharks drove her husband, Martin, into an early grave via a heart attack, and while wallowing in the stages of grief, Ellen cannot come to grips with this massive mass of coincidences and is now convinced a lineage of sharks must have some kind of ersatz blood vendetta against her family, and are now out looking to even the score. Of course, her eldest son, Mike (Guest), thinks this is preposterous and, worrying about his mother’s mental health, convinces Ellen a change of scenery is just what she needs; and so, Ellen agrees to accompany Mike, his wife, Carla (Young), and daughter Thea (Barsi), to the Bahamas, where Mike is currently working in his capacity as a marine biologist, tracking the migratory patterns of sea snails.

Waitaminute, you say. Sea snails? The hell? What happened to Kathy Morgan? What happened to Not-Sea World? What happened to that job in Venezuela? Hang on, I say. All will be explained as the Brodys wing their way south. Well, sort of. Maybe. Explained, I mean. And believe me, before it’s over, this film will have a helluva lot of explaining to do. Anyhoo, back to the movie, where, unbeknownst to team Brody, sure enough, somewhere below and beneath the waves, a monstrous, 28-foot killer shark is also making its way from the cold waters of Amity to the warm currents of the Caribbean Sea. So maybe there is something to this preternatural vendetta after all…

There’s an apocryphal story that after Gremlins (1984) became an unexpected box-office hit, the studio quickly scrambled to come up with a sequel to cash in. Initially, original director Joe Dante turned it down, having an aversion to sequels in general and having had his fill of malfunctioning muppet movies. But eventually, he was coaxed back with the promise of free rein and carte blanche to do whatever he wanted to do. And with that caveat, Dante, whose own career sprung from this franchise with his inaugural effort, Piranha (1978), one of many knock-offs JAWS spawned, and then there's his association with the aborted spoof sequel, JAWS 3 People 0, which he abandoned to do The Howling (1981), for producer Michael Finnell, who both came back with their own personal pitch for Gremlins 2 (1990): make something that would absolutely guarantee there would never, ever be a Gremlins 3. And while that massive tonal shift and tale of self-sabotage was on purpose, here, with JAWS: The Revenge (1987), director Joseph Sargent and screenwriter Michael de Guzman basically did the same thing by churning out something so bad, something so nigh incomprehensible, something so rock-stupid, they inadvertently guaranteed there would never be a JAWS 5.

"Hey! Hey, you! Call my agent. I'm available. Cheap."
This debacle began in late September, 1986, when Sargent got a call from Sid Sheinberg, president of MCA-Universal, who offered him a chance to produce and direct a third JAWS sequel slated to be released in July the very next year. And though there wasn’t even a script written for it yet, Sheinberg gave the veteran director the hard sell, saying the picture would be put on a fast-track with a generous budget estimated between 23 and 30 million dollars (-- for comparison, Return of the Jedi was brought in for 32 million in 1983) and how he wanted a “quality picture about human beings.” In a shark attack movie. In less than six months. Right. And as red flags went up everywhere, Sargent, a noted TV director, but who had helmed the likes of Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1973) for the big screen felt the whole thing was “a ticking bomb waiting to go off” but accepted the offer anyway.

And Sheinberg was true to his word, getting the money and the production up to speed very quickly, but leaving it to Sargent and de Guzman to concoct another plausible encounter between a killer shark and the Brody clan. With the tagline, 'This Time, It’s Personal' -- and it’s never really clear if that is in reference to the shark’s or Ellen Brody’s perspective, or who is taking ‘The Revenge’ (-- it makes most sense if it’s the shark, honestly), the script started to come together. In an interview some twenty years later Sargent would claim plausibility was chucked out the window early in the writing process and as originally conceived the premise “was born out of a desperation to find something fresh to do with the shark. We thought that maybe if we took a mystical point of view, and go for a little bit of … magic, we might be able to find something interesting enough to sit through."

Now, we need to stress on the as “originally conceived” aspect of that quote as most of the mystical and magical elements he alluded to were later excised out except for Ellen Brody’s inexplicable and bizarre psychic link to the shark that is never explained in the finished film; and neither is the implied clairvoyant connection to her children and dead husband that allows her to recall or flashback to events she was not present for. Or how in the hell the shark even knew where they were going. However, a lot of these elements -- plus a whole lot more, showed up in Hank Searls novelization of JAWS: The Revenge. Searls had already done the novelization for JAWS 2, which reads as both a sequel to Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of JAWS (1975) and Peter Benchley’s source novel, which alludes to a mafia subplot and the fallout of the affair between Ellen Brody and Matt Hooper.

From the very beginning of the production, Sargent seemed keen on ignoring the other two sequels completely, making his film a direct sequel to JAWS; and while elements from JAWS 2 (1978) are still present, the entirety of JAWS 3-D (1983) was ignored and essentially retconned out of existence, which is probably why this film was never referred to as JAWS 4. And so, Mike Brody never worked as an engineer at Not-SeaWorld and Sean never went to school in Colorado to get away from the PTSD-inducing ocean and instead stayed in Amity and followed his old man’s footsteps into law enforcement. Mike, meanwhile, according to Searls’ novelization, which one assumes was based on an early draft of the script, is now a marine biologist; a marine biologist who just so happened to piss off the wrong voodoo priest. That’s right, as originally conceived, JAWS: The Revenge, was about a shark being an unwitting pawn in a voodoo curse to get a little heathen payback.

See, in the novel, there’s a character named Papa Jacques, whom the superstitious islanders turn to for advice and guidance -- for a price. Despite the beliefs and protests of his local Rastafarian co-worker, Jake (Van Peebles), and his wife, Louisa (Whitfield), to leave well enough alone, Mike thinks Papa Jacques is nothing but a con-man and a fraud who is exploiting the people. A confrontation ensues, turns ugly, and Mike winds up breaking one of the witch doctor’s favorite magical gourds. And so, for this blasphemy, Papa Jacques summons the shark -- against its will, mind you, as evidenced by several chapters told from the enthralled shark’s point of view, possessing it, to do his bidding and take his revenge (aha!) on Mike Brody by proxy, setting the preternatural plot proper into motion.

And as the film progresses, Papa Jacques torments the Brodys further, cursing one of Thea’s toys (-- a bucket for building sand castles), putting the girl into a trance, to lure her into the ocean and the waiting jaws of the shark. And while that is thwarted at the last second, Louisa, who has a much larger role in the book, tries to make Mike believe in what he’s helped unleash; he still refuses to believe, but his mother does, setting up the climax, which, when the shark dies, rather ridiculously, the eldritch feedback is too much of Papa Jacques who also drops dead.

And while all of this sounds patently ridiculous, deliriously stoopid and positively schlock-tastic, alas, none of this made it into the finished film, leaving many a gaping plot-hole in its wake as no one bothered to go back and shore things up and just pushed ahead, hoping no one would notice how stupid the central premise now was without the mystical embellishment. So, nope, instead of a voodoo-fueled shark massacre, we get a middle-aged romantic island adventure between Ellen and Hoagie (Caine), a charter pilot who flew them to the islands.

Again, in the movie, Hoagie Newcombe is a bit of a cipher, but in the novel he is an undercover DEA agent out to get revenge (double aha!) on some cartel bigwig who supplied the cocaine his daughter OD’d on. These same drug-runners are also trying to kill Hoagie, with his new found friends getting caught in the crossfire. And this concurrent subplot runs head on into the voodoo shark thread during the climax, when Mike, Hoagie and Jake fly to Ellen’s rescue while fighting with the drug kingpin in midair, who falls out of the plane and is promptly eaten by the shark. Again, sadly, none of this made it into the feature film. *sigh*

You know what else never really made it into the feature film? The shark, as JAWS: The Revenge has the lowest kill count in the franchise with the grand and sad total of only three people getting eaten. (There were five victims in JAWS, seven in JAWS 2, and eight in JAWS 3-D). Well, more like two and half. (More on this in a second.) Again, Searls’ writing does the big fish due justice, revealing it was the sole surviving offspring of the pregnant shark in JAWS 2, who was born the moment his mother was fried while chomping on the electric cable in another wild dramatic liberty taken twist.

Here, on film, despite Mike’s assertions that Great Whites don’t like warm water, the shark shows up while he and Jake are tagging and releasing more sea snails on the ocean floor. And while Mike barely survives a close encounter with the shark, engineering his escape by turning his oxygen tank into a underwater rocket, he swears Jake to secrecy, not wanting his already paranoid mother to find out about it. Jake agrees, and also thinks they should abandon the snails and study the shark, managing to tag it with a tracking device. But all of this comes back to bite him in the ass -- see what I did there?, on the day of his sculptress wife’s big unveiling, when Thea skips the festivities and goes for a ride on an inflatable pontoon with her friends, which comes under attack by the shark, who misses his intended target and destroys some innocent bystander instead.

With that, Ellen is convinced the shark is definitely out to get her family and decides to take it upon herself to end this blood feud once and for all. And so, she steals Mike’s boat and heads out to sea. When Mike sniffs this out, he rounds up Jake and Hoagie and they fly to the rescue, making an emergency water landing so they can swim over to the boat. The shark attacks and tries to eat the plane because -- hell, I don’t know. And while it’s distracted, the others make it to the boat safely.

And all of that brings us to our whackadoodle climax. Both of them. See, as originally shot, Jake kit-bashes together some kind of ultrasonic contraption that emits a frequency that makes the shark go bonkers. Like, BONKERS bonkers. This contraption is essentially two flashlights that blink at each other. Now, this design kinda has a fatal flaw, though, in that one of them must be attached to the shark for reception purposes -- I think. And since it was his idea, poor Jake crawls out to the end of the boom and manages to jam the contraption into the shark’s gaping maw before he just, kinda, sorta, falls into the beast’s mouth to be shredded. Why? I don’t know.

Now, it should be noted that this film came out way before footage showing Great Whites rocketing out of the water as they hunt for prey on YouTube, so it is a lot more plausible now than it was back in '87 for it to “jump” out of the water -- but not quite to the extent and angle and mid-air suspension shown in the film. Also, pretty sure sharks have no lungs and, therefore, cannot roar like this thing does whenever Mike flashes his light at it. And as Mike keeps firing and the shark keeps angrily breaking the surface, Ellen steers the boat on a crash-course and rams the splintered boom like a spear into the airborne shark, which vomits up a copious amount of blood as it thrashes and dies. But this weight and stress is too much for the boat, which cracks in half and sinks, taking the harpooned corpse with it, leaving the surviving Brodys to live happily ever after.

After JAWS: The Revenge hit theaters to critical skewering, audience mortification, and poor box office -- with a lot of venom pointed at that asinine ending, which I think is actually pretty great for all the wrong reasons, Universal quickly scrambled to try and fix it for the pending international release. The only problem was this fix actually turned out to be even more dumb and nonsensical than the original take as the shark still flies, it still roars, and it still gets impaled on the boom but then inexplicably transforms into the saddest looking miniature you will ever see and then explodes, not once, not twice, not thrice, but four freakin’ times.

I suppose there’s an argument to be made that Ellen, with her new mental powers, blew the shark up with her mind, which makes just as much sense as anything else at this point. And then, for some reason, this European version was used for all broadcast and home video releases of the film (-- except, inexplicably, for AMC). And so, imagine my surprise when I caught it on TV, having seen this in the theater, waiting with baited breath to see the shark fly, roar, and puke up blood and get that other ending instead. Boo, movie. I said, BOO! It got to the point where I began to question my own memory of the theatrical ending, as no one would believe me, until clips of it started popping up on YouTube and I was vindicated. Hooray!

Apparently, an offer was made to Roy Scheider to reprise his role of Martin Brody, destined to be killed in the first reel instead of Sean. His answer was something just south of “Hell no.” There was also a cameo written for Richard Dreyfuss, but he declined as well. And so, the only link to the other films was Lorraine Gary, who, in the realm of threads, circles and coincidences, had worked with Sargent before on the made for TV movie, The Marcus-Nelson Murders (1973), which served as the pilot for Kojak (1973-1978); and apparently, Spielberg saw her in the telefilm, which went along way in her being cast in JAWS

Speaking of JAWS, one nice little touch I did notice was the presence of Lee Fierro at the Brody house in Amity after Sean is killed. If you remember, Fierro played Mrs. Kintner in the original film, whose son, Alex, was also killed by a shark. It’s a throwaway moment, mostly stunt casting, I’d wager, but I got a little more empathy out of that than the filmmaker had probably intended. It should also be noted that Gary was married to Sheinberg this whole time and this whole thing might be construed as a vanity project for his wife. If so, he kinda blew it. Gary is fine, but the script and plot holes do her no favors and her scenes with Caine kinda clunk and clunk pretty badly. 

As for the rest of the cast, the usually affable Lance Guest comes off as a bit of a crabby pants. But Mario Van Peebles appears to be having a lot of fun, and audiences appeared to have liked his character, as well; so much so one of the other big changes in the international cut was to have Jake miraculously survive the experience of being a shark’s chew toy. (And the call of ‘Oh,bullshit!’ on that one is mighty indeed.) 

Meh. I'm sure he'll be fine. 

Oh, hey, now, wouldjalookatthat. 

I also have to raise my hand in guilt for hoping the precocious Thea would also be eaten. And the guilt comes from digging into the tragic history of Judith Barsi, a young actress suffering from a congenital birth defect that stunted her growth and made the twelve year old appear to be five. Known mostly for commercials, she appeared ready to break out, especially in voice-over work in animation, where she voiced the character of Ducky in The Land Before Time (1988) and Anne-Marie in All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989). Sadly, both of these credits would be posthumous as after years of emotional and psychological abuse from her deranged father, Barsi fell victim to a murder-suicide when he shot and killed her, her mother and then burned the bodies before turning the gun on himself two days later.

And to brighten things up a bit after that downer, let us now turn our attention to Michael Caine, who famously quipped that he never saw JAWS: The Revenge, saying, “By all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built and it is terrific.” The actor was paid $1.5 million for seven days of work. Thus, his schedule was so tight he was unable to attend the Academy Awards that year where he won an Oscar for his supporting role in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) due to those re-shoots to fix the ending. Still, Caine took in stride: “Won an Oscar, built a house, and had a great holiday. Not bad for a flop movie."

As for the shark F/X, like everything else, they fail miserably -- though I would say they are endearingly awful in concept and execution. There is one fairly decent sequence, where Mike must play cat and mouse (shark and chum?) with the alpha predator by taking refuge in a sunken, rusted out freighter on the seabed. It was fairly ambitious but was ultimately betrayed by the shortcomings of the prop shark. The current state of animatronics allowed for a more articulated mock-up, sure, but it has not aged well. And throughout the movie there are myriad examples of hoses and mechanical guts of the prop that are in plain view. It’s almost as if they gave up trying to hide them as things progressed and said to hell with it. Again, the prop and mock-ups are pretty dire but it wasn’t helped by what the script and Sargent called on them to do at all.

Thus, as schlock, JAWS: The Revenge excels most mightily when it's focusing on the shark but as I said the shark is remarkably absent for the majority of the picture and so it just cannot compensate for a plot that doesn’t hold water and makes no sense. “Sharks don’t take things personally, Mr. Brody,” said the marine biologist in JAWS 2 while examining the whale carcass, where the whole notion of this vendetta plot was probably born. And there it probably should have died, too, based on the empirical evidence: the fact that it is now some thirty years later and we still haven’t seen JAWS 5. Thus and so, JAWS: The Revenge has the dubious honor of not only being the worst film in the franchise, but also serves as the film that officially killed the franchise.

Welcome to the Celluloid Zeroes first ever Franchise Kill: 

And lets not forget the knock-offs:

JAWS: The Revenge (1987) Universal Pictures / P: Joseph Sargent / AP: Frank Baur / D: Joseph Sargent / W: Michael de Guzman, Peter Benchley / C: John McPherson / E: Michael Brown / M: Michael Small / S: Lorraine Gary, Lance Guest, Michael Caine, Mario Van Peebles, Karen Young, Judith Barsi, Lynn Whitfield, Mitchell Anderson


Unknown said...

Thank you my friend for viewing this and relating it here on your blog, so I won't have to ever see it. Plus, here's a guilty admission.....I kind of like Jaws 3-D....I thought Bess Armstrong was kind of hot.

W.B. Kelso said...

I was actually hoping to get Part 3-D so I could defend it. Quaid and Armstrong are so great in it. The F/X are awful, but I dig it a whole lot. Best sequel, but that ain't saying a whole lot. I also wanted to review it so I could unleash "I wonder if Manimal tastes like everything joke?" But my friend Bryan wanted to review for most of the same reasons so I set my sights on this piece of shark poop.

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