Shark Movies Have Been a Horror Staple Since the 70’s and the Water is Getting More Dangerous
If there’s one thing I love, it’s a great shark movie. Who doesn’t love the fear and suspense of something lurking just below the surface of the water where you can’t see? That is some great horror build up. But we’ve been doing the shark thing for a while now, haven’t we? Just think about it — we’ve been chumming the movie waters since the 70’s and it doesn’t look like Hollywood will be slowing down any time soon.
So what is it about shark movies that keep us going back for more? What about them really drives us into theatres time and time again? Let’s be real — most of them aren’t even that good. But there is something dark, something visceral, and something deeply compelling about portraying sharks as vicious killing machines. It stirs a primal fear inside us that keeps us glued to our seats.
It all Began with Bruce
Who doesn’t love Jaws? I watch it every year or so because honestly, the suspense is so good — even if it wasn’t Spielberg’s original vision. See, the plan was to have the shark appear much more frequently in the film, but unfortunately, it kept breaking down. Yet it’s the lack of shark I (and most audiences) find so compelling. It’s the terror of the unknown that festers deep inside you and becomes a gnawing fear that lasts throughout the movie. In fact, Jaws was such an incredible success, it became the first-ever summer blockbuster and set the playbook for blockbusters all the way through to today.
With that sort of history, you can see why sharks became so popular. Jaws really set the stage for the endless ocean of shark movies to follow. Not that many came close, mind you, because one of the largest swaths of shark movie territory is filled with low budget B-grade movies.
Terrible, Amazing B-Grade Movies
Now, I am a huge fan of B-grade monster movies. Sharks are no exception, and I’ve seen so many it’s almost embarrassing. Honestly, I have a few favorites. Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, for instance, because it takes itself incredibly seriously…while the shark does things like launch out of the water and grab an airplane out of the sky. It’s so darned great, I almost didn’t put it on the “terrible, amazing” list in favor of dropping it into “legitimately good movies.” But it’s not legitimately good. It’s terrible — and you should watch it anyways.
But it doesn’t stop there. There is a pretty wide variety of shark vs anything movies. Not to mention all the others like Avalanche Sharks (ghost sharks in snow — not kidding), Ghost Sharks (what is it with ghosts and sharks?), Two-Headed Shark Attack (spoiler alert: there is no explanation for why it has two heads), Raging Sharks (aka Space Sharks), Sharktopus (yes, this is a real movie), Dinoshark (which is even more made-up than Sharktopus). Okay, yeah. That’s, um…a lot. I have seen all of these, and most of them — if you like a lot of terrible camp in your films — are worth it. Mostly, however, they are an excuse to put cute girls in bikinis and throw them into the water to die. Which, I mean, fair enough?
But there is a series that stands out for its strangeness, even among titles like Avalanche Sharks, and that is Sharknado. They had so much success combining terrifying midwestern weather and sharks that they made four more of them. Because why not? I have to admit, I’ve only watched the first three and my honest opinion is that they sometimes try a little too hard to be terrible. But other than that, it’s a good sharking time and just a silly as you expect it to be.
But these masterpieces aside, there actually are a couple of really good shark movies that followed after Jaws — and none of them were sequels (maybe don’t bother with the Jaws sequels — you’re welcome).
The Big, The Bad, The Ugly
I will admit to liking three shark movies almost as much as Jaws — almost. Only three have really hit that pinnacle of the gripping, lasting horrors of the deep. The first of those is Open Water. This one is more because of the fear of being abandoned in the middle of the ocean, though — the sharks are an added bonus. Getting stranded at sea is a horrifying concept all by itself. But to then find yourself surrounded by great numbers of mako sharks? NOPE. Sure, they aren’t great whites, but death by a thousand cuts would be a pretty brutal way to go.
Deep Blue Sea is another that I really enjoy. The pacing and suspense are good, and once again it’s the problem of being trapped at sea with no hope of rescue that really sells this for me. When you’re dealing with genetically engineered super sharks, things go bad quick. Not to mention the fact that Samuel L. Jackson has one of the best deaths of any movie ever. Hands down.
Then there is Bait. Okay, I have to admit it, this one is a B-grade movie. But we’ve already established that I love terrible horror movies, so this shouldn’t surprise you. But bear with me here: the freak tsunami premise is a fresh look at the shark genre that we really haven’t had before (this is me trying to shamelessly justify my choice to put Bait on this list). Not only that, but a bunch of victims — I mean, survivors, clinging to supermarket shelves in hopes of avoiding death is pretty darn great. There is a lot of suspension of disbelief required for this one, but it’s a good time if you like ridiculous horror movies like I do. If you’re looking for a very serious shark movie, maybe pick one of the two above. This one is just a great time.
Why is the Water So Full of Sharks?
There are many reasons we love to make sharks the villains of movies — and why I like seeing them in movies. The ocean is not our world. We couldn’t survive there, even if we wanted to. It’s inhospitable and full of things that could very easily kill us. In fact, we know more about space than we do about our own oceans (which is pretty wild when you think about it). This makes oceans in and of themselves pretty terror-inducing — but add in a creature which can grow to be over 3 meters long and has rows and rows of razor-sharp teeth? No wonder people get scared. We have an obsession with the unknown, and sharks dominate a world we know almost nothing about and is totally unlivable for us.
Sharks are very easy to cast as murder machines because millions of years of evolution have made them just that. But the good news is, human really isn’t on the menu. While their spookiness factor may be off the charts, and I very much understand why, now I need to talk a little bit about sharks themselves.
The Truth About Sharks
See, these movies give sharks a really bad rep. Imagine if every couple of years someone made a movie telling people you were a murderer. It would probably make people pretty nervous to be around you, right? If Helen over in HR had a movie come out every year that told me she was going to brutally murder people, I’d be taking the long route to the copy machine to avoid her door every day. Wouldn’t you? Well, that’s kind of what has happened with sharks. “But Chelsea, they are killing machines. Look at those teeth!” you might be saying. But what if I told you that you were two times more likely to be killed by bees than to ever be bitten by a shark?
You have a 1 in 5 million chance of dying to bees. But sharks? Only 1 in 11.5 million chance of even being attacked — and many of those aren’t fatal (according to the University of Florida’s shark attack file — yes, they keep one of those). You are also 3,800 times more likely to get struck by lightning at some point in your life (the odds are 1 in 3000). And most importantly, you are 10,000 times more likely to drown than to ever be bitten by a shark (1 in 1,124)! Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water — you shouldn’t, water isn’t safe.
Look, movies make sharks seem terrifying, and they can be. Anything that big that has that many teeth is going to make you nervous. I’m equally as nervous of bears. But just like much of the natural world, if you leave sharks alone, most of the time they aren’t going to bother you. And when you hear something like “we’ve decided to kill sharks to protect swimmers,” maybe put in a good word for the sharks.
So please, enjoy The Meg — I personally can’t wait. But remember this: sharks aren’t all murder machines. It’s mostly just movie magic.