Welcome to month 2 of Movie Monthly, devoting a whole month of film reviews to whatever subject happens to tickle my fancy. Most of the time that also ends up paralleling a popular release or upcoming movie and this month we’ve hit the double. Firstly this year marks the 40th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s redefining classic Jaws but also, this week marks the start of the longest running cable TV event: Shark Week. So to celebrate this double dose of shark I’m devoting the entire month of July to Terrors from the Deep, it’s going to be all ocean horror all the time though not simply limited to sharks because that’s actually a pretty shallow well. To start things off we’re going to look at a movie I actually saw in theaters when it came out; Shark Night 3D.
Shark Night 3D came out during Labor Day weekend of 2011 to extremely mild fanfare and luke warm to poor reviews before slipping out of collective and counter-cultural consciousness. For the most part I get why that’s the case, Shark Night 3D is a pretty basic film all things considered and that’s especially true of the set-up. The basic outline of the film is horror simplicity itself, the kind of arch storytelling that Joss Whedon would parody so well less than a year later in his horror meta-comedy Cabin in the Woods. A group of college students head to a remote cabin in the wilderness for a weekend of partying that goes inevitably wrong.
The cast is basically every motley crew of horror clichés you’ve ever joked about: athlete, nerd, stoner, sweet girl, promiscuous girl, committed relationship chick, and a promiscuous guy to round things out. There’s a few stabs at newness for the formula like making the athlete character a black guy with a Latina girlfriend or having the required promiscuous blonde character be a guy rather than a girl but it’s ultimately all very stock. The most unique and innovative aspect of the film comes with the twist it puts on its central horror gimmick. Rather than simply pitting the partiers against sharks the idea here is that a cadre of local bayou and lake folk have set the sharks loose upon the college students for their own fiendish ends.
You might be wondering why I chose to showcase a movie that sounds, for the most part, so incredibly bland and basic. Well, in a shocking twist of my own, I actually thoroughly enjoy Shark Night 3D to the point that it’s actually one of my favorite shark films. A big part of this is how much I appreciate the unique blend of trashy competence Shark Night 3D is sporting. This is an importance distinction I find a lot of people tend to miss in trashy media consumption and a big part of why I’ll probably never showcase any SyFy original features on Movie Monthly. It’s not enough for a film to simply sport a whacky concept thrown together with jazz hands and exactly no effort. Movies like Sharknado or Aztec Rex, are ultimately just more fun to say than they actually are to watch given how low budget they are because they’re the kind of nonsensical joke premises that are more fun to say than to see spun out over 90 minutes. With Shark Night 3D, despite the archness of the characters and central plot the writing, acting, and directing are all well enough that it actually makes for an engaging 90 minutes without needing to just be a protracted joke to do it.
A lot of this comes down to willingness to engage with media, a lot of the time when watching a movie or a TV show that seems ridiculous from the outset there’s a strong temptation to resist the film’s attempts at sincere character development. Again the character development in Shark Night 3D isn’t any deeper than your average kiddie pool but it’s there and if you aren’t busy mocking the characters clichéd personas you’ll find the acting and writing actually make them pretty enjoyable.
They aren’t engaging but that’s not their job, at least not in the kind of film Shark Night 3D sets out to be. Shark Night doesn’t want to engage you with its characters that’s what the premise and gimmicky CG are for, the characters whole job is to be fun to hang out with and good enough people that you don’t want them to die. They all do that very well here, especially given that Shark Night 3D never falls into the trap of a lot of stock horror films by focusing on the characters partying.
Aside from the solid quality of the film’s directing, acting, and pacing the other aspect of Shark Night 3D that’s so endearing is that gimmicky premise of combining ‘creepy backwoods folk horror’ with ‘shark horror.’ Part of this comes from the fact that sharks honestly don't work very well for horror. Yes, I like Jaws too, but having now watched a heroic amount of shark films in preparation for this month I can confidentially say it’s an outlier not a trendsetter. The nature of sharks as monsters means their environment is pretty static and limited and there are only so many times you can see the shot of a shark POV hunting a victim before it gets boring. The monsters of the deep are much more affecting villains in splatter flicks like Shark Night 3D or Deep Blue Sea, where the emphasis is on their deadly and destructive nature similar to that of the Predator or the Xenomorph.
What’s more combining sharks with backwoods killers actually helps to enliven both subgenres as they’re honestly pretty tired on their own. Ultimately though a lot of this just comes down to delivery and Shark Night 3D really works in this respect. Chris Carmack is a solid choice for the main villain with just how normal and ruggedly handsome he actually looks. In a different movie you’d expect his character to be the one to save the day or at least help the nerdy hero save it but flipping his domineering, backwater alpha swimmer persona as the villain is a nice change-up. It actually reminds me of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3: Leatherface, which cast Vigo Mortensen as one of its lead villains.
However it’s Donal Logue as the corrupt lake sheriff who really sells the movie. Logue is a great television character actor who’s recently gotten some well deserved big breaks on Vikings and Gotham and he really brings his A-game to Shark Night 3D. There’s an entire extended sequence where he explains the reason behind the shark infested waters to a captured hero that makes the movie almost a must watch. The reasoning, for the record, is that they’ve attached cameras to the various sharks and have begun selling the attack footage online to people who don’t think Shark Week is gory enough (yes, the event is name dropped.)
It’s a dynamite scene that walks the perfect line of being goofily enjoyable while still threatening. It’s almost the entire film in microcosm: fun and exuberant more trying to tell a fun action adventure with some of the trappings and artifice of horror rather than scare you. There’s also a strong sense that the film knows what it is and wants to have fun with that fact in the idea of the villain’s whole motivation being to provide grizzly shark deaths for gore hounds.
Shark Night 3D isn’t going to change anyone’s life but it’s a fun shark flick that knows what it is, and that’s a B-Movie. It’s very much cut from the same cloth as Pumpkinhead or Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, something that knows its own limitations and seeks more to be enjoyable within its own arena more than anything else. If you’re in the right frame of mind for an off the horror flick with a lot of heart and energy poured into its own existence I recommend giving it a look.