It’s time to bid a moist farewell to another Shark Week… and with it, my goofy little theme of alternative shark programming (which began with an ode to the gloriously awful SyFy opus GHOST SHARK and a re-examination of JAWS 2 from a slasher fan’s perspective). But I’m not going down without a fight… even if it’s a totally lame fight to raise awareness for one of the all-around stupidest sea monster movies ever made.
That’s right — decades before the folks at SyFy (in an unholy alliance with B-movie mogul Roger Corman) blessed us with a few hundred increasingly-insane variants of giant marine mutants munching various folks, studios all around the world (but mostly in Italy) were cranking out a wide assortment of JAWS knock-offs while that killer-shark franchise was still holding its own in theaters (and before JAWS: THE REVENGE effectively dragged the franchise to a watery grave).
One of the latecomers to this party is a 1984 French/Italian co-production originally known as SHARK: RED OCEAN, a.k.a. ROSSO NELL’OCEANO, or by the inordinately classy French title APOCALYPSE DANS L’OCEAN ROUGE… but fans of beloved cult TV show MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 know this one by its US video release title: DEVILFISH. They also remember Mike, Tom Servo and Crow laying into this stinky butt-nugget of a movie for its lame monster effects, badly dubbed actors and complete lack of continuity, logic or sense.
But another dedicated niche of genre fandom should appreciate some of MONSTER SHARK’s cheeseball charm: I’m talking about fans of ‘80s Italian horror and exploitation cinema.
Nearly everyone involved here — both in front of and behind the camera — is an icon of ‘80s Euro-horror, fantasy, sci-fi and more: familiar faces include Michael Sopkiw (2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK) and Dagmar Lassander (THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY). Director Lamberto Bava, son of horror legend Mario Bava (adopting the pseudonym “John Old, Jr.”) would helm the horror classic DEMONS the very next year. There’s even a smooth, porno-jazz-style score by prolific composer Fabio Frizzi (ZOMBIE, THE BEYOND).
How then, with all this impressive talent on deck, did MONSTER SHARK veer so far off-course?
Maybe it was the fact that the budget was ridiculously inadequate for such an ambitious aquatic monster-fest; perhaps, story-wise, it was a case of waaaay too many cooks (the credits list no less than six writers, including STARCRASH director Luigi Cozzi, TORSO director Sergio Martino, and THE BEYOND writer Dardano Sacchetti). I’m guessing it was a combination of both. I suspect cocaine was also heavily involved… but then again, it was the ‘80s.
Somehow, these experienced filmmakers and actors managed to turn an otherwise simple giant-monster-on-the-rampage flick into a tangled mess of subplots involving organized crime, skeevy sex and secret gene-splicing experiments — none of which fit together with any coherence whatsoever. But I’ll try my best to summarize it without giving myself an aneurism or something.
Our story takes place in and around an unnamed Florida beach community, where tourists, fishers and even Coast Guard crews are being messily devoured by a giant predator sporting the jaws of a prehistoric proto-shark and the tentacles of a giant octopus.
Oceanographer Stella Dickens (Valentine Monnier) and her constantly drunk colleague Bob (Lawrence Morgant) believe they can help local police track down the mystery monster — but to accomplish this, they need the skills of studly electrical engineer Peter (Sopkiw) and marine biologist Janet Bates (Darla Warner) to identify the creature and track it with sophisticated electronics.
What our heroes fail to realize is that the monster is the product of some rogue gene-splicing experiment at the World Oceanic Institute (WOI, y’all!). The institute’s director, Dr. West (William Berger), is apparently so obsessed with pure research that his professional rival Davis (Paul Branco) is able to steal his data and his wife (Lassander) from right under his nose… for no logical reason, apparently, other than the story needed a soap opera-style villain or something. Hell, I don’t even know.
Barker’s attempts to cover up his connection to the runaway experiment involve hiring a beefy psychotic thug to eliminate all witnesses (as one does, I suppose), and since that means nearly half the characters in this film, he’s putting in some overtime on this one.
By the time we reach the film’s final third (I can’t really call it “Act III,” since there’s no real plot structure here), the monster and the hitman have managed to wipe out nearly the entire cast.
At this point, it seems like Bava and company suddenly realized they’d run out of money and needed to wrap shit up pronto — so the surviving heroes abruptly trap the beast in the Everglades, douse half the county with gasoline and cut loose with flamethrowers. Problem solved, I guess?
Oh, and Davis’s inane scheme is finally discovered, he’s promptly shot dead, and everyone lives happily ever… wait, scratch that; I think only Peter and Stella are left alive by the final freeze-frame (sharing a goofy smile befitting a ‘70s cop show).
That’s the “plot,” such as it is… but really, you’ll hardly notice it. Instead, MONSTER SHARK ditches little inconveniences like coherent storytelling in order to deliver on the promise of its title, introducing audiences to the cinematic grandfather of SHARKTOPUS and every other cheap CGI-heavy sea monster saga.
Remember all those tales from the making of JAWS about how often “Bruce” the mechanical shark broke down, forcing Spielberg to rethink his approach? Born of necessity, that less-is-more tactic nevertheless turned out to be the correct cinematic choice. The makers of MONSTER SHARK really should’ve taken that lesson to heart, because their title creature is one of the goofiest monsters ever depicted on screen: spherical, inarticulate and clunky, the beast resembles a giant, toothy meatball — and looks even less threatening.
There appeared to have been at least two creature models constructed for the film: the smaller full-body version, which trails tentacles behind it, is wisely concealed by the murky waters… but whenever it surfaces, the filmmakers switch to a hilarious full-size head, which looks like a cross between Pac-Man and a snapping turtle.
With that said, there are actually one or two effective attack scenes involving the monster’s massive, groping tentacles — manipulated much the same way as the giant squid in Disney’s 1954 adaptation of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.
But let’s be honest: nobody’s watching MONSTER SHARK for scares or suspense. After all, there’s a good reason the DEVILFISH episode of MST3K is considered by many fans to be one of the most hilarious in the show’s history.
Working from a television edit of the film (which thankfully omits two rape-murders committed by the sadistic thug) Mike and the ‘bots primarily tear into the movie’s numerous continuity issues (“Just because you can edit, doesn’t mean you should”), atrocious post-dubbing of the American, French and Italian actors (“Of course I am American and not European — I drive a truck!”), and of course the unbelievable cheesiness of the creature effects (“Something vague this way comes”).
As much as I adore cheesy low-budget monster movies and ‘80s Italian exploitation cinema, I have to admit that the MST3K version is really the only way to truly appreciate the insanity that is MONSTER SHARK, or DEVILFISH if you prefer. A few beers (or something stronger) wouldn’t hurt either.