Steven Spielberg’s 1975 mega hit Jaws changed the cinematic landscape in more ways than one. From bringing the audiences into theatres at the height of summer, to the way films were marketed, its legacy is undeniably significant. Its success not only spawned a streak of ever worsening sequels, but also inspired other filmmakers to have a stab at the killer shark genre, creating an array of cheap rip offs that shamelessly rode on the coattails of Jaws’ colossal success. While only a few of these copycat projects are truly worth a watch, and none really live up to the craftsmanship of Jaws, they do offer a unique little window to a time in filmmaking when little things like copyright violation was not something that everyone worried about. Some of these projects went quietly under the radar, while others made waves that resulted in repercussions lasting for decades. Either way, they make for an intriguing little corner of aquatic cinema history that deserves a closer look.

The most notable of these rip-off projects is undoubtedly Enzo G. Castellari’s L’ultimo Squalo (1981), also known as The Last Shark, Shark, Great White and Jaws Returns. On its release, the film enjoyed considerable success in Europe. The critics might have not loved it, but the audiences did. They wanted more of the same thrills than Jaws had offered and L’ultimo Squallo’s dramatic promo materials certainly suggested to provide just that. It was indeed big enough draw to become the 72nd highest-grossing film of the 1980–1981 season in Italy. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a producer/distributer by the name of Edward L. Montoro was looking for the next big hit for his production/distribution company Film Ventures International (FVI). FVI dealt mostly with low budget B-films and exploitation cinema but had also had a bona fide hit with its 1976 animal horror Grizzly (a Jaws rip-off on dry land). Wanting to keep cashing on the nature-gone-wild sub-genre, Montoro was more than happy to make his acquaintance with Castellari’s shark feature and after buying the U.S. distribution rights and sinking $4 million on promotion, L’ultimo Squalo saw its American theatrical release in 1982 under the name Great White. Just as it was in Europe, a story of a man hungry great white brought the audiences in, and the film made a whopping $18 million in its first month. However, unfortunately for Montoro and FVI, it also attracted a different kind of attention. Making a film about a killer bear that bared a passing resemblance to Jaws was one thing, but to bring out a film that so blatantly copied Spielberg’s vision was not something that Universal Pictures was just going to ignore. The studio quickly and successfully filed a lawsuit claiming plagiarism, resulting in L’ultimo Squalo being removed from U.S. theatres.

The story of L’ultimo Squalo takes place in imaginatively named coastal town of Port Harbor, where we are thrown straight into action with a young windsurfer getting fatally attacked by a great white. Author Peter Benton (played by James Franciscus, the character’s name bearing more than slight resemblance to the name of Jaws author Peter Benchley) and a professional shark hunter Ron Hamer’s (Vic Morrow doing a lazy impression of Robert Shaw as Quint) alarm bells starts ringing when they see the damage done to the poor surfer’s board but convincing the local authorities about the imminent threat is another kettle of fish altogether. In their way stands ambitious mayor William Wells (Joshua Sinclair) who for some reason is under the impression that the key element to his campaign to become a state governor is making sure that the local wind surfing regatta goes ahead as planned. As one might guess, it is these ambitions that end up having fatal consequences for the residents of Port Harbor, as well as offering the murderous fish a smorgasbord of tasty treats. In the end, it is up to Benton and Hamer to get rid of the monster.

Try as it may, L’ultimo Squalo never gets anywhere near the brilliance of Jaws. It lacks any meaningful character development or even a decent plot. It does not take time to build any kind of tension but rather jumps straight in the middle of full-blown shark hysteria, never to recover from it. In fact, most of the film’s running time is spend following someone or other trying to hunt down the shark, some with better worked out plans than others. The shark in question is also the stiffest specimen of marine life ever seen on the silver screen. It mostly makes its appearance by bobbing its head above the water and growling at its intended victims, as well as occasionally moving horizontally across the water with its head held stiffly in position, making for some very peculiar shark behaviour. But at least the shark with all its rigidity is in good company, as the good people of Port Harbor are just as stiff as its adversary. Indeed, one of the best scenes of the film includes the shark sending a small motorboat flying in the air and with it, its occupant, possessing all the grace and elasticity of a department story mannequin.

All that being said, L’ultimo Squalo is actually rather entertaining package. It may be a rip-off of the most flagrant variety, but that does not diminish the enjoyment one gets out of it. The ludicrous decisions the characters make, the fantastically bad special effects (although it must be said that they are not all bad, and the mechanical shark does have its moments, albeit few and far between), and glaringly obvious continuity errors make for a very fun watch indeed. There is also a certain amount of enjoyment to be had from spotting all the little things that the filmmakers have directly borrowed from Jaws. These not only include the characters of Benton, Hammer, and the ignorant mayor Wells, but several scenes that are almost carbon copies of the original. If there ever was a film made for a drinking game bingo, L’ultimo Squalo would be it.

Albeit the most notable of the Jaws copycats, L’ultimo Squalo was not the first to rip-off the film in such a striking manner. In 1977 an Italian-American production titled Tentacoli, or Tentacles, hit the cinema screens with terrors of slimier type. As the title would suggest this maritime romp directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis features a giant octopus as the main antagonist, wreaking havoc in the seaside community of Solona Beach. It turns out that the angry octopod has been driven into a man killing frenzy by experimental high frequencies used in an underwater tunnel construction. For some reason the task of getting rid of this monster is left for a marine expert and killer whale trainer Will Gleason (Bo Hopkins), an investigative journalist Ned Turner (John Huston), as well as Gleason’s wife Vicky (Delia Boccardo) and Turner’s sister Tillie (Shelley Winters).

While not a FVI product or release, Tentacoli does link back to Mr. Montoro and his company. Assonitis had entered the world of directing in 1974 with another rip-off project called Chi sei?, or Beyond the Door (1974). It follows a San Francisco housewife whose pregnancy gets more than a little uncomfortable when she finds herself possessed by a demonic force. It rather lazily, but noticeably, mimics William Friedkin’s 1973 classic The Exorcist and while it is not the most blatant of copies, the similarities were enough for Warner Bros to sue the film’s producers/distributors Film Ventures International for copyright infringements. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, as the judge did not find the films similar enough, and Montoro was free to go on and bring the horror of L’ultimo Squalo to American audiences. However, it was this encounter with the courts that gave him the confidence to get behind such project: if the courts have thrown out the case against Chi sei?, surely L’ultimo Squalo would be no different? How wrong he was…

In the light of these lawsuits, it is somewhat baffling how Tentacoli never got the same kind of attention in American courts.It borrows heavily from Jaws, almost as heavily as L’ultimo Squalo, including mimicking some of its scenes to a staggering degree. Unfortunately, it has forgotten to rip-off the most important part of the film: an actual plot. It’s true that you do not get to see the titular tentacles properly until toward the end of the film, but unlike Jaws, this does not create anticipation but rather frustration. The story drags on in an incredibly lethargic fashion, making you lose interest way before anything resembling an octopod makes an appearance. With a cast like Huston and Winters, one could expect something a bit more substantial, but unfortunately any actual acting talent attached to this project gets lost in its bumbling execution.

Then there is the beast itself. The promotional material promises us a mighty kraken, rising from the depths to take down unlucky swimmers and ocean liners alike. However, what we really get is a stiff, plastic octopus whose size changes numerous times during the film. One minute it is depicted a normal sized octopus (albeit a big one), the next it is a giant monster a size of a house, making it impossible to get an accurate sense of what kind of monster are we are actually dealing with. The few special effects scenes that the film does have, are edited together with footage of actual real-life octopuses and unsurprisingly the two do not match in any shape or form. This all makes for an array of continuity errors, as well as very dull and disappointing monster action, ultimately leaving Tentacoli at the more tedious end of the rip-off spectrum.

As Tentacoli made its slimy appearance in the theatres, so did another project often cited as a Jaws copy:  René Cardona Jr.’s 1977 Tintorera (also known as Tintorera: Killer Shark). The poster art and the alternative title of this Mexican-British co-production would have you believe that it is yet another film about a murderous elasmobranch, and yes, a bloodthirsty tiger shark does indeed make a few brief appearances in the story. However, this is not so much a film about a shark, as it is about two polyamorous friends, Steven (Hugo Stiglitz) and Miguel (Andrés García), who are searching for the perfect lady to join their lusty love triangle. The two friends also happen to be semi-professional shark hunters, but that is beside the point. While their amorous escapades are on occasion interrupted by underwater adventures where sharks may or may not play a minor part, most of the story is dedicated to their various romantic encounters. The film culminated in Miguel dying in a shark attack and Steve taking revenge by going on a shark hunting frenzy and eventually exploding the fish that killed his lover/friend. Tintorera, alongside films like Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976), is not so much a Jaws copy, as it is just another film that came out in the post-Jaws killer animal cycle.  The fact that it happens to have some brief scenes with sharks is assumably the reason why it often gets mentioned in this context, though ultimately it is a film about a lustful love-triangle with a tragic ending.

But that wasn’t it for 1977. The July of 77 brought the audiences yet another specimen of marine life that was after human blood: Michael Anderson’s Orca. It is often referred to as “Just another Jaws rip-off”, but to do so is somewhat myopic. Yes, it certainly surfed on the same wave of Jaws mania as other aforementioned films, and yes, both films feature a marine animal on a murderous rampage, but a closer (well, not that much closer) look of Orca reveals it to have more in common with vigilante films such as Death Wish (1974, incidentally, like Orca, also produced by Dino De Laurentiis) or Vigilante (1982). Richard Harris plays a semi-illiterate Captain Nolan, whose botched attempt of capturing a live orca turn his life into a living nightmare when the dead orca’s mate begins to stalk him with revenge on his mind. In a side role we have Charlotte Rampling as Dr. Rachel Bedford, a resident whale “expert”, whose knowledge on the titular creatures is anecdotal at best. Together they make a truly terrible team. Terrible for orcas, and terrible for anyone around them.

In all its ludicrous glory, Orca is a perfectly entertaining piece of exploitation. The concept of vengeful whale on its own is not too tough to swallow, after all the same premise is familiar from numerous other nature-gone-bad films. It is more the fact that this particular orca’s intelligence boarders more on the side of actual knowledge. For example, he is not only able to deduct how to cause a massive fire on the docks, but also to induce a chain reaction that leads to complete destruction of the local oil refinery. This together with the film’s constant effort to over explain everything, and the fact that the orca is in fact the hero of the story, unfortunately takes away from any potential scare power the film might have had. It does not, however, take away from the enjoyment of watching this vengeful mammal take its elaborate revenge. 

As is the case with any film cycles, the nature-gone-bad genre too eventually petered out and with it, the Jaws copies. However, for some inexplicable reason, in 1995 a full eight years after the final instalment of the actual Jaws franchise, another rip-off project appeared on the scene in the form of Cruel Jaws. Behind this stroke of genius was Bruno Mattei, a man better known for his exploits in the women-in-prison subgenre, but also no stranger to copycat projects. In 1988 and 1989 he had already directed a rip-off of John McTiernan’s Predator (1987) titled Robowar, as well as a film named Shocking Dark, that was advertised as a rip-off of James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) but had in fact more in common with Cameron’s other hit movie, Aliens (1986). With these two and countless other exploitation titles under his belt, Mattei certainly was the right man for this job, taking the idea of benefitting from someone else’s success to whole other level. Mattei was not satisfied by simply ripping off the best of the best but did in fact do something quite unprecedented and ripped off a rip-off! In other words, Cruel Jaws is not exactly a direct copy of Spielberg’s classic maritime romp (despite having the title Jaws 5 in certain regions), but a rehashing of the infamous L’ultimo squalo.

The plot is of course eerily similar to its predecessors, with a coastal town of Hampton Bay being attacked by 25-foot tiger shark. With the annual regatta on the cards, the towns people need to find a solution to the newly found shark problem fast before any more people die, and perhaps more importantly, before the local tourism business goes down the drain.

As a copycat project, Cruel Jaws is in a league of its own. Not only are there glaring similarities between the scripts, but it also outright uses footage from both L’ultimo squalo and Jaws. The scenes from the former are the most brazen ones with the film’s famous helicopter scene being used with not even a hint of shame. Footage of the oh so familiar rubber shark bobbing along the waves makes for especially amusing viewing as the killer fish in this feature was meant to be a tiger shark, not a great white. The footage from Jaws is not quite as obvious as it is not of Bruce, but rather some of the stock footage of real-life sharks, but while it’s source may not be instantly recognisable, the footage stands out from the rest of the film in a way that makes it glaringly obvious that it was not filmed for this project.

Unsurprisingly Cruel Jaws ran into legal trouble almost immediately after its release and was largely forgotten for the next couple of decades. It has, however, maintained a small cult following over the years and as of 2020 it is finally available on Blu-ray and DVD curtesy of Severin Films.

Cruel Jaws might be last of the more blatant Jaws rip-offs, but the legacy of the Spielberg’s mega hit and its children certainly still lives on. The world has moved on from a simple shark harassing the people of quiet coastal towns, but no matter what form the fearsome fish takes, we cannot escape the fact that behind them all lurks one summer blockbuster. While the bastard offspring of Jaws may have not offered the world quite the same cinematic thrills as their source material, in their own clumsy, rubbery way they nevertheless helped to reinforce its legacy.

Sources:

‘The Last Shark’ The Most Audacious Jaws Rip-ff Ever Made. From The Daily Jaws. December 15, 2021. https://thedailyjaws.com/blog/2021/12/15/the-last-shark-the-most-audacious-jaws-rip-off-ever-made

Smith, Jeremy. Great White, The Great Jaws Rip-Off. From Birth. Movies. Death. September 15. 2014. https://birthmoviesdeath.com/2014/09/15/great-white-the-great-jaws-rip-off