Tintorera: Killer Shark is a Mexican production from 1977, alternatively titled Tintorera. Directed by René Cardona Jr., it is adapted from the oceanography novel Tintorera by underwater photographer and filmmaker, Ramón Bravo. Originally a professional swimmer, representing his country in the 1948 Olympics, Bravo took to diving and devotemond his career to the study of sharks. In addition to contributing to the script for Tintorera, all of the underwater scenes in the film were recorded by Bravo himself.
Bravo’s book details his discovery – when he acted as the diving guide for Jacques Cousteau – of the sleeping sharks within the underwater caves surrounding Isla Mujeres in the Caribbean. Though the term tintorera is used in Spanish to describe both the tiger shark and blue shark, as well as referring largely to female sharks, Bravo’s book references his study of the tiger shark in particular, specifically larger specimens. This was the reason – aided surely by the unusual pulpy, animated cover of the book – for its appeal as the source text for Cardona Jr.’s film.
The film lifts little directly from the book itself and is something entirely different. Taking its inspiration from the monster movies of the 1970s, and influenced greatly by the success of the cinematic adaptation of Jaws (1975), based on Peter Benchley’s bestselling book from 1974, Tintorera eschews any scientific focus. Instead it adopts an unusual mix of exploitation and comedy, with few scenes thrown in that feature the shark itself to connect the somewhat tenuous strands of the plot.
The film follows a businessman, Steven (Hugo Stiglitz), who vacations on a yacht offshore by a Mexican fishing village. He befriends the caretaker of the yacht, Colonado (Roberto Guzmán), and the pair embark on a sun-drenched quest for women, and the occasional shark hunt.
The majority of the film is thus concerned with the relationships between Steven and several women. The first, an English tourist named Patricia (Fiona Lewis), enjoys a passionate and intense affair with Steven. When he refuses to declare his love for her, Patricia succumbs to the advances of the salacious swimming instructor Miguel (Andrés Garcia) who, perpetually wandering around the resort in tiny trunks, injects the film with an almost ‘Carry On’ style of humour. Patricia goes missing during a morning swim with the shark – her true fate is never revealed to the characters, yet another example of the bitty and somewhat brave narrative style – and is presumed to have returned to England, prompting Steven to bond with Miguel as he sets his sights on other women in the resort.
Steven and Miguel share women, most notably another English tourist named Gabriella (Susan George) as well as a business venture, as they hunt sharks in the area. That is, until the titular tintorera shark reappears with deadly consequences. Distraught, Steven swears revenge and sets out to hunt the monster in an explosive finale that takes more than a small chunk out of the narrative from Jaws.
However, unlike Jaws, the titular shark is rarely seen; several underwater shots are repeated and the attacks are filmed in such a way that minimal monster is revealed. While this can work to great effect – Jaws is a case in point – to generate atmosphere and tension with hardly any reveals, this unfortunately wasn’t the case with Tintorera. The repeated shots of the shark draw the viewer out of the film, and the attacks themselves, with the poor lighting and confused camera, do nothing to create a sense of dread. One of the main reasons for this is the strange, unrealistic breathing that announces the arrival of the shark.
While Tintorera has been read as a sexual metaphor, the shark standing in for a psychoanalytic reading of the phallus or vagina in parallel with the erotic exploits of the main characters, the film is unusual in that the narrative veers away from the standard plot points of similar films. Jaws spawned a whole sub-genre of ecological or environmental horror, in which nature (usually in the form of an animal) fights back against the parasitic nature of the human species: Tentacoli (1977); Day of the Animals (1977); and Killer Fish (1978). In these films, the threat is usually countered by a character with pure sensibilities that takes it upon himself to hunt the creature and save the besieged town or group of people. This is, of course, a reworking of the classic monster staple throughout the decades – from vampires, mummies and werewolves in the classic Universal horror films of the 1940s, to aliens and mutated creatures in 1950s science-fiction, to the emergence of the slasher film in the 1970s, in which adolescents are punished for their hedonistic lifestyles by a murderous, seemingly non-human killer.
In Tintorera, we are presented with a somewhat belligerent character that is both sexually promiscuous and ethically dismissive of the cruel and unnecessary killing of sharks for his own gain; Steven happily earns a living killing the animals and only hunts the killer shark at the end of the film after a personal loss, with no thought for the safety of the tourists and locals. The film’s avenging nature theme is punctuated by the uncomfortable sight of dead tiger and lemon sharks in fishing boats at the beginning of the film. Though all world cinemas are guilty of cruelty to animals, exploitation film in particular is known for this controversial taboo. Steven is disturbed at the sight of the dead sharks initially but, like other characters, he accepts the killing of the animals as the way of the land and is ultimately punished by nature for his hand in the carnage.
Despite its uneven tone, narrative and style, Tintorera is definitely one for fans of the monster movie, with a strange combination of classic and convoluted charm.