I bought this film for £1, from a bucket of similarly priced ones. This led me to assume that Shark Night would be a terrible film, like all the other (and there have been many) terrible films about sharks that I have picked up from a bargain bin.
Shark Night, however, turned out to be more complicated than I expected. It both fully embraces and discards tropes, and I’m still not clear on whether I think it is actually rather good, or just terrible. In the end, I think that it might be a terrible film with unexpected moments of brilliance. I’m unsure if the moments of brilliance are enough to make up for the rest of the film.
The basic idea is simple: a group of attractive college students head off to a lake for a vacation. Once they reach the lake, after initial characterisation and meeting creepy locals, they discover that there is something in the water. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the thing in the water is a shark. A whole bunch of sharks. They try to get back to civilization with their injured friend, but circumstances (and sharks) conspire against them.
It doesn’t feel much like a shark film, despite the presence of sharks and bouncy bikini-clad students. It plays out much more like a slasher film, just one where the main weapon is a lake full of sharks. At points, it is clear that they were going for a “creepy” atmosphere, trying to unsettle the viewer. It lacks the pure joy in ridiculous slaughter that characterises so much of the genre – I’d class it as a horror film more than anything else. That’s fine, horror is a genre I’ve got a lot of time for, but it isn’t the film or the aesthetic that I was expecting.
Despite not having a creature feature’s aesthetic, the film does have a creature-feature’s view of women. The first two scenes spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on jiggling, which is an even more impressive feat when you understand that the second scene is primarily a conversation between three men: for no reason other than titillation, we are introduced to the setting through the camera’s loving focus on a woman in tight leggings; she then continues out of shot, and the actual characters turn up. It is totally gratuitous and utterly blatant.
The film never again reaches quite that height of unapologetic fanservice, though at times it looks like it is going to – characters are introduced following all the expected tropes (such as, in this case, the “slutty one”), there are lots of hints at past-and-future sex, female characters in very little, et cetera. But the film only teases – it is actually relatively tame, and all of the jiggling cuts out about halfway in. It’s almost as though they started out making one kind of film, and then changed their minds halfway through.
This pattern continues with the violence – there’s very little of it, and almost all of camera. A character vanishes under, the water turns red, and done. Unlike many other shark films, Shark Night has a bit of subtlety; not much, but a little. Violence is almost always hinted at, not shown on screen. It is, again, an odd choice for the genre that it purports to be in.
One scene, though, is far more violent than expected. It features “cookie-cutter sharks”, a species I’d never heard of before. They’re named for the deep, circular(ish) bites they make on larger creatures. In the film. the sharks swarm a woman in a cage, killing her. The actual content of the scene isn’t too out of the way, but the way it is filmed gives it rather more impact. It’s a long, drawn-out scene with the camera’s full attention, giving lots of detail. The focus seems to be “look at this girl dying in agony”, not “tense and awesome shark attack”. I’d expect that kind of scene in Saw, but it isn’t something that belongs in a more light-hearted genre, and it definitely doesn’t match the tone of the film.
I’ve mentioned characters briefly before, but it is something that should probably be mentioned in more detail. The cast fall into standard archetypes – slutty girl, nerdy guy, brash jock, black friend, creepy redneck, final girl. They aren’t amazingly exciting tropes, but they slot neatly together and are somewhat obligatory for any film that features monsters – the actual characters don’t need to be complex, they are just foils for the creature.
One character does deserve credit though, played by Donal Logue (that’s another thing to mention, actually – the film contains no big names, but I found that I recognized almost all the actors from somewhere). He’s a forgettable bit part until the big reveal, at which point he delivers the most compelling and coherent villain’s monologue I’ve ever heard in a shark film, whilst fleshing out his character more effectively than the main couple managed in the previous hour – it made the remaining minutes much more fun to watch.
I could mention minor quibbles – time passes inconsistently, the CGI isn’t amazing, she could totally have escaped on her own if she’d put in even a small effort – but those are to be expected with any low-budget creature feature, and are all part of the charm. Other than the appalling retrograde social conventions (again, fitted as standard), I only have one real problem with the film: it isn’t consistent.
I’m aware that I’ve talked a lot in this review about it not fitting into the genre correctly, and I know that not everything has to – some films defy convention, and that is more than fine with me. What confuses me is that sometimes Shark Night seems to be trying to fit neatly into a genre, and then gets distracted.
Shark Night is a film that doesn’t know what sort of film it is trying to be. It is a blood-soaked gore fest that only shows one violent scene. It is an exploitation film with lots of partial nudity, but then it forgets that halfway through. It is a fun, unapologetic creature feature, but then it adds in torture porn. It is a lowest-common-denominator poorly scripted cliché, but then it adds in a complex villain and an attempt at social commentary. Artistic vision-wise, this film is all over the place.
And so I’m torn; I don’t know whether I like this film or not, and I definitely don’t know if it counts as “good” or not – I don’t even know if it counts as good for the genre, because it doesn’t seem to quite fit in any genre. I’m left with only one metric by which to judge it: would I watch it again?
The answer, in the end, is “yes”. I enjoyed it, it kept my attention, and I ended up amused more than outraged by the bits that went wrong or didn’t make sense. It isn’t the worst shark film I’ve seen, by a long way, and it has occasional moments that match up well alongside the best.