July 20, 2015

Screening Report: The Jaws of Death (7/19/15 Alamo Drafthouse, Yonkers, NY)

Here I am again with another one of those “for the love of 35mm and the horror community” opens that you have all come to love from me. All right, perhaps not, but that does not make it any less accurate. There really is something special about getting to see some of these crazy old movies in a theater from these scratched up prints. There is history there, these are not movies that had thousands of prints struck. It was mentioned during the introduction that this might have had 50 prints that were played regionally and traveled around. I doubt there were any new ones made, so this is very likely one of those original traveling prints. How's that for history?

The latest American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) screening was The Jaws of Death, at one point called Mako: The Jaws of Death. It is a crazy shark (duh) flick from the late 1970's that was released in the wake of the Jaws becoming an industry changing sensation. It was hosted by none other than Chris Poggiali of the Temple of Schlock, and his introductions are only rivaled by those of Fangoria's Michael Gingold. Not that either of these guys need my approval, but they do a good job of providing context and stories related to these movies. Consider it an added bonus of attending. Now, the crowds have tended to be small, but enthusiastic. I encourage anyone interested, curious, intrigued, whatever, come on out and join me for these screenings at the Yonkers location of the Alamo Drafthouse.

I will get to the stories in a little bit, first up, let's take a little look at the movie. It stars Richard Jaeckel as Sonny Stein. He is a strange fellow who lives by himself on an island where he takes care of his “friends,” a group of sharks. Sharks he can communicate with, has friendships, feeds, names, they are like his dogs. Of course, someone like this can never be left alone. The plot goes in two directions, one has a weasely marine doctor who wants to take one of Sonny's sharks so they can study it as it gives birth. Of course, Sonny is rather wary of the doctor and his cronies (one of which is Harold 'Odd Job' Sakata). The other angle has Sonny saving a swimming dancer named Karen (the last role of Jennifer Bishop, more on that in a bit) from a couple of would-be drunken rapists. This leads to a shark ending up at the bar where Karen performs.

As you can imagine, things go in a direction that makes Sonny less and less comfortable and ultimately leads to some killer shark action. It is a pretty crazy movie that will have you shaking your head. Just wait until you hear the story of how he came to talk with the sharks. Wait until you see Karen's husband, and bar owner, Barney (Buffy Dee). He is a rather large fellow always with a cigar in his mouth and a chained pimp cup hanging around his neck. Quite the character. Seriously, there is no way you cannot enjoy this movie.

Now, so far as the stories go, we got a couple of them. When Chris decided he was going to screen the film, he got in touch with the writer/director William Grefe, whom Chris has known for a number of years, to potentially get a video introduction. Sadly, that did not happen, but Grefe did specify he wanted it to be said that the movie was not a rip off of Jaws, that it had been written well beforehand. This is true. The movie had been turned down a number of times until Jaws came out and shark movies were wanted.

So, the movie got made, about 50 prints were shipped out and it ran through 1977 and into 1978 when Jaws 2 came out and it was sold to television, where it played through the 1980's. Of course, it was only recently that I had ever heard about it and this particular night that I got to see it.

Back to it not being a rip off of Jaws, outside of sharks, the two do not have a lot in common. As the conversation between Chris and Grefe went, Chris said he knows what movie was ripped off to make The Jaws of Death, in fact it was a rip off of a rip off, with the movie being ripped off was also directed by William Grefe. The original source is pretty clearly Willard, no, not the Crispin Glover movie, the original 1971 movie with Bruce Davison and the rats. Grefe had read the plot description of Willard and then dreamed an entire movie, which became Stanley, a movie about a guy who controls snakes. He then crafted The Jaws of Death. See the trend? Apparently, he also almost got a movie made about a guy who controls bats. No joke!

Now, here is the story about what happened with Jennifer Bishop and why this was her last movie. You see, there is a scene in the movie where she is in a tank with a shark. Now, down in Florida, where the movie was shot, there were people who would fish for sharks. The sharks would be killed and their teeth ripped out for necklaces and such (I am making no comment on whether this should be done or not). So, they bought one of these “dead” sharks with no teeth to toss in the water with Bishop to make the movie look real. Well, it turns out as soon as the shark hit the water, it was resurrected and went straight for Bishop, biting her with its toothless mouth. Had it still had teeth, she would have been dead. That would have killed the acting bug for me too!

Funny thing, and another story told, was something similar happened before on a Grefe directed movie. Harold Sakata (who was in this film) was also in Grefe's Impulse with William Shatner. There is a scene where Sakata is supposed to be hung and punched by Shatner like a heavy bag. Something broke and Sakata started to actually be strangled, fortunately he wasn't, but he could have been killed.

That is some crazy stuff right there! All things considered, the movie was a blast, we learned some interesting stories about the making and distribution of the film, and I got to have a good time with some friends. I cannot stress enough how enjoyable these things are and how you all should check them out!

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