Saturday, February 21, 2009
One of my most vivid theatrical memories occurred in the spring of 1982, when my Mom took me to a local Henderson, KY theater to see a film that had just opened up about a killer great white shark terrorizing a small coastal community. It wasn’t Jaws 2, nor was it a re-release of Spielberg’s beloved classic, this was Enzo G. Castellari’s L’Ultimo Squalo or, as it was titled that day, Great White.
I didn’t know that day that I was having my first ever taste of the Euro-Cult films that would occupy such a large part of my life later, nor did I know how fortunate I was to see the film in a theater. All I knew was that I was having a blast witnessing 90 minutes of the most simultaneously surreal and similar film my nine year old eyes had seen up to that point.
The controversy surrounding Great White is more known than the film itself. Castellari’s film wasn’t the first or last Jaws ‘rip-off’ film, but it was the one that got Universal panicked enough to sue and have it pulled from distribution. Part of this was because it lifted heavily from both Spielberg’s classic and its much maligned more sequel than any other film had, and part of it was due to the fact that Jaws 3 was just around the corner and Great White was showing big numbers in its brief theatrical run. There is something else though about Great White that no doubt bugged Universal, namely that it is a damn entertaining film and is much more successful than any sequel to Jaws that Universal had or would ever come up with.
I was once called crazy by a friend for saying that in a way I preferred Great White over Jaws. Now, obviously Spielberg’s film is a classic and is a better piece of work than Castellari’s low budget take on it. What I meant by the statement was that I felt more connected to Enzo’s production, because of my memories of it, and also the fact that I absolutely adore these Italian takes on American films that filled theaters throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties. Great White is the meat and potatoes version of Jaws. It’s Spielberg’s film stripped of all the philosophy, great acting and sharp storytelling. In other words, Great White is the lean and biting piece of entertainment that Jaws 2 should have been, and I suspect this rubbed some folks at Universal the wrong way.
Great White just existed in my memories up until a couple of years back when I found a bootleg copy at a collector’s convention. My renewed time with the film left me disappointed though, and it didn’t live up to my memories at all. This changed though last year when I got a copy of the Swedish DVD of it. This uncut, widescreen print of the film allowed me to fall in love with Great White all over again and I have watched it several times since.
The great Castellari has certainly made better films than Great White, but the film is one of his most enjoyable works. Featuring an odd, but effective, score from the iconic De Angelis Brothers, photography from Shock cinematographer Alberto Spagnoli and a cast including James Franciscus and Vic Morrow, Great White rolls along for 90 infectiously silly minutes at a breezy pace and it never comes close to outstaying its welcome. It’s a fun ride where you get to see the shark a lot, something that no doubt endeared it to a lot of kids back in 1982.
You would think all these years later that L’Ultimo Squalo could find its way to American DVD, but this doesn’t look to be happening anytime soon. A recent screening at The New Beverly Cinema was reportedly blocked by Universal, so Great White remains missing in action in America. I would love to see it resurface one day.