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Shudder Secrets: Sharksploitation: Plenty of Bite, Plenty of Substance

With a title like Sharksploitation, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from writer/director Stephen Scarlata‘s documentary, other than, well, plenty of sharks. Yes, the film examines the wild success of Sharknado and the major influence of Jaws on popular culture, but it’s a lot more than that. In under two hours, it analyzes sharks not only in film but also in art dating back to the 18th Century. The film questions why we’re both terrified and fascinated with the apex predators of the sea.

Maybe more importantly, the documentary features several interviews with marine biologists and conservationists about the importance of these special fish to the greater ecosystem. This gives the movie added substance beyond just the intrigue and fear a Great White inspires. What all of this adds up to is one heck of a documentary that’s entertaining and informative. Sharksploitation‘s bite is sharp, focused, and surprising in its nuance and depth.

Our Collective Fascination with Sharks and Sharksploitation

The doc begins with a familiar face, legendary B horror movie producer Roger Corman. He gives a smart take on why we dig sharks so much. The creature inspires fear, according to Corman, because it’s a natural monster that’s also in the water. Humans have always feared the unknown, and a majority of the oceans’ depths remain uncharted and unexplored.

From there, the film tries to define sharksploitation, with various directors and horror academics taking their turns. Director/academic Rebekah McKendry jokes that it’s not a sharksploitation movie if someone doesn’t yell, “Get out of the water.” Another commentator notes that shark movies remind us of just how frail we are.

After that, the doc spends much of its runtime examining sharks in films, from Jaws all the way up to the SyFy Channel’s boom of the 2000s and Sharknado in 2013. But there are plenty of lesser-known films featured, including Blue Water, White Death from 1971, which actually predates Jaws by four years. Yes, this documentary showcases the well-known Great White blockbusters, but it also succeeds in highlighting lesser-known films that make for a great summer watch list just before that beach vacation. I, for one, plan to rewatch Open Water due to the astute commentary. It’s been way too long.

The Influence of Jaws and a History of Sharks in Pop Culture

Of course, Sharksploitation addresses Jaws and the countless knockoffs it spawned. As Piranha director Joe Dante puts it, “It became the movie that changed movies.” Yet, instead of rehashing the usual Jaws commentary, the documentary offers new insight. For instance, several marine biologists note that Jaws did cause quite a negative backslash towards sharks, making them seem villainous. Shark hunts skyrocketed after the film’s massive box-office success.

Further, the doc gives warranted spotlight to the novel’s author, Peter Benchley. At one point, his wife, Wendy, underscores the amount of conversation work she and her husband did later in his life. She notes that once her husband started this work, he admitted he never would have written Jaws and demonized a Great White. After this conversation, the film passes the mic to conservationists and marine biologists. They talk up the wonder and importance of sharks. This contrasts with how they’re often depicted in film.

Impressively, Sharksploitation traces the villainy of sharks in our culture, going back to 18th Century paintings and then the explosion of print media in the 19th and 20th Centuries. From there, it addresses how sharks were often associated with villains in James Bond films from the 60s and 70s. It’s a rather broad and deep look at the evolution of the shark as a villain.

Overall, Sharksploitation entertains and educates. Yes, the documentary focuses a lot on Jaws, as it should, but there’s a heck of a lot more here. After watching it, I suspect you’ll want to put on your favorite animal attack movie. More importantly, you’ll have a newfound appreciation for the apex predators of the sea.

Sharksploitation swims to Shudder on July 21. Keep updated on the streaming service’s latest content by following my Shudder Secrets column.