No, I’m not talking about the dictionary definition, as I think everyone who writes, thinks, or talks about film understands the foundation. What I’m considering here is what ingredients make up a recipe so delicious (or detestable) that eventually woos an audience to embrace a feature that would otherwise be dismissed as a pure stinker? I’m always more concerned with the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ something happens, and precisely how a work of art evolves from possessing a small group of loyal followers to a growing number of fans has always fascinated me.
Honestly, my favorite example – though it’s a film that was admittedly made with more money and talent than most cult features – remains 1980’s Flash Gordon. Though largely dismissed by society-at-large as an unmitigated disaster, my friends and I revered it in our youth. Sure, we may’ve griped about some of the individual pieces – such is the nature of young’uns talking about film – but we saw this incarnation of the pop SciFi icon along with Dale Arden and Dr. Hans Zarkov as pure unbridled cinematic genius. It was bright! It was colorful! It had a soundtrack from Queen! Yes, we were alone in our estimation back then – I was never hip with the in-crowd – but decades later we’ve been kinda/sorta proven right in our respect for a film that may’ve otherwise disappeared from history if it hadn’t built a growing cult audience over the years.
Precisely how this happens for one flick and not others – even ones similar in shape and tone – remains one of mankind’s unsolved mysteries. No doubt it’ll continue to confound writers long after I’ve left his world.
All of this brings me to Mako: The Jaws Of Death (1976), an obvious exploitation feature conceived, directed, and produced by William Grefe, a name I hadn’t heard of but was vaguely familiar with some of his films. I’ve read that although he wrote this script before Steven Spielberg’s Jaws sunk its teeth into the worldwide box office but couldn’t get it financed until after that feature proved box office gold could be found beneath the sea. In all seriousness, the two films have nothing in common – except for the word Jaws shared in their respective titles – but it’s kinda/sorta still funny how one shark tale gained global adoration while another one only mustered a cult audience.
Let’s go for a swim …
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging:
“Mako: Jaws Of Death stars Richard Jaeckel as Sonny Stein, a man who develops the ability to communicate telepathically with man-eating sharks, allowing him to use the animals to attack anyone that crosses him.”
Let’s clear one thing up right away: Sonny Stein is no Aquaman.
There are plenty of really, really, really good reasons for which Mako has been maligned over the years. It’s a simple yarn – a fish story, as they say – about a man who somehow mystically discovers a kind of kinship with sharks. Like Dr. Doolittle talked with the animals, Sonny does, too … only this quiet and lonely drifter really doesn’t have much to say. Instead, he whiles away his life protecting them from – erm – shark poachers and evil scientists hell bent on … well, hell bent on understanding them or destroying them. (It’s never really clear.) The characters are all one-note and paper-thin – yes, even our hero – and it’s all delivered in perfunctory visual style by Grefe and his band of regulars.
As tends to happen in exploitation pictures, our antagonist is virtually surrounded by bad blood at every turn. A local shark scientist wants Sonny’s best friend Matilda so that he can study shark birthing in captivity. Local fishermen stop at nothing to keep the deadly fish either out of the local waterways or – even worse – as trophies hung for tourists to snap pictures with. Even seedy nightclub owner Barney (Buffy Dee) wants a shark he can either tame or torture to the delight of patrons in his eatery. So when Sonny gets pushed too far, the audience knows full well he’s about to push back.
As imperfect as Mako is, it isn’t without its charm. Grefe’s underwater sequences are quite good, and the director constructed several key sequences in and out of the water with the kind of hard-boiled perspective viewers of traditional grindhouse have come to expect. (Clint Eastwood’s vengeance-themed Westerns come to mind, and the best parts of this film capitalize on similar tones.) Those who cross Sonny and his sharks get what’s coming to them, by hook or by crook … but a surprise ‘deflowering’ of what may’ve made Sonny so special ends up causing his demise in the last reel.
The lesson is simple: those who swim with the fishes take even their lives into their own hands, and that’s why Sonny’s big finish is probably the way even he would’ve wanted to go down.
Mako: The Jaws Of Death (1976) is produced by Mako Associates and Universal Majestic, Inc. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being handled by Arrow Video. As for the technical specifications? Ahem. Well, this was essentially a grindhouse-style production – meaning that it was made fast and cheap – and I suspect it probably looks about as well as can do expected. There are varying light levels, and the sound dips or muddles a bit here and there; but it honestly didn’t impact my enjoyment (or chagrin) all that much. As for the special features? There are a few interesting tidbits here, including a commentary, interviews, and some mildly related documentary flicks. It’s a surprisingly respectful package for such a kinda/sorta inconsequential motion picture.
Recommended. Look, I’m going to assure you that – as is the case with most grindhouse pictures – it ain’t perfect. Mako really has all the gusto of a made-for-TV flick, which is to say that producers didn’t break the bank making it but possibly sat back and reaped modest revenue from its presentations. The likable Richard Jaeckel does what he can with the slim material proving he’s no fish out of water. Take a dip, if you’re so inclined, but watch out for the sharks!
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Video provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray Disc of Mako: The Jaws Of Death by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.