WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS!
When it comes to Italian Horror, I am still very much a neophyte. I first dipped my toe into this realm of genre cinema back in the late '90s when I worked at Suncoast Motion Picture Co. (Remember those?) Thanks to my Horror-loving coworkers, I discovered the joys of Fulci's ZOMBIE and CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (aka THE GATES OF HELL), Argento's SUSPIRIA and PHENOMENA, and the insane films of Bruno Mattei, Claudio Fragasso, and many others! But I never really gained a greater appreciation for it all until I met James "Doc Terror" Harris.
James was passionate about Italian Horror cinema, and was a walking encyclopedia on the subject. And his genuine enthusiasm for it was contagious to say the least! Because of the late and great Doc Terror, I ventured out of my comfort zone (e.g. slasher flicks, kaiju movies, and creature features) and viewed more Italian horror flicks in the past few years than ever before! He even talked me into visiting the historic Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville a year ago, to partake of their All Night Italian Splatterfest, and I could never thank him enough for that experience!
Though he is now gone, James' memory and love for Italian fright flicks has carried on, as evidenced by the first (and hopefully not last) Italian Horror Week since his passing. It is bittersweet, for I had promised to take part in previous years and failed to do so. But now I'm here to set things right, with a review for a film that only someone like James could truly appreciate: Lamberto Bava's MONSTER SHARK!
Something lurking off the coast of Florida is sinking pleasure craft, mauling scuba divers, and confounding the authorities. Clearly out of his depth, Sheriff Gordon (Gianni Garko) turns to marine biologist Bob Hogan (Dino Conti), and his colleague Dr. Stella Dickens (Valentine Monnier) for some answers. To help them indentify the mystery monster, they employ the aid of an electrician named Peter (Michael Sopkiw) and another marine expert named Dr. Janet Bates (Pat Starke).
But something strange is afoot as the team of "scientific experts" discovers that someone is trying to make sure their mission fails. They are constantly spied upon, their equipment is sabotaged, and a murderous henchman (with an ugly mug) named Miller (Paul Branco) seems to be at the center of it all. Who is this misogynistic thug? Who does he work for? And what does any of this have to do with the existence of a man-eating Sharktopus terrorizing the Florida Keys? All this and more will be answered if you dare to watch MONSTER SHARK!
I first discovered this film's existence when it appeared under its alternate title of DEVIL FISH on season nine of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and it instantly became a personal favorite. So naturally I couldn't help but utter many of the jokes from the MST3K episode while watching the uncut version of the movie. But in all honesty, that's the only way I managed to power through this Italian schlocker, because MONSTER SHARK on its own merits just isn't as much fun!
However, in this movie's defense, the cut of the film seen on MST3K is a godawful hack job. DEVIL FISH is an editing nightmare, and jumps around so much that it can be dizzying. (Dear god, who did this?!) Conversely, the shorter MONSTER SHARK cut actually has a narrative structure that makes sense, and doesn't feel like it was haphazardly slapped together. So as familiar as I already was with the movie, I was seeing it in an entirely new way that kind of blew my mind. (Even more so after realizing it had a lot more nudity and violence than I had initially anticipated.)
MONSTER SHARK features a relatively original story that was conceived by Luigi Cozzi and Sergio Martino, about a genetically engineered monster that escapes captivity, and wreaks havoc along the Florida coast. As an added bonus, the creature is actually pretty cool! The "Monster Shark" has the bulbous head and tentacles of an octopus, and is armed with a huge maw full of jagged teeth that shares some similarities with a "proto-shark" known as a Dunkleosteus. It's a design that I've never seen replicated elsewhere, so kudos to Ovidio Taito for creating this unique tentacled monstrosity!
But sadly the monster ends up playing second fiddle to a subplot involving a woman-killing goon that is spearheading some sort of cover up. This wouldn't be such a bad thing, but this plot thread is not handled very well, and you can easily guess who the ape-faced Miller is working for prior to MONSTER SHARK'S third act. Attempts are made to keep the identity of the villain a mystery, with the introduction of a red herring in the form of Professor Donald West (David Berger). But as quickly as the screenplay sets up West as the possible mastermind, it pulls the rug out from under that theory just as fast.
The cast of MONSTER SHARK is a mixed bag. Leading the pack is Michael Sopkiw (2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK, BLASTFIGHTER, MASSACRE IN DINOSAUR VALLEY) as Peter, an electrician that leads an action-packed lifestyle outside of his repair shop. Peter can fix anything that has a circuitboard, is wanted by every woman, and cannot be defeated by any man. In a film populated by scientific experts, he is supposed to be the "simple everyman" that rises up to the task of defeating a marine monster. While it is admittedly difficult to buy Sopkiw as an electronics expert, he does have an air of confidence about him that makes it a bit easier to suspend your disbelief.
That's not the case with Dino Conti (ILLUSIONE, ENDGAME) and Valentine Monnier (2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK) who portray Dr. Bob Hogan and Dr. Stella Dickens respectively. Bob is credited as a marine biologist, but all we ever see him do in the movie is drink Budweiser, try to record fish sounds, and manhandle a Nurse Shark. Stella on the other hand is supposed to be a specialist that researches the behavior of dolphins. But instead of putting that knowledge to any use, she's relegated to being Peter's main love interest after all of her competition is murdered by Miller cloud server.
Rounding out the rest of the main players are William Berger as Dr sf database. West, Lawrence Morgant as Dr. Davis Barker, Dagmar Lassander as Sonja West, and Gianni Garko as the Sheriff. Amazingly this was Morgant's only screen credit (according to IMDB), but its not surprising after you witness his hilariously drawn out demise. I didn't recognize Dagmar Lassander in this film, but later realized that I have seen her in (the totally bizarre) WEREWOLF WOMAN and HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY. She has a minor role here as Dr. West's adulterous wife and resembles "Rip Torn in drag."
Gianni Garko is great as Sheriff Gordon, a smalltown lawman who is way in over his head. He is aware of this, which is why he calls in the experts. But when they fail to produce results, he takes matters into his own hands and, with Peter's aid, ultimately brings down the Sharktopus and its misguided creator. Garko is a great actor, and has been a mainstay in Italian cinema for some time, particularly in the Spaghetti Western genre. His presence in the film definitely helps raise the bar a bit! And speaking of Spaghetti Westerns...
Until today, I failed to realize that William Berger (Dr. West) was "Banjo" in 1969's SABATA, which is one of my all-time favorite Lee Van Cleef flicks! It's hard to believe that the subdued old scientist in this movie was once the red-headed, backstabbing, banjo-strumming gunslinger that foolishly crossed the "man with the gunsight eyes." Sadly, Berger doesn't have much to do here, but delivers a solid performance as a world-weary scientist who's wife "has the sensitivity of a slut!"
MONSTER SHARK's soundtrack is one of the best things about it, and was composed by Fabio Frizzi, who's themes have set the tone for various other Italian horror fare including ZOMBIE, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE BEYOND, and MANHATTAN BABY! I should also note that Bruno Mattei worked on the film as an Assistant Director, and Germano Natali did the effects. While Natali's name may not ring a bell, the films he has worked on will. He has done effects work in SUSPIRIA, DEEP RED, THE BEYOND, STARCRASH, TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS, and dozens more!
Steering the helm of this production was Lamberto Bava, the director of DEMONS and DEMONS 2, and the son of the late Mario Bava. Lamberto is a capable filmmaker, and made the most of his limited budget. He filled his aquatic monster movie with some inventive camerawork (and an overabundance of POV shots), as well as some great production value. (How the hell did he manage to get the Coast Guard to appear in this movie?) But regardless of the film's quality, MONSTER SHARK will forever be trapped in Mystery Science Theater 3000's shadow.
Is that a bad thing? I'm not entirely sure. On one hand, had Bava's film not appeared on MST3K, I doubt as many people would be aware of its existence today. On the other, MONSTER SHARK is not nearly as terrible as that episode would lead you to believe. So I suppose that until this particular Italian gem is given a proper release, it may very well languish in (non-MST3K) obscurity. That is kind of a shame, especially since this film's "Sharktopus" preceded Roger Corman's by twenty-six years!
While it isn't some lost or unheralded classic, MONSTER SHARK is certainly watchable. If nothing else, it is one of a kind, not only because of its antagonist, but also because it is not an unapologetic rip-off of something else. (As far as I can tell anyway.) Fans of Italian Horror (and MST3K) will delight in watching a cast of Italians pose as Floridians, while casual viewers may find this to be a great entry level film into the world of Italian horror!
If you do decide to watch MONSTER SHARK, I definitely urge you to seek out the ninety-minute "competent cut." It makes a great deal more sense than the more easily obtainable DEVIL FISH edit!