Something peculiar happens with film budgets. Films that spend more on their cast than small countries spend on food make decisions premised on that kind of money. In a culture that places whiteness, maleness, and similar statuses on pedestals and holds others down, that often means that seeking the biggest names—the people most often recognized for their talent and expertise—means finding people who have had every advantage up to that point. Big-budget films are incredibly white and distressingly male, by and large, regardless of where they are set, and it’s only recently that films could give top billing to members of ethnic minorities without immediately becoming “niche.”
That’s what makes lower-budget films especially interesting.
One of the first things I noticed when I started watching classmates’ film projects, amateur movies on YouTube, and other low-budget cinema was the overwhelmingly greater diversity in the cast. Women and non-white people, disappeared from sight in mainstream films, appeared in profusion, matching the reality of the diverse places I have lived.
And that’s what brings us to Sharktopus (2010).
Spoilers for all three Sharktopus films below the fold.
Sharktopus is an oddly-structured film. Much of its length is a series of vignettes in which tourists and workers playfully interact with each other and then have bloody encounters with the titular hybrid monster, and those tourists usually sound about as believable as the average car commercial, particularly the scene featuring the producer’s daughter. Like all creature-features, it is at least as much about the spectacle as it is about its characters, so arranging for the Sharktopus to seize people from bungee lines, climb trellises to attack performers from above, and graphically stab and dismember victims with the sword-like claws at the ends of its tentacles takes precedence over virtually everything else about the film, including the visual quality of the Sharktopus itself. It’s obvious that an overly large fraction of their budget went toward paying the one established actor in their cast, a bored-looking and frequently drunk Eric Roberts.
But a lot of the film is actually remarkably well-done. After the initial corporate-headquarters sequence (attributed to California, actually this facility in Valencia, Spain), the action moves to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where much of the movie is actually filmed. Most of the people seen in crowd shots are locals, the scenery is what the Pacific coast of Mexico actually looks like, and the tourist activities depicted are accurately sited. The victims depicted in the film’s monster-showcasing vignettes are a mix of locals and presumed-Americans, with accents to match. Secondary characters who travel with and aid the primary characters without themselves moving the plot are Hispanic, and no issue is made of this fact. In these subtle ways, the film acknowledges that the Sharktopus’s attacks are a problem Americans caused for Mexico, rather than an American adventure merely set in Mexico.
What particularly surprised me is that this film also places actors of color front and center, as the two leads. Both characters (Nicole Sands and Andy Flynn) are white, but Sara Malakul Lane is Thai and Kerem Bürsin is Turkish. The result is an ethnically highly heterogeneous team of Americans who don’t know each other particularly well trying to prevent their own errors from causing any more problems for Mexico, with all the cultural clashes such a mix implies, and it is fascinating to watch. The interest and amusement increases when they finally join forces with Bones the harried Hispanic cameraman and Stacy Everheart the tough-as-nails white reporter whose desire for journalism-based fame and fortune verges on sexual. What could have been, and to some extent are, hackneyed stock characters—the coldly competent female scientist, the untrustworthy patron, the muscular and flirtatious mercenary, the over-eager reporter—become deeper for this mix, and make it easier to forgive their somewhat unimpressive dialogue and stilted delivery.
The film also, surprisingly, avoids many other clichés of its genre. It mostly refrains from creature-feature and horror films’ habit of making sure monster victims are somehow unsympathetic before their demise. Allowing the Sharktopus to devour charming tourists and villainous hired guns in equal measure means the movie avoids the crude moralizing of many of its kin, which is refreshing all on its own. Despite setting up a standard adversity-romance between male and female characters who aren’t actually shown to like or even respect each other at any point, the film ends without a kiss. And, amazingly, Sharktopus is a creature feature that passes the Bechdel test.
All of that promise makes Sharktopus’s sequel, Sharktopus versus Pteracuda (2014), hotly anticipated in this household.
Immediately, Sharktopus versus Pteracuda both departs from and rebuilds the pattern of its predecessor. A second Sharktopus is born from an egg case produced by the first prior to its destruction, and is raised in a Mexican aquarium by a dedicated Mexican marine biologist, immediately contrasting with the previous creature’s origin as a military weapon. This is reflected in the new Sharktopus’s behavior: where the original one was omnidirectionally hostile, the new one’s main deviation from behaving like an ordinary predator is its vengefulness toward people who have harmed it. The titular Pteracuda (part pterosaur, part barracuda), naturally, is a mind-controlled weapon like the original Sharktopus, and like the original Sharktopus, it escapes its creators’ control and must be recovered or destroyed. The cast includes analogues to virtually all of the previous film’s characters, including the mercenary, the scientist, the untrustworthy patron, and the over-eager reporter, but involves them in a somewhat different web of allegiances and more complex plot. Although this film neither passes the Bechdel test nor places actors of color in its lead roles, it still populates its Mexican location with actual Mexicans and assigns mostly actors of color to its secondary characters.
What stands out most about Sharktopus versus Pteracuda is the relationship between the scientist, Dr. Lorena Christmas, and the reborn Sharktopus. She raised it from birth and learned to communicate with it. It is affectionate toward her and willingly fights the omnicidal Pteracuda to protect her. It also accurately identifies the other aquarium staff as hostile to it and eventually kills them. The film’s finest moment is when, during its return home from a brief stint as a mind-controlled weapon, it strokes her face with one tentacle and she, wracked with worry over its undeserved fate, puts a hand on the tentacle and coos, “Ay, Pecesito.”
I did not expect to be moved by a Sharktopus film. I was.
Sharktopus versus Pteracuda is not even mostly this kind of competence, however. Most of both creature’s attacks are overtly ridiculous, and both the Sharktopus and the Pteracuda frequently decapitate people where the previous film’s Sharktopus would have eaten them whole, including the self-described “too pretty to die” lifeguard Dr. Christmas is dating. In combat with one another, the Sharktopus and Pteracuda spend inordinate amounts of screen time slapping each other rather than attempting to inflict actual injuries. A second moment of ridiculousness is when the mercenary tries to fight the Pteracuda with a hunting knife and the Pteracuda, inexplicably, lands and engages on his terms rather than biting his head off. Sharktopus versus Pteracuda reaches its fever pitch when the Sharktopus bites off a surly Conan O’Brien’s head and hurls it into a volleyball court, where volleyball players proceed to serve it back and forth for a few minutes.
Unfortunately for the series, its most recent installment was Sharktopus versus Whalewolf (2015). This iteration runs with everything that was awful about the previous films and largely loses sight of the series’s positives. Like the others, it is filmed on location, this time in the Dominican Republic, and therefore has background characters whose appearances make sense for the location, but this one places two white men at the center of its action and makes the third lead character, a female Dominican police officer, very, very secondary. After that, the film relies on little more than stereotypes and bad writing, neglecting even the spectacle people come to this kind of film to see.
This film’s Sharktopus is randomly hostile without explanation, despite being canonically the same individual as the previous film’s chimeric monster. Even that is better than the origin provided for the titular Whalewolf. Instead of being a military creation, the Whalewolf is an unlikeable Dominican baseball player past his prime, who signs up for an ill-advised doping experiment to regain his verve and instead transforms into a canine-cetacean monster. The Whalewolf’s behavior is cartoonishly doglike, including chasing ball-shaped objects, cheerfully licking those he trusts, and trying to get his creator to play fetch with him using human limbs. The scientist who created him is an acerbic German woman who shelters him as a “miracle of science,” then grows tired of him and tries to pass him off to a local pet rescue, at which point he devours her. Her “nurse” wears a nurse fetish outfit, complete with too-tall heels.
Oddly, in terms of the overall narrative, the Whalewolf is largely irrelevant, and the characters treat him as such for much of the film. The authorities even deliberately ignore him at first because his first major rampage is against two street gangs. The center of the plot is actually Francois Tiny, a vodun priest who desires to conquer the Dominican Republic by gaining control over the Sharktopus using a voodoo doll. This desire is what gets the white characters into the plot: Tiny pays them lavishly to acquire the creature’s heart for him. As if the too-frequent racist spectacle of yet another film assigning sinister magical properties to a real and actually-maligned religion wasn’t enough, Tiny also regales them with a non-sequitur anecdote about how his pet rooster, or “cock,” is enormous, has its own room in his house, and gets treated better than any of his human associates. Also, the voodoo doll works, and the Sharktopus ends up resurrected by the magic of Tiny’s successor, because Sharktopus III only pretends at science fiction even within the context of creature features. By this point, the vaguely transantagonistic joke of a hospital nurse turning out to be Iggy Pop when he turns around has largely passed unnoticed amidst all the racism and poor writing.
The Sharktopus series, from intriguing beginning to ignominious end, provides an interesting series of possibilities for low-budget films. Racism means that competent actors of color must often accept lower pay than equally competent white actors to get work at all, resulting in lower-budget films having greater access to non-white talent. Filming on location rather than spending money on sets means that the most easily sought populations of extras and substitutes are location-appropriate rather than effectively foreign imports and adds a thousand and one touches of authenticity that a fabricated set is likely to miss. Low budgets and less-than-impressive computer effects do not stop a script from featuring complex characters, believable lines, and striking visuals. But none of these perks prevent a film from exhibiting, or even being entirely premised on, bigoted stereotypes, nor do they absolve it if it is.
Sharktopus is a franchise glimmering with potential and riddled with deficiencies. Creature features have a tendency not to take themselves very seriously, to slide inexorably from horror to horror-comedy, and the Sharktopus films show this tendency early and often. Oddly, however, the series is at its best, not in its moments of slapstick and silly gore, or even in its moments of surreally poor acting, but in its moments of surprising and hard-won pathos. Sharktopus versus Pteracuda in particular isn’t a film for “bad movie” enthusiasts who thrive on poorly-integrated computer graphics, unbelievable stunts, or wooden dialogue, because of its unexpected depth. It’s hard to love a film for its “badness” when it is clear how much more it could have been…or when it’s racist tripe best consigned to cinema’s dustbin.
Or perhaps, I’m just a little in love with Lorena Christmas.
Ay, Pececito, may we meet again.