Before Summer officially fades away, take one last dive into shark-infested waters by discovering the hidden sharksploitation gem “Bait”.
As summer ultimately winds down to its inevitable end, a number of readers likely indulged in the week-long Discovery Channel seabound smorgasbord known as Shark Week. (This year marked the 35th year of informative, engrossing, and organic cable TV programming.)
But as students return to the classroom and parents recognize that the home is a little less terrorized at the end of each day, horror film fans know that they can nurture their love of the simmering summer months by submerging themselves in any manner of movies that celebrate scares and surf, on any day of the year.
From alligators patrolling the NYC sewers for victims to piranhas stalking beachgoers to sharks trolling New England island towns, there appears to be no shortage of films that will keep horror fanatics satiated on a diet of chilly yet sunshine-drenched chum.
“I think people are fascinated by shark movies for two reasons,” iconic director Roger Corman admits in the new documentary Sharksploitation, an engrossing film about the history of shark movies that both anticipated and followed in the wake of Jaws, originally released in U.S. theaters in 1975. Sharksploitation is now streaming on Shudder. “One, the shark is a natural monster,” Corman continues, “but it’s also the fact that it’s in the water and in the ocean. And I think the ocean has great psychological effects.”
What a great effect, then, Universal Pictures had when it capitalized on the concept, turning the seemingly safe, cool summertime getaway into a feeding ground for one of the big screen’s most famous proto slashers.
To be clear, water-based horror films existed long before Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film created a need for two words: summer blockbuster.
Adaptations of Melville’s Moby Dick go back as far as Warner Brothers’ The Sea Beast (1926), and MGM also dipped its toes into the subgenre waters with The Sea Bat (1930). The argument could be made that the most memorable and enduring entry of the subgenre would come in the rubbery guise of Universal’s 1954 feature Creature from the Black Lagoon, which was coincidentally followed only months later that same year by Monster from the Ocean Floor.
More than two decades later, deep sea dangers were still explored in Joe Dante’s 1978 film Piranha, which spawned a franchise that endured until as late as 2012 by major studios and even inspired fan films like Piranha 4D (2017), and despite the sometimes shallow cinematic additions, filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro earned critical acclaim and numerous industry awards with The Shape of Water (2017).
Most recently, the latest entry of the bombastic Megalodon franchise Meg (2017 & 2023, respectively) indicates that even if moviegoers are frequently fearful of going back into the water, Hollywood isn’t afraid to go there as long as the price is decidedly right.
The potential for an opening weekend for movies of this kind could be worth millions of dollars.
For the head. The tail. The whole damn thing.
TRY BAIT (2012)
For fans of all things sea-faring and sharp-toothed – dating back more than 50 years in cinema – Kimble Rendall’s 2012 shark & shock feature Bait may be precisely what the oceanologist ordained.
While bringing a school of sharks to the mainland wouldn’t be properly recognized in Sharknado until 2013, Bait seemed to give the venture a legitimate, serious effort a full year before.
Far from the Los Angeles shores, Bait makes landfall in Australia, where former lifeguard Josh (Xavier Samuel) is still reeling from the fatal shark attack that took the life of his friend & would-be brother-in-law Rory (Richard Brancatisano). Now working in a local grocery store to stave off the memory of his close friend’s death, he is soon coincidentally joined at his place of business by a Who’s Who of characters.
This includes Rory’s sister Tina (Sharni Vinson), two sexually active teenagers (Lincoln Lewis and Cariba Heine), young rebellious shoplifter Jaime (Phoebe Tonkin), her recently unemployed boyfriend (Alex Russell), Jaime’s police officer father (Martin Sacks), and a would-be robber named Doyle (Julian McMahon), among others.
But add to this disparate cast of characters a tsunami that ushers in a swarm of sharks that takes up residency in the flooded supermarket and ensures that prices are about to be slashed.
And all sales are final.
What follows, then, is a tooth-gnashing buffet, the likes of which have been bastardized in shark movies for years since, often with ridiculous results.
But this film doesn’t take the bait by devolving into unimaginable nonsense when it comes to producing a compelling, entertaining fish frenzy framed by the walls of a seemingly unobtrusive grocery store.
Instead, it remains a notable chapter in the novel-length history of sharksploitation motion pictures.
Here, the film’s characters are at least a little more developed than those of the ensemble shark attack films that have gruesomely dispatched so many other poor souls.
Generally, films of this particular nature are populated with otherwise unidentifiable though named bodies simply awaiting consumption. But here, the movie’s protagonists are possessed with hopes, dreams, and personalities that make their potential demise more meaningful.
Julian McMahon, for example, is no stranger to bottom feeders and scavengers. Starring as a self-important plastic surgeon on the cable TV drama NIP/TUCK (2003 – 2010), McMahon also portrayed the Fantastic Four’s megalomaniacal central villain, Dr. Doom, on the big screen in 2005.
His characters, certainly – on the small or wide screen – are no strangers to hubris. But in Bait, McMahon is tasked with at least a little more human charisma than his other roles, even if this one doesn’t entirely absolve him and wash his hands clean of his prior transgressions.
Where other shark attack films populate its shopping list of victims with insufferable monsters destined for devouring, this film in particular – penned by Russell Mulcahy and John Kim, among others – makes a valiant effort to bring more human victims to the bloodied waters than would await most.
As Doyle, McMahon plays the role of a whore with a heart of gold insomuch that his demise is both satisfying and cathartic, even if the character’s role in the film’s plot isn’t surprisingly difficult to guess when he first appears on screen.
Xavier Samuel, meanwhile, was perhaps a fresh face to film in 2012, but he wasn’t entirely anonymous to Bait‘s feeding frenzy.
Samuel had starred early as the doomed prom night lover in Madman Entertainment’s The Loved Ones (2009) and later made a memorable appearance alongside Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Jon Bernthal, and others in the 2014 film Fury. Perhaps most notably, he starred as Presley’s guitarist in Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 film Elvis.
The actor clearly possesses pace. The actor clearly possesses rhythm. Both attributes elevate Bait in a film that would otherwise appear subterranean in the hands of lesser stars.
And the picture’s special effects are capable enough, certainly better than those of the SyFy-centric imitators that would follow in the wake of surprisingly successful films like Sharknado and a number of others.
BAIT blends watery practical effects with heart-stopping CGI wherever necessary, and the shark predators themselves are consistently foreboding.
More than 35 years earlier, Spielberg’s film may have been momentarily hampered by the cumbersome mechanics of the film’s deep sea diabolical killer. But now, Bait casts a wide, realistically ominous net in establishing its terror.
Bait appears to have done first what many sharksploitation have done ever since, delivering a menu of rather helpless women and men into the jaws of nature’s most prominent maneaters (if you would believe the motion pictures).
In reality, sharks are only responsible for less than ten deaths annually, according to the Florida Museum at the University of Florida. More people are struck and killed by lightning, which probably makes choking to death on a piece of popcorn while watching a shark attack movie even more likely.
Your head is safely above water for the moment, and your body is well above ground.
Jaws, meanwhile, was likely responsible for the thalassophobia that haunts many people today, including the writer of this essay. But the film is also likely responsible for creating so many aficionados of brilliant filmmaking today, water-based or otherwise.
And Bait may not be a deep movie, but it’s certainly one that will have you plumbing the depths for more films of its kind.
So, dive beneath the surface.
And don’t forget to hold your breath before doing so.