Live every week like it’s Shark Week” — in a way, this is perhaps the least insane one-liner ever uttered by Tracy Morgan’s character on 30 Rock. Hey, why not? Around the world, at any age, nature’s current most fearsome killing machines are both awe-inspiring and terrifying, and you could do much worse than to spend an evening watching them ruthlessly tear things apart. Problem is, the Discovery Channel’s flagship programming block, which began its 25th-anniversary round on August 12, only turns up once a year; this leaves a massive gap during which we have no shark-related videos to watch. So what’s a carcharophile to do?
If you instinctively turn to Netflix Instant in these situations, as most of us probably would, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise. Many larger movie studios routinely refuse to license their biggest cash cows for streaming, which is why there is exactly one James Cameron movie available (in case you’re curious, it’s the first Terminator). Shark-attack films have by now largely transcended their overlapping parent genres — horror, thrillers, monster movies — and instead carved out their own comfortable little cult niche with movie buffs, within which the restrictions on streaming licenses have reached such heights of absurdity that literally none of the major recognizable titles are available.
No Jaws? OK, that’s understandable — it created the genre, defined the modern summer blockbuster, and has given us countless deeply ingrained cultural memes. And fine, Jaws 2 gets a pass here as well. (Have you seen it? It’s not half-bad!) But when even the fourth installment in the series gets pulled despite its comically implausible finale, something has gone horribly wrong. There’s also no sign of Deep Blue Sea, the 1999 circus romp starring Samuel L. Jackson and LL Cool J (which, it must be said, has aged surprisingly well), nor Open Water, the 2003 indie sleeper hit where budget constraints led the directors to film their actors swimming with actual hungry sharks instead of expensive animatronics.
Instead, you’ll find mostly third-rate nonsense full of plot holes and abysmal special effects. Most egregious among these are the entries from The Asylum, an especially audacious production studio that runs an assembly line for brazenly cheap “mockbusters” with titles like Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus, each of which is made for under a million dollars and then coasts to profitability on pure campiness. Even those have very little serious competition; it’s truly a wasteland out there, folks. We’ve watched every available shark-attack movie so you don’t have to — but if you must, there are still a handful of unexpected bright spots, and our (WARNING: SPOILER-FILLED) annotated guide will help you find them.
Length: 90 minutes
Fun Factor: 7 out of 10
Stupidity Factor: 5 out of 10
Summary: Genetically engineered supersharks created by the military for defensive purposes suddenly become weaponized. Luckily, the scientists responsible can use their laptops to force them to make dramatic right turns at the last minute — at least until they discover that their intern has sabotaged their experiments because he hides the dark soul of a shark terrorist beneath his nu-metal goatee. Most of the sharks are handily destroyed offscreen by the beaming of self-destruct signals to their brain-control chips from a MacGyvered car stereo, but the remaining rogue agent survives and starts carrying the suitcase bomb in its mouth toward destinations unknown.
Production: The shark CGI is awful, but all the other shots hold up well enough.
Humans: Three scientists, some faceless military muscle, and a janitor of sorts played by Christine Lakin, otherwise best known for her role as tomboy daughter Al on the TGIF sitcom Step by Step.
Sharks: Five cooperative models and one malfunctioning unit that does not always follow directions well.
Body Count: Three, which is just one person for every two sharks and thus a complete embarrassment.
Ridiculous Quote: “I have three hysterical college girls in the hospital right now. No, no, no, let me rephrase that — I have three and a half hysterical girls in there.” — Scientist’s bureaucrat boss, who also happens to be a little person.
Something Even Dumber: People who are already on the beach running further inland in terror after a surfer is attacked.
Length: 90 minutes
Fun Factor: 3
Stupidity Factor: 2
Summary: A group of divers exploring a sunken Spanish galleon rumored to contain a stash of diamonds is attacked by a swarm of great whites. When the sharks suddenly make an economically inconvenient resurgence many years later during the nearest town’s annual beachfront festival, the sole survivor puts together a team to hunt them down and avenge his father, but instead gets manipulated into helping some creepy guy with an accent recover the diamonds. We quickly learn that the sharkproof diving cage isn’t actually sharkproof (this seems like a pretty serious design flaw), and then things just go downhill from there.
Production: While staring down the throat of an angry shark, you can see water splashing about where one would ordinarily expect an esophageal tract. When he finally grabs his prey, there’s a shot of gore and guts splashing up against the boat, focused in a tight stream as though it’s being shot from a fire hose.
Humans: Your protagonist is a shark-hating freelance writer (what up!) and SCUBA diving expert who has nonetheless raised his young son to be terrified of the ocean. The mayor declines to close the beaches during the festival even after a half-dozen sharks theatrically gobble up at least as many beachgoers.
Sharks: Multiple, thank goodness, because these people are all intolerable.
Body Count: Twenty-seven, plus one chomped leg of indeterminate consequence and one gruesome death during a dream sequence from which our hero awakens in a cold sweat.
Ridiculous Quote: “C’mon, baby, we’ve never done it in a kelp bed.” — SCUBA horndog
Something Even Dumber: Their first go-to shark-hunting move consists of dropping depth charges from helicopters.
Shark Attack in the Mediterranean (a.k.a. Hai-Alarm Auf Mallorca)
Length: 92 minutes
Fun Factor: 6
Stupidity Factor: 4
Summary: Next to a mangled body, helicopter pilot Sven Hansen finds a shark tooth the size of a Frisbee which strikes him as suspiciously similar to the other Frisbee-size shark tooth he found years before — the one from the shark that killed his beloved wife. Thus begins the latest round of these movies once again obsessing over the megalodon, an enormous prehistoric shark that dwarfed the great white by a factor of five until it died out 1.5 million years ago. Or did it? With a conveniently minimal amount of actual research, Hansen uncovers a sinister link between the reappearance of the monster and the very people he’s been trusting to help him further investigate it.
Production: Despite being a German made-for-TV movie, it’s usually passable aside from the terrible English dubbing, so this might have been worthwhile if the script wasn’t so half-baked.
Humans: Overprotective helicoptering father, headstrong daughter, backstabbing best friend.
Sharks: Several normal species and one enormous megalodon.
Body Count: Just four, which is entirely too few victims and seems to leave a huge metabolic gap unaccounted for.
Ridiculous Quote: “My freezer is empty, and this big feller can feed me for a year.” — but who’s actually eating who, Sven?
Something Even Dumber: It seems like there’s always a helicopter incident in these films, right? This one, however, ends with the shark getting slashed by the rotors.
Length: 87 minutes
Fun Factor: 2
Stupidity Factor: 9
Summary: The unreasonably tiny boat hosting a “Semester at Sea” program gets damaged when the brutally mutilated corpse of a regular old single-headed shark accidentally gets chopped apart by its propeller. The students are ferried to a nearby island to wait out the repairs, but the fresh blood attracts the titular monster again, who proceeds to pick them off one by one — er, two by two. When earthquakes start causing the island to sink down into the ocean, the remaining survivors suddenly remember the ending from Jaws and blow the shark apart using a barrel of gasoline that conveniently happens to float by.
Production: The CGI looks like it was made with an iPad app, and at one point footage is recycled twice within three minutes.
Humans: Charlie O’Connell, who is a dead ringer for his elder brother Jerry and starring here in a film that is not entirely unlike Piranha 3D. And my, where did we go so wrong with you, Carmen Elektra?
Sharks: Should we count this as one shark or two?
Body Count: Twenty-five, not counting the crew of the ship, whose fate is never explained.
Ridiculous Quote: “Two heads is twice as many teeth!” — Valedictorian, we must presume
Something Even Dumber: The climactic final battle to blow up the shark actually unfolds twice — once for each head.
Length: 88 minutes
Fun Factor: 6
Stupidity Factor: 7
Summary: Migrating whales who get confused and repeatedly bump into an ice shelf eventually crack it apart and accidentally free two frozen prehistoric sea monsters who start terrorizing the high seas. When the beasts face off separately against local military forces in both San Francisco and Tokyo but all human weapons prove ineffective, the only remaining option seems to be manipulating them into killing one another.
Production: On at least four occasions they reuse the same footage of a shark fin zipping through the water, which doesn’t seem like a terribly expensive shot to duplicate as necessary. Perhaps more tellingly, the scientists are using CRT monitors during the lab scenes. Best of all: When the American naval sets are repurposed for use with the Japanese military, the lighting is simply changed from blue to yellow, which might have seemed a wee bit racially insensitive if the bar weren’t already set so ludicrously low.
Humans: Lorenzo Lamas and ’80s pop singer Debbie Gibson.
Sharks: Just the one, but he sure is Mega! Here, again, is the megalodon, although the military dudes keep insisting on calling him “Sharkzilla.”
Body Count: Who knows? The sheer size of the animals means they’re inclined to attack similarly massive targets: a naval warship, an oil drilling platform, the Golden Gate Bridge, and then of course there’s the infamous airplane scene. Keeping track of the lives lost becomes impossible, which is probably precisely why you are supposed to conclude that this movie is totally sweet.
Ridiculous Quote: “And how do you propose we get these things to their ideal locations? Send them an Evite?” — Navy guy who thinks the plan would work better if they went with a more personal e-mail.
Something Even Dumber: Two scientists trying to figure out how to attract the monsters have their eureka moment while hooking up on a battleship: “We can use pheromones!”
Length: 100 minutes
Fun Factor: 2
Stupidity Factor: 1
Summary: Here’s a fictional narrative embedded in the true story of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, which was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine during the summer of 1945. Hundreds of sailors ended up adrift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean while for a full five days a bureaucratic mishap kept anyone back home from realizing that the ship had even gone under. This one is substantially a military drama rather than just a creature feature, but the torpedoes hit within about 20 minutes and the sharks start showing up shortly thereafter. The rescuers do come eventually, too, but bizarrely, the film then briefly shifts into courtroom drama mode, much like an episode of Law & Order, following the eventual court-martial of the captain and an inquiry into whether his evasive maneuvers and eventual evacuation orders were handled by the book.
Production: Simplicity befitting a 20-year-old made-for-television dramatic production.
Humans: Over 300 survivors, one of whom is unfortunately David Caruso.
Sharks: Countless hungry tiger sharks.
Body Count: Per the official statistics delivered after the rescue, 880. This is still the single incident with the most fatalities in the entire history of the U.S. Navy, but then again that’s probably due more to the ship sinking than to the shark attacks.
Ridiculous Quote: “On the night of July 29, can you describe what happened, Petty Officer Goldstein?” “I had a bad case of the runs and the ship sank.” — Permission to treat the witness as hostile, your honor?
Something Even Dumber: Five or more burly men trying to scramble into an inflatable rubber dinghy that’s barely floating above the surface of the water is a sight to behold.
Length: 87 minutes
Fun Factor: 6
Stupidity Factor: 2
Summary: A cheaper Mexican knockoff rushed to market immediately following the mammoth success of Jaws, Tintorera pits the titular tiger shark against an American businessman who owns entirely too many boats and brings all of them to a quiet resort town in search of some exotic tail. Once the local hotties start getting eaten, though, he teams up with his suave Latino rival to play shark hunter and track down the responsible maneater in between all the sexual romps.
Production: Surprisingly strong! For one thing, it tries a genuinely unique spin on the ominous approach music that other derivative shark movies often prefer to just rip off from John Williams’s famous Jaws theme. The technological limitations of the day actually made this quite visually interesting, since at the time it wasn’t possible to just pawn everything off on the computers and post-production and then drop the ball digitally. The sharks are definitely real, the attacks are plenty intimidating, and the setting is painted almost entirely with beautiful pastel palettes and brilliant orange sunsets that are a delight to take in.
Humans: They’re all cardboard and narcissistic. It’s hard to decide what’s funnier — the white people just wantonly chucking their empty champagne bottles overboard, or the indelicate metaphor of the two Casanovas chasing women in much the same way the shark hunts the swimmers (one poor girl even gets ripped in half while making out with one of them).
Sharks: When the beast finally shows up, you almost have to root for it because by that point you’ve seen the douchebag duo shoot too many hapless smaller sharks right in the face. I never thought I’d find myself so pleased by the sight of dangling entrails, but there’s a first time for everything.
Body Count: Three, plus one attack that is briefly mentioned but not actually seen.
Ridiculous Quote: “It’s not the one I want, but I’m going to kill him anyway. I hate these bastards.” — This would be the American guy, obviously.
Something Even Dumber: The tiger shark wheezes dramatically during close-ups.
Length: 88 minutes
Fun Factor: 5
Stupidity Factor: 6
Summary: Just when you thought it was safe to start watching shark movies again, The Asylum cranked out another one of these damn things; guess we finally know who won the cliffhanger at the end of the last matchup. But when an evil Australian mining corporation accidentally awakens an enormous prehistoric crocodile, the Mick Dundee/Steve Irwin/Alan Grant type they hire to bring it in skews conservative on the tranquilizer dosage and it ends up escaping into the ocean during transit because of — you guessed it — a megalodon attack. This time, however, it’s not just about the creatures duking it out — the two expert advisors also spend the whole movie bickering over whose animal is cooler. The power balance finally appears to have shifted definitively when thousands of 10-foot baby giant crocs start to hatch from the mother’s eggs, but luckily they all decide to congregate right next to an underwater volcano.
Production: This time they at least do us the common courtesy of flipping the recycled footage around to its mirror image such that it looks like the shark is jumping in two different directions.
Humans: Jaleel White as a jargon-spewing lieutenant employed to research sharks for the navy in the wake of the first megalodon fiasco almost makes this worth it, until you realize that Steve Urkel might actually have had to resort to ROTC in order to pay for college, and then it just becomes kind of a bummer. But don’t worry, you’ll quickly lose all sympathy for him again after his tearful farewell to his girlfriend, who is killed on the deck of the ship by a falling piece of rope.
Sharks: The shark is much, much bigger this time around; its dorsal fin is the size of a large iceberg, and the battleship gun turrets are always aimed skyward toward it (it’s not entirely clear why they decide not to point them at the shark’s body, but I am not an especially experienced megalodon attack strategist).
Body Count: Once again, they mostly attack giant targets that presumably contain a lot of people, because plastic models are cheaper than extras.
Ridiculous Quote: “You’ll never kill it. Have you ever seen the exoskeleton of these things?” — Actually, neither of these things has an exoskeleton, professor.
Something Even Dumber: Everyone becomes reluctant to shoot at the shark after it effectively turns itself into a bomb by eating a nuclear-powered submarine.
Length: 90 minutes
Fun Factor: 8
Stupidity Factor: 3
Summary: An ethnically diverse group of college students heads out for a weekend of drunken debauchery soundtracked by indie rock songs at the rich girl’s lake house, which is so remote that it can only be reached by boat and is outside the coverage areas for all possible cell service providers, even with roaming charges. Things fall apart quickly after the token black guy is mysteriously and critically injured while wakeboarding; at first they think he lost his arm to a propeller. Nope! During the commotion surrounding their attempts to get the poor guy to a hospital, sharks of all different varieties soon start picking off the rest of the gang — which is weird because it’s a lake, right? Turns out it’s actually a saltwater lake right next to the gulf, and the local hillbillies have been deliberately importing sharks across the barrier after first rigging them up with wireless cameras with which they hope to shoot unprecedented close-ups of the attacks to sell to the Discovery Channel for — you guessed it — Shark Week.
Production: Certainly the fanciest of the bunch, including a hefty budget for 3-D effects that unfortunately make for a bit of an awkward transition back to standard 2-D.
Humans: Sara Paxton, Katharine McPhee, and the nerdy guy from Avatar.
Sharks: As varied as the human cast — thresher, tiger, hammerhead, great white — but most notably including the tiny but totally awesome “cookie-cutter shark,” which mercilessly gouges out deep, rounded pockets of flesh from its victims with each bite.
Body Count: Eight.
Ridiculous Quote: “What is cable television’s longest-running programming event? Last year alone it was watched by more than 20 million viewers! Ticktock, ticktock? Shark Week!” — Evil redneck who still subscribes to TV Guide.
Something Even Dumber: After losing his right arm and enough blood to provide the film’s catalytic medical crisis, the first victim hops out of bed, walks it off, and then heads out alone on a one-armed, left-handed spearfishing expedition to avenge the death of his girlfriend.
Length: 87 minutes
Fun Factor: 8
Stupidity Factor: 1
Summary: After accidentally crashing and then capsizing their yacht, five Australian weekend warriors must choose between either swimming through shark-infested waters toward the nearest island or waiting it out on the slowly sinking vessel as the current carries them even farther away. The swimmers soon end up off course, and then a huge shark starts circling them from a distance.
Production: The most striking thing about this film is its patience — the almost complete absence of activity, even. Whereas Jaws famously didn’t show you the monster until two-thirds of the way through the movie, here you’re kept waiting just as long to see even the first non-fatal bite. It’s about the psychology more than the violence — most of the movie is just spent nervously bobbing up and down wondering what might be below the surface or over the next cresting wave, and eventually you find that wide expanses of blue have become inherently terrifying. It’s exceedingly rare for a shark film to unfold entirely in the shark’s territory, without any bikinis or water skiers or drunken fishermen or other easy tropes, but this is still hands down the best shark movie on Netflix.
Humans: There’s essentially no attempt at character development aside from Suzie’s tendency to hyperventilate whenever the dreaded dorsal fin surfaces (which, frankly, seems quite reasonable), but at least they all have Australian accents.
Sharks: A handful of smaller sharks circling the boat and one terrific great white that remains obsessed with stalking the swimmers even after they eventually stumble on a reef teeming with other potential prey.
Body Count: Four, plus one presumed dead.
Ridiculous Quote: “We must have hit something! A reef? A whale?” — Luke also seems to have bonked his head in the crash, because that’s just crazy talk.
Something Even Dumber: The first attack victim promptly floats back up to the surface and starts complaining rather calmly about his missing leg.
Vijith Assar (@vijithassar) is a writer living in New York City. He contributes regularly to Spin and The Village Voice.