The fear of falling prey to a predator cuts through the human psyche like, well, teeth through flesh. It's a purely rational fear, yet one that lays somewhat dormant within our modern selves; unlike our cave-dwelling past, when all sorts of beasts could tear at us at any moment, the prospect of stumbling into a pride of sabre-toothed lions in downtown city centres is pretty slim. Yet despite this fear, we plunge ourselves into the cooling waters of the ocean, somehow ignoring the threat posed by that last remnant of our prehistoric past, nature's most infamous killing machine – the shark.
Australian residents acutely understand the threat of sharks. In 1939, director Rupert Kathner (immortalised in Alec Morgan's 2006 film Hunt Angels) captured newsreel footage of Australian society's fear of the shark: the shark-proofing of Coogee Beach; the hunt for sharks in Sydney Harbour; the showcasing of concrete towers where lifeguards sound warning bells when a shark is spotted; and a brief profile of Beryl Morrin, the 13-year-old who lost both arms in an attack in Sydney's Georges River.
As long as Australians could get on or in the water with a camera, our film culture has been infused with the universal awe and fear of sharks. Legendary marine expert Ron Taylor captured some of the first underwater footage of sharks in his 1965 film, Shark Fighters; documentarian John Harding played up the 'Beauty and the Beast' angle in offshore odysseys Aquarius, People of the Sea (1970) and Australian Seafari (1986); and Andrew Traucki utilised real footage to serve a rather unreal storyline of lost-at-sea thirty-somethings and the great white that stalked them in The Reef (2010).
As cinema's potency in capturing extreme human experiences increased, so did its depiction of sharks. Tuna fisherman Edward G. Robinson waged war against the titular fish who took his hand in Howard Hawks' Tiger Shark (1932); that same year, directors Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack caused a stir with the censors with their shocking shark attack sequence in the cult classic The Most Dangerous Game; in 1950, Roddy McDowall starred in the father-son fishing saga, Killer Shark; two brothers (Bill Cord and Don Durant) find love and terror amongst the shark-worshipping women of the South Pacific in Roger Corman's She Gods of Shark Reef (1958); and Burt Reynolds navigated shark-infested waters to appease Sylvia Pinal in Samuel Fuller's Shark! (1969). Four earlier, James Bond had his first encounter with the underwater menace in Terence Young's Thunderball (1965), the beginning of a man/shark relationship that would resurface again in John Glen's Licence to Kill (1989), which features one of cinema's more convincing attack scenes.
Of course, it was Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) that cemented the shark as the great modern movie monster. A masterpiece of suspense, the landmark Hollywood film nevertheless demonised a creature in its wildly fanciful depiction of a great white shark inhabiting the estuaries and shorelines of Amity Island. Scientific inaccuracies abound but the mould was cast and an industry of imitators was launched, each trying to out-gross (in every sense of the word) the greatest shark film ever made. Few were more guilty of exploiting Spielberg's legacy than its own sequels – Jeannot Szwarc's okay Jaws 2 (1978), Joe Alves' laughable Jaws 3D (1983) and Joseph Sargent's abysmal Jaws: The Revenge (1987), of which star Michael Caine remarked “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible; however, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”
World cinema was soon caught up in shark fever, too, and money-hungry producers from every corner of the globe began churning out sharky-schlockbusters. From Mexico came director René Cardona Jr., the go-to guy for high-sea horror, firstly with ¡Tintorera! (1977), which pitted Susan George against two swarthy fishermen and a merciless Tiger shark, then Cyclone (1978), featuring a crashed-plane worth of injured survivors in the open water. German producers jumped aboard with Jorgo Papavassiliou's Hai-Alarm auf Mallorca (2004, aka Shark Alarm), starring Austrian he-man Ralf Moeller battling a monstrous megalodon, a prehistoric Carcharodon thought to be long extinct but which has recently re-emerged as a B-movie star in films such as Shark Hunter (2001) Megalodon (2002) and the in-production adaptation of Steve Alten's bestseller, Meg (2012). Japanese director Yôichi Sai put many shark-lovers offside with his negative depiction and subsequent vengeful retribution against the sharks of Nago, Okinawa, in his 2009 drama, Kamui. And Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar faced-off against the blacktip reef sharks of the Bahamas in Anthony D'Souza's Blue (2009), the Indian spin on the Jessica Alba underwater hit, Into the Blue (2005).
But it is Italy that has mined the murky depths of mankind's fear of the shark most gratuitously. Enzo G. Castellari's L'ultimo squalo (1981, aka The Last Shark, pictured) was the most shameless Jaws impersonator, but equally successful were Lamberto Bava's Shark: Rosso nell'oceano (1984, aka Devil Fish), Tonino Ricci's La notte degli squali (1988, aka Night of the Sharks), Raf Donato's Sangue nelli abissi (1990, aka Deep Blood) and, most recently, Danny Lerner's rather regrettable Shark in Venice (2008), starring Stephen Baldwin. The Italian shark genre reached its creative zenith in 1979, however, when gore-guru Lucio Fulci staged a quite incredible shark-vs.-the-undead sequence for his shocker, Zombie 2.
Barring Renny Harlin's hugely enjoyable but completely daft monster-shark romp, Deep Blue Sea (1999), our mortal marine enemies have been treated with a modicum of respect by filmmakers in recent times. Jack Sholder's Twelve Days of Terror (2005) recreated the panic that gripped the small town of Matawan in 1916 when a shark invaded the local swimming hole; Chris Kentis' Open Water (2003) shot actors Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis amidst real sharks in his recount of the true story of two snorkelers mistakenly left at sea; and Pixar (Finding Nemo, 2003), Dreamworks Animation (Shark Tale, 2004) and Robert Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios (The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D, 2005) have all created anthropomorphic sharks for the kids to fall in love with.
Perhaps the fear-based prejudice directed at sharks is under control as it seems mankind's natural trepidation is growing more into a healthy respect. But that may not last long: David R. Ellis' Shark Night 3D melds slasher tropes with shark thrills; Halle Berry has her Johannesburg-shot white pointer thriller Dark Tide ready for release; Robert Downey Jr. has optioned the rights to the story of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, a horrifying case of shark-vs.-man famously recounted in Robert Shaw's monologue in Jaws; and Australian director Russell Mulcahy is 'crafting' Bait, a sharks-in-a-supermarket shocker recently filmed on the Gold Coast.