Shark Lake (2015)

Shark Lake (2015)
Dir.: Jerry Dugan
Cinema 4 Rating: 3/9
Shark species: Bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas)
Hero species: Dolph Lundgren (Wearius longindatoothinas)

I suppose that if one were to assign a particular shark species to the actor Dolph Lundgren, a bull shark might be a fairly decent choice. Known for their tenacity and aggressive behavior, the bull shark with its tough guy physique and unstoppable bite force seems to be a perfect parallel to action star Lundgren, now pushing sixty and hanging by his fingertips onto whatever he has left of a Hollywood career. This struggle seems to include appearing in films of the caliber of Shark Lake, where Dolph crosses paths -- in Lake Tahoe, of all places -- with that very same bull shark.

That's right... Lake Tahoe. One might at first do an extremely comedic double-take upon hearing that this alpine-style lake on the California-Nevada border is being mentioned in connection with a film about bull shark attacks. But one has to remember that while shark films are loaded generally with massive leaps in logic, of the relatively few sharks that could, given the proper scenario, conceivably live and thrive in such a lake, the bull shark is the species that would likely pull it off the best. 

Bull sharks are common visitors up freshwater rivers worldwide, including our own Mississippi, and even appear rather frequently in bodies of water such as Lake Nicaragua, Lake Pontchartrain, and Lake Michigan. Whether these bull sharks get into these lakes via tributaries, rivers, or flooding, once there, their ability to handle different water salinities (known as being euryhaline, allowing them access to both fresh and saltwater systems with little effect on their bodies) gives the bull shark the ability to thrive anywhere, one of the very few cartilaginous fishes that can do so.

Sara Malakul Lane with
Lily Brooks O'Briant.
So, the only leap that the filmmakers really have to make in having a bull shark run rampant in a place like Lake Tahoe is actually getting that shark into the lake. While Tahoe has many tributaries connected to it, none of them lead directly to or from the Pacific Ocean. How will Lake Tahoe become Bull Shark Central? This is where Dolph Lundgren comes into the picture. Lundgren gets top billing in Shark Lake as Clint Gray, a troubled man who makes money on the side as a wild animal smuggler. While we won't learn of these details until a little bit further into the film, Clint is planning to deliver a bull shark to a sleazy mobster named Don Barnes, but at the start of the picture, the Lake County Sheriff's office is fast on his trail, including a deputy officer named Meredith Hernandez (played only fleetingly convincingly by former model Sara Malakul Lane). 

The film opens with scenic shots of Lake Tahoe, and you should probably enjoy them while you can, because most of this film was shot in Mississippi. Hernandez and the sheriff (Lance E. Nichols) are creeping through the woods to try to arrest Clint Gray. Seeing his door ajar, they enter and find in the dark a bloody handprint (never explained), a bloody knife on the ground, several animal cages and tanks inside his house, some of them smashed and bent, and living animals such as a constrictor and a large catfish. Suddenly, a white Ford van takes off outside, and the police give chase. We finally see Gray inside the van, and as he drives frantically through the night, he makes a call to arrange a delivery time with someone. But suddenly, he crashes his van through a railing and the vehicle dives deep into the waters of Lake Tahoe.

Our big opening clue as to the villain of the film...
besides the title, that is...
We never see the van enter the water (we just hear a budget-saving splash sound effect) and the next time we see Gray/Dolph, he is swimming at the bottom of the lake, the headlights from his van illuminating the water around him from behind. As he swims to make his getaway, we see the shadowy outline of a fairly good-sized shark swimming behind him. The shark, which later will act completely ravenous, doesn't even make a bite-sized attempt to try to go after Dolph. Dolph swims one way; the shark swims the other.

The film will be built around this moment: when the shark supposedly goes in the water. But the director gives us no help in this matter. While we could ascertain that Gray is an animal smuggler from the evidence of the cages in his home, he could also just be an animal enthusiast with a series of pets beyond the norm. For all we know going into the story, Gray is just a guy on the wrong side of the law, his alleged crimes wholly unmentioned by the police. We don't know anything about the shark, not even a clue. The first time we know there might be a shark in the film is in the title; the second is when we see the shadowed outline of the shark in the water behind Gray.

No joke... his missing arm will turn up on the bottom
of the lake to be discovered by a diver. The shark
doesn't even eat it. Sharks hate old people.
As I said, the film doesn't help at all or even give us decent clues. There is no fleeting shot of a tank in the back of his van as he makes his escape, and since we never see the actual van in the water except for a pair of obvious CGI headlights, we don't get a shot of an open door or busted window to give us the shorthand to tell the story. It's almost like they went back and said, "You know, I'm not sure the audience will understand that a shark has escaped into the lake. Maybe we would should put in a CGI effect of a shark swimming behind Dolph so they will get it." (Or they could have just taken the necessary measures to storyboard an action sequence properly...)

"Here, let me just gum ya for a bit!"
Also, unless I am misinterpreting the effect, the shark seems to be of pretty good size when it hits the lake. I know the main character is played by Dolph Lundgren, so you can make allowances for him pulling some strongman antics when needed, but a tank that can hold a decent-sized bull shark for transport is going to need to be pretty sturdy and with good water capacity. Did Gray just happen to manage to sneakily slide the tank into the van before the police arrived? There was no empty tank shown in the house, so it's unlikely he just grabbed the shark with his hands and threw it into the back of the van without any water. He is, after all, attempting to deliver the shark to a big time mobster, so there is a lot of money involved, and I doubt he would take a chance like that when it is, as he tells the man on the phone, going to get there "in twenty minutes." And if he did just throw the shark into the back of the van, don't you think he would be more than worried that he is sliding all over the road with what is often considered to be one of the most aggressive and dangerous sharks in the world just slipping around in the back of his van? And even if the shark was secured inside a tank in the back of his van, wouldn't there be a lot of complications when he does get into that fast-paced, wildly careening car chase all over the backroads of Lake County in the middle of the night? You see, this is the stuff that drives me crazy...

"This would be even more delicious if I were
actually in the same shot as this guy!"
I focus so much on the beginning of this film because the rest of Shark Lake entirely hinges on us believing that Lundgren's character allowed a bull shark to escape into Lake Tahoe. But there is another major sub-plot of the film that must be mentioned. Following Gray's arrest on the shores of the lake, Officer Hernandez is seen in the sheriff's office bonding with Gray's tiny, tow-headed daughter, Carly, herself already motherless (she is found all alone in Gray's house during the home invasion, I mean, necessary intrusion by the police. Hey, I didn't see a warrant...) The film then cuts to five years later. Hernandez has adopted Carly, and is now nervous about Clint Gray's recent release from prison. Much of the drama of the film, outside of the shark attack action, is built around the deputy's desire to retain custody of Carly while attempting to thwart Gray's reemergence into his daughter's life.

But we do have to deal with that shark attack action, and this is where Shark Lake is not just at its weakest, but actually serves as a fairly poor example of the genre. From this point forward, in the most steadfast of shark (and monster) attack films, Shark Lake will give us a series of scenes involving locals and tourists coming into deadly contact with the shark, with the usual gradual increase in our viewing of the creature as the attacks progress. It's an accepted storytelling cliche, but things are so much better when the shark scenes that follow are not just sloppy at best but knee-slapping ridiculous at their worst.

Say it...
...don't spray it!
The biggest offender occurs during a beach scene where two girls are paragliding just above the surface of the lake, as Hernandez arrives at the beach to yell at everyone to get out of the water (for she has finally put two and two together and come up with "bull shark in Lake Tahoe"). The head of the bull shark -- far too large for its species, I might add, especially given the size we see in later scenes -- shoots above the water to chomp off the too skinny leg of one of the beach babes dangling above. The shark in no way fits into the movement of the water in the rest of the scene, doesn't appear to be in the same plane of reality with the bodies of the girls in midair, nor is the blood spray that emanates from the girl's flailing stump of a leg even a notch above amateurish. And I love some decent arterial spray in a movie when it is done gratuitously enough, but this, in the manner of many modern, non-practical effects where everyone with two weeks of Photoshop experience thinks they are Tom Savini, is below YouTube shenanigans level. It reminds me of the first time I recognized that the show Psych had decided to save money by having a quickie CGI explosion in place of a good old-fashioned, splinter-scattering kaboom, and it just looked so wrong to me, it kind of pissed me off towards the show for a short period. I understand the need to save money, but... standards, people.

The most effective means of fending off a bull
shark is NOT your crotch... unless you have HPV.
First time feature director Jerry Dugan doesn't seem entirely clueless as to how to build suspense in a scene (just to a large degree), but he is clearly hampered by his budget and the talent of his CGI effects team and the editing. The bulk of the shark effects are indeed CGI work, but I will say that after seeing so many Syfy-style shark films over the past decade, that this is of the same low-grade level. No, I am going to place the bulk of the blame for Shark Lake's ineffectiveness on the script by Gabe Burnstein and David Anderson. There is a sense in their storyline that they are trying to not be so apparent with the motivations of their characters, thinking that keeping it a mystery about how exactly the shark got into the lake and why it is around at all is their first big suspenseful reveal. But because the Lundgren character is jammed into the surrounding story so choppily, the details of this reveal just make the film seem confused and annoying by the time we get to it.

"Hey, Ma! Do I have to smile like this
the entire time in the film?"
However, if I can give Shark Lake any credit at all, it's due to the fact that while the film may be absolutely lazy in delivering decent shark thrills, Burnstein and Anderson certainly try to cram in far more plot than a film of this level normally does. They also try to do a bit more with their characters, including the insertion of a young scientist "with a PhD" (played pleasantly enough by Michael Aaron Milligan) and a sleazy British guy who hosts a fishing adventure show that is probably meant to invoke River Monsters (though without Jeremy Wade's dedicated appeal). This doesn't excuse the fact that Lundgren's role remains far too underwritten, not that the film would have been any better with more of him. In fact, it would actually be far more interesting to me to see this film redone where the Lundgren character -- that of the recidivist criminal father of a young girl adopted by a far too possessive police officer -- is a figment of the deputy's mind the entire time, and that all of her actions in the film are driven by her obsession with him returning at some point, when in fact he never does.

The tortilla chip swirled in salsa by Randall in Clerks
was a more believable shark fin than this
magical CGI creation. 
Everyone, however, is simply more prospective fodder for the sharks -- yes, sharks -- because the other big reveal is that the shark that went into the lake at the beginning was a pregnant female. So now the police and the citizenry have to contend with a mother shark and her two monstrous pups at loose in the waters. There will be numerous scenes where CGI bull sharks, with ridiculous mouth movements, will be cut into shots of people flailing their limbs about in the water. We will get absolutely ineffective POV shots of what we presume is a shark swimming between two rocks more than once. If Joe Bob Briggs were still doing these things, he might make mention of the "crotch fu" used in one shark attack scene (see the picture above). Finally, we will get a few abysmal "dorsal fin moving through the water" shots in Shark Lake, but one (in the image to the right) I have to put on the short list of the worst of all time. There might be worse ones out there in the annals of shark film history, but it is the one that is freshest in my mind. It makes me long for the days when the effect was done with a floating dorsal fin being pulled through the water. At least that was honest work...

Sara Malakul Lane in her old day job.
As I mentioned earlier, the comely and freckle-faced, Thai-English actress Lane (also seen by my own set of eyes in SharktopusPernicious [my review here] and Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs) is not entirely effective in her role as Deputy Hernandez, but this is not to say I did not enjoy her presence in the film. If anything good comes out of the schlock in which she acts one film after the other, is that we seem to have a modern scream queen on our hands. (Quality of acting or even talent was never a necessary aspect of scream queens anyway.) And there is a side to her role where, acting-wise, she is most effective; Sara Lane is at her best in her shared scenes with Lily Brooks O'Briant, a young actress who displays some much needed charisma in the midst of all this dullness and cheap effects. As for Dolph, Lundgren looks so tired throughout the film; whether he is just tired in general or from making cheap ass film after cheap ass film to keep current is hard to discern. However, ol' Dolph also has his best moments in Shark Lake when he has O'Briant at his side, so I just guess the little girl must be responsible for the best acting of multiple principals in the film. Can we put her behind the camera as well?

There is a point where Lane's character says, while reflecting on the death of an incidental character, "It's my fault. I shouldn't have let him come out here. We shouldn't be out here." Well, yeah... the single best way to not get attacked by sharks in a particular body of water is to not go in that water in the first place. So, you really only have yourself to blame, sister. On the other hand, you can't have a killer shark movie with someone getting killed by a shark. And unless your film is a total fantasia about sharks skipping about on dry land to munch on the populace, well, someone has to go in the water eventually. Might as well be you.

Just stay out of Lake Tahoe. The place is crawling with bull sharks. And Dolph Lundgrens.
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