Sunday, August 07, 2016

Ozark Sharks (2016)

Ozark Sharks (2016)
Dir.: Misty Talley
TC4P Rating: 3/9
Species: Bull sharks.

Backwoods terror is a mainstay category within the horror genre, and so I find it unsurprising that attacks of the rural variety should start occurring in the shark film subgenre as well. There have already been any number of more sea monster-oriented films taking place out in the country, and snakehead films have been popular in recent years as well. And, of course, gator and croc films have always been in abundance, and those, naturally, come with the requisite amount of stock hillbilly characters ready to whoop it up and have their shotgun-bearing arms bitten off or to suddenly get eaten after they have decided to dynamite the swamp to "git whatever 'tis out there that ate ol' Cooter las' night!"

So, when I heard there was a film being premiered during this year's Sharknado Week on the Syfy Channel a couple of weeks ago called Ozark Sharks, I thought that I knew what I was getting. I figured immediately it was going to be exactly like one of those gator films, only with sharks. I thought it would just be rednecks getting all fired up about killing a bunch of sharks, only to end up on the smorgasbord one after the other because each one does something more inane than the last one. Surprisingly, it wasn't that at all. Once more, because it was an original Syfy film, it wasn't the least bit original in any respect, but it also wasn't the south-bashing exercise I thought it might be.

Not that it actually was filmed in the Ozarks though... the family unit that will make up the core of main characters in the film – middle-age parents Rick and Diane (Michael Papajohn and Laura Cayouette), daughter Molly (Allisyn Ashley Arm) and son Harrison (Dave Davis) –may decide to head to the Ozarks (against the kids' wishes, mind you) for a family vacation, but everything that takes place was filmed in Louisiana, quite far from the area Ozark Mountain region mostly found in upper Arkansas and lower Missouri. No matter... I guess southern is what the filmmakers want, and Louisiana is still southern to them. Besides, except for a single character, this film could take place practically anywhere that a bull shark could access via a river system, in the north, south, east, or west. The region really doesn't matter at all, but that title might bring people to watch it.


Even though her character's name is Dawn,
I steadfastly refuse to make a joke about
being "up at the crack of" her...
And those bull sharks I just mentioned... Ozark Sharks is another film in the currently popular bull shark trend in shark films. I reviewed Shark Lake not too long ago, and Dam Sharks was the second film premiered during this year's Sharknado Week. It seems the little buggers are swimming all around America's river system, and this time, they have sneaked their way upriver to a small resort in the Ozark Mountains, where they are really pissed off about something that will go pretty much unresolved during the course of the film. Regardless, the bulls start killing people at a pretty reckless pace, starting with a quartet of young adults out for a flirtatious good time in the shallow water of the river. One girl, who actually gets a name – Dawn – because she will figure into the plot later, sees a shark fin in the water to her surprise, but it disappears so quickly, she can't believe what she saw. She steps forward and then turns to talk to the other girl, but her friend is gone. She turns back to the guy she is with, and he is thrashing in the water and then disappears. The fourth member of their party, the other guy, had gone back to shore for something, but runs back when he realizes there is trouble. He, too, is taken under, and Dawn swims across the river, and clambers up onto an overhanding tree that has fallen over the river.


Not that I ever approve of the use of either, what these
ladies need here is a combined "selfie shark stick"...
Later, two other girls are sunbathing on floating chairs. The hotter of the two girls (played by Becky Andrews, who had much more screen time as Bridgette in Zombie Shark, by the same director a year earlier) takes a selfie of the pair. As they check out the resulting photo, they are both so vain that they fail to notice the very clear shark fin that has photobombed them in the background. (It's actually the first solid joke in the film, and there a few of them; Ozark Sharks has a decent sense of humor about itself.) Soon enough, the second girl has been eaten, leaving just a bloody, shredded rubber chair floating on the water. The first girl has enough sense to start paddling away but it is already too late for her.

When the family arrives at the resort, they have also brought the family pet: the kids' grandma, a sweet but sly old lady. Each member of the family has to deal with meeting the seemingly stubborn bait and rental shop owner named Jones (Thomas Francis Murphy), but there is far more to this character than meets the eye. When the shark attacks start, we learn that Jones not only has, completely coincidentally, a harpoon gun hard-mounted to the back of his pickup truck, but is a full-on survivalist who has a workshop which is not only stocked with nearly every known weapon on the market – black or otherwise – but is fond of creating his own variations on those weapons, such as a crossbow rifle that shoots weaponized deer antlers.

You thought the grandma in Dante's Peak had it bad...
Shortly after Molly's no-account doofus of a boyfriend, Curtis (Ross Britz), arrives, Grandma meets her fate in a humorous attack where a bull shark leaps out of the water and latches onto the front half of her body with its mouth, while Molly, who up to this point has been reading Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway endlessly, watches helplessly from the shore. When she runs and gets Harrison, he doesn't believe her and wades across the river to retrieve his Grandma's hat. The shark attacks, and Harrison is only saved at the last minute by a shot from Jones' rifle. Jones, like many such surprising heroes in these films, comes ready with quips for all occasions: "Not a good day to go skinny-dipping." Realizing that something strange is going on in the water around the resort, the romantically unlucky Harrison remembers that his parents went out canoeing as soon as they arrived and he heads downriver to find them. Eventually, Harrison will run into and clumsily rescue the still stranded and starving Dawn from her perch on the fallen tree, and bring her back to the resort and into the family's new vacation plan: fighting bull sharks.


"Alright, I'm gonna count to two and three-quarters..."
The remaining hour of Ozark Sharks is a gradually escalating battle against sharks that seem to get smarter, bolder, and even more athletic as the film progresses. Mom and dad will be found, and despite a certain physical setback or two (that I can count on three fingers; just don't look to the right of this paragraph), they will join and prove surprisingly resourceful in the fight against the finny fiends. Curtis will be frustrated endlessly at Jones' constant refusal at giving him anything more in the weapons department to use against the sharks than a hand grenade, even though the arsenal in the workshop at Jones' house is formidable across the board, to say the least. 

For what is supposed to be a popular working resort, we get very little sense that anybody is visiting the area, apart from the six people attacked at the beginning of the film. There is a big fireworks festival in the final third of the film, but a lot of the people there are supposed to be townies, and even that party seems to have about twenty people at it. So where are the other tourists at the resort? Once again, minuscule budgets can destroy the integrity of a film's atmosphere in many ways, but the careful staging of well-timed extras can help avoid the feeling of a too-empty scene or three. Buy a few lunches, people. It's not that expensive.

What Ozark Sharks has going for it, though, is humor and a game cast. Healthy doses of both. The nice interplay between the cast playing the family is established early on with some scenes at their home before the trip, and it was nice that we didn't get the usual "bickering while on the road trip" stuff we often get in the horror films when people who don't actually like each other at all are forced to spend time together. While many of the actors have seen time in multiple variations within the shark and monster film genre in recent years, I found it interesting to note that at least of the actors appeared in separate episodes within the original season of True Detective (itself filmed mostly in Louisiana). One actress (Cayouette) has also worked twice with Tarantino, and most have a wide variety of credits on their resumes, in addition to getting regular work in Syfy films. Gotta make some spending dough, people; it's called being a working actor. You do what you gotta do.

I particularly enjoyed a scene in the workshop when they are coming up with weapons to use and Curtis notices a bear trap, but realizes that they can't use it because it says "bear" on it. Jones grabs a piece of duct tape, spreads it on the trap, and then uses a Sharpie to write "shark" on it. The film also gets in on the Shark Film Drinking Game by coming up with a variation on a famous line from Jaws. When Jones kills one bull shark in the river, and then they suddenly count six more sharks swimming past them, he mutters, "We're gonna need a BIGGER EVERYTHING!" Which is probably about as big as that line is going to ever get ultimately. There is also the most inventive use of a wood chipper since Fargo hit theatres, which has a payoff that I was not expecting in the least. 

But Jaws is not the only famous shark film referenced. I have noticed recently that a new trend has started to occur in shark films: variations on the Samuel L. Jackson death from Deep Blue Sea. You know the one: the scene in the shark lab where he talks and talks and talks, doing his patented, inspirational "not gonna take it," "had it up to here" patter, where he says directly "Enough!! We're not gonna fight anymore! We're gonna pull together and seal off this pooooooolll---!!!" and then a giant, mutated shark jumps up, grabs him, and chomps him down its gullet. It's a super famous scene, easily one of the most famous scenes ever in a shark movie, and arguably the biggest reason Deep Blue Sea is remembered today. Ozark Sharks has a smaller, more quiet variant on it involving one of its characters, which plays in a very similar way for the viewer. Which character? I won't say. But I did need to make mention of it, because I have already seen it happen in another film recently (not necessarily a shark film) and I am fairly certain the trend is going to become a more common occurrence in years to come. The scene here doesn't work on the same level because none of the actors in Ozark Sharks are famous on any measurable level except perhaps a local one. The success of the Jackson scene is only because it happens to the universally beloved Sam Jackson and also because it happens so unexpectedly early in that film, in the same way that Hitchcock made a terrible thing happen to Miss Janet Leigh so quickly in Psycho.


Yeah, Ozark Sharks is completely ridiculous. All of these films are ridiculous. You know what shark film isn't ridiculous? A shark film where a shark swims around, eats some fish, perhaps a sea lion or seal, maybe somebody overreacts because a shark fin is in the water, and then everyone goes home because, hey, sharks live in the water, and that's the way life is. But that's a pretty fucking, boring movie. Or at least, it's a very basic, no frills documentary. 

And you can't show that movie on the Syfy Channel. You need to have a film with crazy ass bull sharks that have swum upriver to the Ozark Mountains that start chomping on a family just because SHARKS. And then you need an enraged teenager to start picking up oversized weaponry and going hog wild on the sharks because that's what teenagers do when their grandmothers are eaten headfirst and other sad stuff happens that I can't give away without spoiling the film for you even though I often spoil stuff about films in other reviews but I am being nice this time.

See? You can sell that movie. And somebody did. It's called Ozark Sharks. It's not good, but it's a little funny, some of it intentionally. And it has sharks. And Thomas Francis Murphy. He's good in it.

RTJ

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