‘Red Water’ and the trappings of a shark movie

Kaitlin McNabb
13 min readJul 10, 2020


If it’s mostly about oil drilling, is it really a shark movie?

From the shockingly unwatchable to ridiculously good, the Sharkometer series dissects every shark movie according to the GOAT Jaws.

Red Water by Charles Robert Carner, 2003
Starring Lou Diamond Phillips, Kristy Swanson, Coolio, Jaimz Woolvett
Rob Boltin, Langley Kirkwood, Dennis Haskins, Gideon Emery,Charles Dumas, Clive Scott
Budget: I searched high and low and can’t find the numbers
Box office: The most successful TBS made-for-tv movie!

Number of times previously watched: 5

Kathryn VanArendonk said that right now we crave comfort TV over prestige TV because it is a more gratifying experience wrapped up in generous, undemanding, and straightforward storytelling — a necessity in our current world-on-fire existence. Using the new *best* show The Babysitters Club as an example, VanArendonk says that what endears us to this show is that it is genuine about the things that matter to its young group of protagonists and we don’t have to break our necks to watch, understand and enjoy it.
(And if we want to break our necks to find added layers and meaning, we can do that too.)

I like to think that’s what I’m doing here: a form of comfort TV reading for earnest shark movie watchers that’s genuine about the love for and of watching shark movies — and hopefully creating content that replenishes people too. (Aren’t we humble?)

VanArendonk also dissects the difference between ranking something “the best” vs “my favourite,” as the former is usually reserved for objective views and prestige TV (barf) and the latter subjective feelings and comfort TV.
But here’s the thing: that’s dumb. TV and movies shouldn’t need to be hard to watch or “challenge us” in order to be considered the best or objectively good, says VanArendonk. Prioritizing and experiencing joy can make the best shows. (True Detective is still overrated. Long live Schitt’s Creek.)

Which brings us to Red Water. Is Red Water comfort TV? For me, no. (Deep Blue Sea, baby!) Is the act of watching Red Water comfort TV? Hell yes!

The act of watching Red Water is the act of watching a shark movie, which is an act of comfort for me (The Reef notwithstanding). I get to engage in yet another shark movie and (eventually) write yet another ridiculous blog for you lovely people.

Watching Red Water, a TV movie starring Lou Diamond Phillips (LDP) and Kristy Swanson as a divorced couple helping an oil company drill an environmentally protected sanctuary in the Louisiana Bayou, which unleashes a potentially mystical bull shark that looks like a great white, while a hodgepodge of gangsters, including Coolio, dive for buried treasure while a side party happens with Cajun people, is… the act of insanity?

Red Water is so bonkers that it even asks, nay begs, the question: is this even a shark movie? Welcome to our third entry in the “This Is Not A Shark Movie” sub-genre and first entry in the “Shark Movies Not Actually Depicting the Sharks They’re About” sub-genre. Let’s put Red Water through the Sharkometer.

Divine Intervention: What could have been…

There’s something poetic about Red Water being TBS’ most successful TV movie of all time and also its last.

TBS began as a terrestrial TV station in Atlanta that got its superstation moniker when it began offering its feed via satellite transmissions to cable and satellite subscribers throughout the U.S. And that’s a little factoid for your next trivia night. You’re welcome.

Currently, TBS airs a mix of original shows, like Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and endless reruns of sitcoms, the latter of which also marked much of the era us Old Millennials will remember. However, there was a brief glimpse in the late 1990s/early 2000s when TBS, much like SyFy, decided to refocus its original programming and create original made-for-TV movies — and also air Ripley’s Believe It or Not! nonstop.

“Strategically, it’s really a good fit for us,” said Jim Head, TBS’ vice president of original programming in 1999. “It’s a natural extension to do original movies. We are a movie network. They are a big part of our personality.”

TBS made a total of 11 made-for-TV movies of which Red Water was by far the most successful. In fact, Red Water was so successful it not only aired four special encores (all of which I watched) but also keyed into, well, key adult demographics to beat all programming for that night on ABC, CBS and the WB and ranked as cable’s #1 movie, posting a 5.0 household rating.

So for executives to bathe in this success and simultaneously wash their hands of this original movie strategy just four years later seems a bit shortsighted, no? “We’re sitting here enjoying the success of Red Water, but we are also fully aware that while it may work for today’s strategy, it won’t work for Tomorrow’s,” said Steve Koonin, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Turner Entertainment Group and apparent terrible fortune teller in 2003.

It’s easy to say this move was the height of stupidity given hindsight, but it’s still easy to conclude that reneging so quickly on a strategy and calling an audible feels very, well…2003. Red Water was TBS’ counterpoint to SyFy, and we all know how SyFy has fared in the original movie gambit (re: really well). Who knows where TBS original movies could be if they just stayed with it.

Divine Intervention rating: 0.25/1 Waterfalls

Hitchcockian Flare: Is it greed or was he just hungry?

The underlying meaning of Red Water seems both incredibly obvious and super confusing when you try to focus in on it thanks to the multitude of plots strangling this movie (see Editing category).

Oil drill to my shark head, I’d say the cautionary tale here is greed: Coolio wouldn’t let go of the money! That oil company guy was a profiling dick! LDP, I guess, doesn’t get paid by the oil company by killing the shark?!
It’s…not the best. But as our definitely-not-butchering-his-accent Cajun friend says “Everyone on this boat is greedy. We were put on this earth to give not take,” followed up with “Or maybe he’s just hungry. We scared away his fish and now we’re on the menu.” So, ya.

Environmentalism and even environmental racism are strong candidates here given that the destruction of the endangered habitat in Cajun country unearths the Guardian of the Black Cove. But, I think that cancels out when the shark kills the environmentalist (of which you definitely can’t see the animatronic shark paused beside the bridge before it lunges) and also when a movie depicts Cajun culture like this.

It’s a valiant attempt, but like many a Sharkometer movie before it, it falls into the messy business of “trying to do the most to make a point and failing.”

Also what does hats and horns mean?

Hitchcockian Flare rating: 3/10 gold medals

Filmin’: The distinctive flavour of a TV Movie

I would say Red Water has a distinctive “TV movie” filming style. You know, the colours are a little dull, slightly soft and hazy, the sets have a distinctive set feel to the point it feels like a Universal ride or Canadian production. There’s just something…less cinematic about it.

Horror movies by no means need a big budget to make a splash (pun intended?), but there’s a difference between being low budget and low quality. Decent Chrissie-style death scene at the beginning though.

Filmin’ rating: 1/4 video cameras

Editing: Smooth like butter, wait…

Editing is a crucial category in the Sharkometer because Verna Mothercutter Fields was so instrumental in shaping Jaws during and post production. However, the category has eluded us in many Sharkometer movies largely because people don’t really document the work of the film editor and their effect on the film anymore. It’s kind of a special, 40-years-later-the-making-of detail you get after the film has been deemed a classic. So, instead we’re left to fill in the blanks from time to time or simply pass altogether.


Red Water, however, suffers from a few pretty obvious editing afflictions, the most apparent being too many plots. This movie is shark at the beginning, shark at the end, and about five different plot lines in between.
Let’s count them!

  1. Oil company drilling for oil in an environmentally protected area needs LDP’s help even though he quit because of his haunted past (and maybe ethics?).
  2. Gangsters are sent by mob boss to scuba dive for a suitcase of money buried in the Louisiana bayou by suspect former colleague fresh out of jail who will eventually teams up with Coolio to cut boss out of money. Everyone dies.
  3. Oil drilling unearths deadly bull shark into the Louisiana river system resulting in prize money for those who kill it and complicating plots 1 & 2.
  4. LDP needs money to help his failing business and is potentially still in love with ex-wife Kristy Swanson.
  5. Side Cajun evening gathering, sex, and mystical origins of the bull shark or Black Death protecting its land.

That can only be categorized as a fuck-ton of plots, and as you can see the shark only factors into 2 out of 5 plots, neither of which are the main ones. Basically it’s a movie about oil and gangsters that happens to have a shark in it. As Jmann recommended, a better version of this movie is watching all the clipped together scenes on YouTube of the shark-related content.
(It would be about 20 minutes.)

Let’s remember though that this was a proper TV movie so it was built around commercial breaks so transitions are not smooth, but suffice it to say, that doesn’t excuse what’s happening here. When you watch Red Water as one full-length movie — which to be fair, it was never intended to be — it’s clear that taking the TV movie away from TV really shows how Red Water focused on the wrong aspects for an uneven amount of time.

Mother Cutter rating: 0/2 scissors

Good Humour: I guarantee!

Similar to the Editing category, the Good Humour category has been a bit of a bummer. A lot of shark movies are deadly serious, though not always to their complete detriment (see: 47 Meters Down, The Shallows), while others rely too heavily on the tropes of a “so bad it’s good” movie (re: cheap humour). But, as discussed before, infusing humour throughout horror movies makes things realistic and holistic because we don’t live our lives in 2D. Humour pervades even the darkest moments of our lives and, as iconically portrayed in Jaws, can bond even the most disparate spirits together forever, providing desperate relief for both the characters and the audience while ratcheting up the tension.

It’s not to say these non-humour movies are totally joyless, but I’ve noticed a sneaky third Good Humour subcategory come in to play for a few Sharkometer movies: unintended humour. No! It’s not camp! It’s the vagina bite in Deep Blue Sea. It’s Ruby Rose’s hair in The Meg. And boy oh boy is it the accents in Red Water. Those Cajun accents are wild! They are two clicks below Jon Voight in Anaconda level wild.

And, a special shout out to Coolio who, bless him, definitely needs a new agent for many reasons, the first being he keeps getting cut out of atrocious movies he’s already in (see: Daredevil, Batman & Robin) and the second being that he is forced to make a meal of this crude, one-note character that’s intended for ridicule. I’m also pretty sure Community parodied his character in Pierce’s spooky story. Let’s get him better representation, shall we?
I digress.

Unintended humour is fun, funny even in these movies, but it doesn’t endear us to them like good comfort TV should (except maybe the vagina bite?). It makes us mock the movie or makes our enjoyment cynical.

I feel like we can have a real heart to heart here and say, is mocking things, people even, ever that much fun? I mean, ya , sometimes, but a good shark movie it does not make.

Good humour rating: 2.5/5 popsicles

Lack of CGI: Release the shark tape!

I swear I remember there was a promotional making of Red Water campaign aired during commercials that advertised the animatronic shark as being the first free-swimming animatronic shark in a shark movie. I…just can’t find the video evidence. Luckily, And You Call Yourself A Scientist! corroborates my memories in their 20-minute read of its Red Water review in a movie blog straight after my own heart.

In the long lost promotional campaign, LDP described that the realistic-looking shark seemed much more terrifying because it was free swimming (remote controlled I think?) leading one to believe it could actually attack. This feeling seems particularly evident when the shark is swimming close to the surface and less so when it’s launching through the air. A lot of reviews noted how great the animatronic was, and I definitely don’t want to disagree with them, but I did watch this movie as a very grainy free-streaming version because that was literally the only way to view it (fuck Amazon!)… so it’s hard to know who’s right about the quality.

From my view, it looked…bad. The fin on the surface is good, but anytime the shark head is visible it looks like soggy cardboard. I mean, am I happy there’s an animatronic shark? Of course. Do I think it is on par with the animatronic in Jaws 4? Possibly. Does this animatronic (and movie poster!) resemble a great white shark instead of a bull shark? You bet.

Kids, amiright? (I didn’t know how to end this.)

No CGIs allowed rating: 1/3 mechanical shark fins

Wildcard: It’s not the MacGuffin.

There’s been a lot of talk about accents, Coolio, the environmentalist’s death, a suitcase full of money macguffin, and a less La Bamba, more Brooklyn 99 special guest appearance LDP.

But I think the real wildcard here is the question “Is this a shark movie?”
Stay with me. It may seem obvious that a shark movie is a movie with a shark in it, but by that logic The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Shark Tale, Anchorman 2, My Super Ex-Girlfriend and Soul Surfer would all be considered shark movies (to name just a few).

In order to really answer this question, we have to ask another question “What’s the criteria for a shark movie?” and perhaps “Does shark movie really just default to creature feature?” — a horror movie that focuses on the creature, in this case a shark, which is usually subtext for something else.
But if that’s the case, does Red Water actually qualify as a creature feature since the shark is not the main focus and noticeably absent for two-thirds of the movie? How do we deem a shark movie a shark movie?

“Shark movies are notoriously intense, campy, gory and sometimes absurd,” said Goddy Ray in his 21 Best Shark Movies list, which includes both The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Shark Tale.
“The shark film as a sub-genre effectively begins with Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece. The sub-genre has, at its best, found ways to step away from its inspiration,” said Keith Phipps, who included Zombi 2, the infamous Lucio Fulci film where a zombie fights a real shark, with the qualifier “this is not technically a shark movie” in his Top 12 Shark Movie list.
“There’s always going to be some bikini-clad A-lister who lives somewhere near water. Dramatic music plays. And then bam! Shark comes out of nowhere and bites their legs off,” said Eliza Thompson, Mehere Bonner, and Ahad Sanwari, who included two documentaries, Sharkwater and Blue Water, White Death, and the Halle Berry real-life shark thriller Dark Tide on their Best Shark Movies list.

So, what’s the consensus? Well, it seems trite to say the consensus is no consensus and even worse to say we know a shark movie by our gut reaction, but *shrugs* here we are. It’s important to note that Red Water is not included on any of the above lists, and mostly left off other lists with the occasional “nice try” shout out.

I think Red Water is a shark movie, just clearly not a good one and not a committed one and isn’t that what we’re all looking for here? A slice of goodness? A little commitment?

Final Thoughts

I was excited to revisit Red Water because it is one of the few shark movies I remember from my youth, and somewhat fondly at that. I was just an acne-ridden teen beyond excited to watch a new shark movie and hold it dearly in my heart forever. And, much like most of our childhood’s fondest memories, Red Water definitely doesn’t hold up to the crushing revelations and realism of adulthood. (Guys, it turns out my grandpa was pretending to be bad at cards the whole time.)

It seems obvious now why Red Water is absent from many best of shark movie lists — its trappings of a good shark movie stay just that. It’s like when you eat a Beyond Meat burger and it’s fine, but there’s just something a bit off about it. We have an animatronic shark, we have LDP and Coolio, and we have some action, but we also have 400 plots (and characters!) and something’s just not right.

So, if you want to watch Red Water, I don’t think you’ll be upset, but you might be a bit bored or a little annoyed that you spend most of your time invested in an oil company when all you really want is a juicy cheeseburger.
Wait, did I mix metaphors?

Next up: The curious case of ‘Deep Blue Sea 2’

For a complete list of Shark-o-meter movies, swim here.

References and Recommended Readings

References are hyperlinked or below and some choice additional things that helped shape this piece.

Peak Comfort The triumph of brazenly uncomplicated entertainment
By Kathryn VanArendonk
“Allyship fatigue” is an insult to Black folks who never get to rest
By Sherronda J. Brown
Budget horror and why it works by Premise TV
15 Worst Shark Movies Of All Time by Matthew Byrd
Red Water Movie Review by Bloodbath and Beyond
The “Grateful To Be Here” Generation Has Some Apologizing To Do
by Connie Wang
You’re Wrong About podcast
Friendmendations newsletter by Alison Driskell
A Dog Called Rex episode by Thirst Aid Kid podcast
Why we love shark movies by Aja Romano