Roger Corman and the Legend of ‘Sharktopus’

Keep your harness game airtight, folks.

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

Sharktopus by Declan O’Brien, 2010
Starring Eric Roberts, Sara Malakul Lane, Kerem Bürsin, Héctor Jiménez, Liv Boughnt
Budget: Can’t find hard numbers, but probably around $1,000,000USD
Box office: it’s TV baby!

Number of times previously watched: 0

YouTube commenter Blueberry Axolotl (my research goes hard) asked this of Sharktopus: “I genuinely want to know the purpose behind making this.” The answers swiftly followed: “Money” “History” “Art” “👁👄👁”.

Ah, YouTube.

Axoloti’s question is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially with the last few Sharkometer movies Blue Demon, Deep Blue Sea 2 and Red Water (Money, history or art: Blue Demon, Deep Blue Sea 2, Red Water) — what is the point of all this!! I mean, the question is the entire crux of this Sharkometer series, why we love or hate certain movies, but more precisely, if people say they love shark movies and then shit like Sharktopus keeps getting made, are we just playing ourselves?

I’ve talked about the history of shark movies and why and how bad shark movies keep getting made, especially at breakneck pace, identifying certain trash movie epicenters along the way and two things stand out about Sharktopus: (1) its proximity to legendary producer Roger Corman and (2) for all its fanfare, it’s not really talked about. Sharktopus’ presence in our Jungian collective unconscious of shark movies is disproportionate to how much information is actually out there — compared to Sharknado or even Red Water, there’s nothing. Yet, it persists.

It begs the question: do people really like this movie or do we just not have better options?

Is Sharktopus, a movie about military group Blue Water engineering a half-shark half-octopus creature, S-11, as a weapon against Somali pirate drug smugglers that goes rogue after a failed test mission severs its electromagnetic harness setting it lose in Mexican waters, killing numerous civilians and therefore must be destroyed by the very scientists that created it, a legend in the making or a myth of our own imagination? Let’s put Sharktopus through the Sharkometer and find out.

Divine Intervention: The Legend of Roger Corman

One thing you should know about Roger Corman is the guy loves movies. Making them, watching them, supporting them, influencing them. He loves it all!

To those unfamiliar with his legacy, to sum it up quickly, Roger Corman is a B movie legend. He’s the “Pope of Pop Cinema” with 400+ movies to his name. His unofficial Corman Film School boasts prestigious alumni like Polly Platt, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante and more. Words like “trailblazer” “icon” “maverick” “B movie king” characterize his legacy as does the beaming glow on his face when he talks about making movies. Working since 1954, Corman’s essential films include B-movie classic A Bucket of Blood (1959), counterculture staple The Wild Angels (1966) and my personal fave Death Race 2000 (1975) among many, many others.

Corman entered the SyFy universe with a producing partnership sometime in the 2000s and this move seemed like a logical trajectory (or possible conclusion) because he cut his teeth (and continued to sharpen his fangs) in the low-budget movie world. It’s a pretty exciting venture with the not-so-exciting plot twist that his movies, so far, just aren’t that good.

I know I know, no one bats 100 (except that new Mets pitcher that one time) and with a career rap sheet as long as Corman’s there’s definitely going to be some stinkers, but I can’t help but wonder if SyFy is actually tarnishing Corman’s onscreen legacy? AND, if that’s even matters.

Sharktopus isn’t good. It lacks the razzle dazzle of a Death Race 2000 with its homemade monster cars and scrawny hero you can root for. It doesn’t have the same subversive humour as the darkly comedic A Bucket Of Blood or The Little Shop of Horrors. Instead, it relies upon CGI (not surprising), cliched tropes, a thin script and the novelty of a monster mashup. Mostly it’s just boring.

Corman once wrote “All you need is a camera and a great story.” He wrote it about Bicycle Thieves, but I like to think he takes it to heart, informing his own filmmaking. After reading all the tributes, celebrations and declarations citing Corman as the one-of-a-kind man who delivered “some of the best loved films and most respected talent” and is a scrappy, ingenious movie die hard, I just don’t get that from Sharktopus… do you?

But here’s the freaking thing: it doesn’t matter! Corman’s legacy isn’t only about the finished product on screen — it’s about the process. It’s about his connection with filmmakers and film lovers. It’s something you can’t always see on-screen but is important. There is nothing remarkable about this movie, yes, but I don’t doubt the director or someone on set didn’t have an influential experience or moment with Corman that stays with them.

This is why he holds such a baffling and humbling legacy where one person is so revered by both SyFy and The Criterion Collection or The Cinematheque Francaise, BFI, MoMA and others. His excitement, creativity and sheer dedication means different things to different people. When I think Roger Corman, I think outrageous, homemade props, conspicuously charming actors, bonkers plots that keep you watching more than they lose you and making spoof trailers so you can be in on the joke.

It would be easy to say Corman can do whatever he wants now, he’s earned the right to produce some unimaginative schlock and sure ya okay, but also it’s totally fine for this man’s legacy to be the positive influence he had on both prolific and pedestrian people and his devotion and appreciation to the vast gamut of films he’s made. We don’t need to pretend that movies like Sharktopus are good or important or whatever to prove that Corman is good and important.

So go out there and find out why and what Roger Corman means to you. I’m betting you’ll find something magnificent.

Divine Intervention rating: 1/1 Roger Corman glasses

Hitchcockian Flare: Daddy, no!

There’s a rich tapestry of lore woven by cleaving animals together — and no I don’t just mean the portmanteau-spawning sequels of Sharktopus, though Whalewolf is genuinely a fantastic name.

I’m talking about the deep, blood-curdling legends that terrorize the souls of those who dare to enter the haunted grounds. Legends that endure since the beginning of humanity and spiral through generations. Legends that mutate and adapt to torment us now.

In Caribbean folklore, there is a legend of a half-shark half-octopus monster known as the Lusca. Although sightings are rare, it is said to grow over 200 feet, change colour on a whim and lurk in murky coastal waters where it stalks its prey. Some stories even suggest the Lusca is half-octopus half-women with beautiful hair so long she uses it to drown her victims.

In Women and Other Monsters, author Jess Zimmerman describes the Greek myth of Lamia, whose name in Greek translates to rogue shark and is sometimes depicted as half-shark half-woman. While her backstory is rather contested, and she takes many forms in other lore, her purpose is clear: Lamia is a baby snatcher; a murderer of children. She is transformed from a beautiful woman to a tormented monster after she is forced to kill her own children and must wreak that havoc towards others. (side note: she’s actually pretty misunderstood, and you should probably read the book.)

Point is: that shit is intense and ripe for cinema.

*stares at computer*

So it’s a bit baffling why Sharktopus chose to sidestep these pretty well-known ideas (hell, Sharktopus is even referenced on the Lusca wikipedia page) and instead lean into the military angle and a brief mention that Sharktopus is some kind of monster. It’s a real missed opportunity to not even invent or introduce a mythology around Sharktopus — it’s right there!

If I were forced to cleave a meaning for this movie, I’d say the harness fell off and there isn’t one. But if really, really forced, I’d say there’s a metaphorical undercurrent of… be yourself (?), which is an odd take for a movie about inventing new creatures and is some bullshit in general.

Also just an administrative note: if you’re going to create a sea beast, maybe make sure that harness technology is airtight

Hitchcockian Flare rating: 3/10 gold medals

Filmin’: The Rules Will Break You

Roger Corman’s rules for “fast, cheap and profitable” filmmaking are not a well kept secret — this man preaches his gospel and may even help you produce it. Find a personal statement in every film; take your time in pre-production; embrace young talent; it’s about the story and the script, to name a few commandments.

It’s a great code, a sensical one created by a man known for doing more with less than any director/producer on the planet, but his rules feel antiquated.

Not because he is (perish the thought!), but because these rules were created before a time of mainstream CGI use and the over reliance of it by original movie content farms like SyFy. Corman partnering with SyFY was undoubtedly a fun idea (it makes sense!), but I’d posit that even if Corman loves the SyFy model, not to mention the CGI, we aren’t really getting Corman-esque films from it.

SyFy’s constraints, pandering to spectacle and dependence on CGI stifle the Corman approach and leave us with a flattened, deflated and manufactured product (or products if we’re counting his Sharktopus-spawned series).

I tackled the SyFy rules to moviemaking when we discussed Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy and the SyFy formula: (1) show the monster and (2) put the monster in the title. Unlike Hammerhead, Sharktopus adheres to SyFy’s own rules (#justice4beefysharkman): we see Sharktopus a lot and his name is the title. But Sharktopus doesn’t adhere to Corman’s own rules, which is its true downfall.

Ironically in an interview with SyFy Wire, Corman revealed that executives gave him the title and he had to be talked into it and work around it, which is par for the course for SyFy, but is it for Corman? The intensive planning, the story and script being sacrosanct seem to go out the window with Corman’s assertion of the plot: “it almost makes sense. Clearly, it doesn’t not make sense.”

To me, that sums up Sharktopus and its style and story. As a certain political shitbag would say “close enough.”

For me, the only glimmer of Corman I get in Sharktopus is not his five-minute, misogynistic cameo on the beach, but the death scene vignettes where we see homemade rubber tentacles in the water. The visceral energy and physicality of the scenes scream Corman and bring me right back to Michael Gondry-esque racecars driving through the desert or a giant plant non-musically demanding “feed me.” It’s the creativity and art that bring the realness, not just playing by others’ rules.

Filmin’ rating: 2/4 video cameras

Editing: All Filler No Killer

One category I intentionally excluded from the original Sharkometer rubric was music. Including it just didn’t seem fair. The score for Jaws is legendary — again, as Jack Black says in The Holiday: “A villain in two notes.” Not much can stand up to it (until we get to our next series, spoiler alert), so I took the L. I mean I barely even comment on music except when there’s striking silence or when it takes me out of a scene (and even then, just a little).

But this time, I simply cannot bite my tongue. It has to be said that there is too much music in this movie. The score is out of control, and serves to disrupt every single moment of tension or intrigue that is happening by inserting horribly contrived (and probably racist) Mexican music or party songs.

In Jaws the jump cuts between peaceful idyllic beach scenes and people dying were masterful and served to create a dissonance and tension for the audience. This dissonance is not that. It’s awkward and bad. It further undercuts this movie as a cheap flick with zero direction. And mostly it’s just straight up annoying because you know it’s just filler for the movie.

Mother Cutter rating: 0.4/2 scissors

Good Humour: “Women are like cars…”

Pandemic icon, vase enthusiast and all around wonderful person Seth Rogen recently said comedians shouldn’t complain about cancel culture and should accept some jokes don’t age well. He’s right, with the subtext being, just be funnier, you idiots! Do better jokes! Grow up!

His feelings completely capture my sentiments towards this movie: just be funnier! I’m so tired of these movies’ sheer disdain for women. I’m so tired of misogyny masquerading as comedy and abusive men fronting as comedians. I’m tired of hackneyed 1990s-era jokes with punchlines about women getting harassed or bullied or dying being excused because “it’s a low-budget B movie! Relax!” Sharktopus is yet another entry in the “just fucking divorce your wife already!” comedy category.

I don’t understand how people find this funny! (well I do. Again, they’re misogynists. But for argument’s sake...)

It’s so boring. Old man checking out woman. *woman dies* Old man takes her stuff.

It’s so awful. Boyfriend negs/bullies/guilts girlfriend while jogging (on vacation!) to do something she doesn’t want to do. *girlfriend dies*

It’s so insulting. Radio show host dismisses co-host because she’s got big titties; man grabs reporter’s butt because he’s owed it. Everyone shrugs. (Radio show host eventually dies.)

For those assholes thinking “just relax already” YOU RELAX. It’s not too much to ask for a movie to be actually funny and punch up and not down. Humour should endear us, make us reflect on ourselves and our world and laugh together or at rich people who deserve it.

Good humour rating: 0/5 popsicles

Lack of CGI: Surprise! There’s CGI.

In a surprise twist, I’m not going to harp on the CGI in Sharktopus too much (plus I already did it above). We all know I’m a “No CGI” devotee, but I am 100% not surprised that a SyFy original movie about a half-shark half-octopus relied almost entirely on CGI.

Here are some things I think I’m allowed to be upset over:

  1. Why did the CGI have to include the beak hole? I mean if we’re getting science-y about it, that is probably the siphon for the octopus that allows it to swim, so technically it makes a lot of sense to include or else the thing wouldn’t be able to move. But damn if that thing is not upsetting to look at.
  2. Knife tentacles.
  3. The proportions are wrong! They did not include enough of the shark body so the thing looks really weird. Luckily, they rectify that in sequels Sharktopus VS. WhaleWolf and Sharktopus vs Psteracuda.
  4. Not so much a note about the CGI, but a general question: why can Sharktopus survive outside of water for so long? Neither octopi nor sharks can survive on land, so why did combining them make Sharktopus able to?

I still don’t like CGI.

No CGIs allowed rating: 0.2/3 mechanical shark fins

WILDCARD: Where Have All The Good B Movies Gone?

I’m not sure if this needs to be said, but I want to confirm something: I am always onboard to buy-in to a movie. I’ll take your wacky plots, I’ll believe your thin storylines, I’ll even excuse some CGI here and there if it’s in service to a greater cinematic moment.

There are, well, many things that annoy me (let’s be real), but a big thing that annoys me is when people forget they’re watching a movie. Not all movies need to be rooted in reality — it’s kind of why movies were made in the first place. They can send us to the moon, plunge us deep into the ocean or create new worlds and take us with them.

Sometimes they ask us to believe unbelievable things like transplanting frog DNA into mosquitos preserved in amber will definitely make dinosaurs or that it’s totally chill that Jack Black fronted as a substitute teacher and lied to and possibly kidnapped a bunch of kids, but it’s fine, great even!

So when Roger Corman said “[Sharktopus] almost makes sense. Clearly, it doesn’t not make sense, but there’s that willing suspension of disbelief,” it was really not a problem. This is a man with an unending list of sheer batshit plots with pretty decent payoff and a pure joy of moviemaking. The ask to buy-in to this movie is not why it doesn’t work.

The other big thing that annoys me is when people mischaracterize or shrug off movies as “a campy little B movie.” I have ranted at length about this: if a movie is good, say it’s good! Just because it’s low budget doesn’t mean it’s campy! Likewise if a movie is bad, maybe it’s just bad! Not fun-bad or so bad it’s good! Just bad!

Sharktopus is what I would call an actual modern day campy little B (or C) movie. It’s low budget and genre-specific; it isn’t constrained by “serious” moviemaking conventions and appears fully aware that it should and must be watched with a certain mindset or lack thereof. The history of great B movies rolls deep — John Waters, Joe Dante, Corman himself! — problem is, and I’ll say it again, Sharktopus is just not that good.

As I said up top, this movie is boring! And no fun is had while watching it! There is no delight, no joy, no spectacle! Too much of this movie is off-putting — the misogynistic humour, relentless music, bland acting (I would have preferred bad!), overuse of CGI. Even separating out the parts to find some moment (a la Deep Blue Sea 2) leaves you with nothing to hold on to. If that guy who ultimately negged his girlfriend to her death weren’t such a colossal asshole, I probably would have liked the bungee jumping moment.

Sharktopus lacks the certain je ne sais quoi of previous failed predecessors Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy (if they just would have shown the monster, this would have been aces) and Sharknado (can’t deny that shit is catchy!) possessed to give you something. Anything!

Yes, Eric Roberts is always a wonderful bad guy, but name a scene you come back to.

Yes, Sharktopus embodies the technical aspects of a campy little B movie, but where is its spirit?

Yes, Sharktopus spawned numerous monster mash sequels, but to what end?

Corman’s Sharktopus doesn’t take a big swing and instead manufactures a shark movie that tarnishes the moniker “campy little B movie.”

Wildcard rating: 0.10/1 Spielberg head (the hat!)

Final Thoughts: The Beautiful Failures

Film critic extraordinaire and soothsayer Angelica Jade Bastien hit the nail on the head when she tweeted “I’m so tired of bad and mediocre as fuck films/shows. I want pleasure! Craft! Glamour! Where are the interesting failures? So much of this shit isn’t only bad in terms of craft, it’s BORING!”

Perhaps I have become a bit jaded during this Sharkometer experiment (and pandemmy in general), but I feel this so hard. What happened to the beautiful failures?! The movies that try hard, take a big swing and miss, but still leave us with something?! Where are they?!

I can’t get over how much I don’t like this movie, but in like a tacit way where I think we’re not demanding enough of SyFy, not an all-consuming way like how I hate Blue Demon and won’t stop until I speak to its creators.

Reviewing Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda, Bloodbath and Beyond summed it up well: “I didn’t care about anything or anyone in this movie.” To echo AJB, I want craft! I want joy! I want effort, dammit! I want even just a moment to stay with me. I want more than just the shock of a shark or a shark stitched to another animal. I want better.

Where are our beautiful failures of shark movies and when did shark movies become soulless carbon copies? We deserve better.

Next up: Roundup time!

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.

Against being a “real” person online by Terry Nguyen via gen yeet newsletter
Women and Other Monsters by Jess Zimmerman
Maintenance Phase Celery Juice episode
We Hate Movie Episode 425 — Deep Rising (with Jamelle Bouie
Taking an actual vacation to a lake cabin!

As always, if there’s typos, I don’t care. It’s very hard to write and edit your own work. Maybe I’ll correct them later. Get at me on twitter.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store