The tragic failings of ‘Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy’
From the shockingly unwatchable to ridiculously good, the Sharkometer series dissects every shark movie according to the GOAT Jaws.
Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy (or Sharkman or Hammerhead) by Michael Oblowitz, 2005
Starring: Hunter Tylo, William Forsythe, Jeffrey Combs, Paul King/Hammerhead, Elise Muller, Arthur Roberts, G.R. Johnson, Velizar Binev
Budget: Typically $1 or $2 million USD (no hard numbers available)
Box office: Typically 2–3 million in viewership (no hard numbers available)
Number of times previously watched: 0
Unlike a lot of shark movies, Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy never once considered Jaws as an inspiration. A SyFy original movie birthed from the iterative loins of Mansquito and Snakeman, Hammerhead takes its notes squarely from an odd mash-up of classic monster movies mixed with 2000s-era action machismo and fashion sense.
It’s a bizarre, if not delectable, schism, actually. On one side is a pharmaceutical team of biomedical scientists focused on stem cell research just dripping in Paris Hilton-style ruffle dresses and wraparound Oakley sunglasses and on the other is a 1940s-styled mad scientist, Dr. King, and his Igor-clone assistant trying to cure cancer and advance human evolution — which they do. The two groups collide when Dr. King sends in his cancer cure via stem cell procedure, which he conveniently forgets to mention accidentally turned his patient-son Paul into a half-shark half-human, and the team visits his island lab where Dr. King also happens to be creating hammerhead shark people via insemination of Bulgarian woman with shark goo apparently. *deep breath* It’s all very Island of Dr. Moreau meets Deep Blue Sea and it’s a lot, but I was down! This type of nonsense plot and monster spectacle seemed like a great palate cleanser after the realistic horrorshow that was The Reef and a great escape from the world-on-fire terribleness of right now and the future. (Things are bleak guys. Remember to help others and yourselves.)
But…it just wasn’t. And it’s not (totally) because it didn’t follow or expand on the categories set by the Sharkometer, which I ritualistically trounce other movies for — it’s because it fell down on its own expectations and guidelines set by a SyFy original movie and it’s own bonkers premise.
So, let’s put Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy through the Sharkometer.
Divine Intervention: How to make a SyFy Original movie that slaps
I found out about this movie after googling “shark movies with a hammerhead” (the scariest shark of all) and this popped up:
I mean, wow. How do these bonkers SyFy movies keep getting made anyway? *Seductively leans in* Well, let me tell you.
The Sci-Fi Channel launched in 1992 as a genre-specific hub for sci-fi fans and was renamed SyFy in 2009 in an ill-advised re-branding and pivot to the masses that was quickly abandoned in favour of doubling down on an original content strategy now with a new name. SyFy does produce a ton of original content — two original movies per month! — but it didn’t really start doing so until 2002 when Thomas Vitale, Chris Regina, and Ray Cannella, then working in the scheduling and acquisitions department, pitched the idea to return to the classic monster movie format and create SyFy’s own “low-budget screamer with a twisted sense of humor, plenty of creature action, and, in the best examples, a subversive subtext.”
Before that, SyFy ran independent releases that about 1.6 million people would tune in for, which, for a genre-specific premium television channel, is nothing to sneeze at. But the trio thought the channel could do better so they took the idea to then-Sci-Fi Channel president Bonnie Hammer (yah).
The Hammer was smart. She knew people would watch entertainment they could pass off as guilty pleasures or blowing off steam. After all, in her previous job, she increased the World Wrestling Federation viewership by knowing people don’t watch wrestling simply for the athleticism. They watch it for the trashy soap opera dynamics of “outrageous backstories” and elaborate plot lines disguised as sport because, you know, men can’t watch soap operas or whatever. A low-budget sci-fi movie could be a similar thing (with or without the toxic masculinity)— so the trio got to make their first movie.
SyFy’s wheelhouse has always been snakes (Snakehead Terror!), sharks (Shark Swarm!), crocs (Croc!), and dinosaurs (Triassic Attack!) and a variation of those as either mutations of each other (Sharktopus!) or fighting each other (Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf!). SyFy knows what it is and honestly it’s not a bad sweet spot. “We don’t want to go too, too serious on anything — you’ve got to have some humor and some escapism. But we also aren’t making comedies. So there’s a range,” said Vitale in 2011 now as Syfy’s executive vice-president for programming and original movies.
And, obviously, the movies did well. SyFy now routinely gets 2 million first-watch viewers and on average 1 million viewers on reruns. The channel has seen huge hits with the previously discussed Sharknado series and also given us gems like Bermuda Tentacles and The Bone Snatcher (which most definitely has a porn companion The Boner Snatcher).
What came out of this repeated success was a formula on how to make a monster movie. The first rule: Show the monster. The Second Rule: Put the monster in the title. “The failure of independently produced features to give ample air time to monsters was what drove the Sci Fi Channel to make its own movies in the first place,” said Cannella in 2004.
More Deep Blue Sea than Jaws in its approach, it’s definitely not misguided. Title a movie Sharktopus and people will want to see the creature. It’s what Vitale calls a “high-concept title” — it reveals layers like a fun romp, fantastical mash-up film that draws people in. The formula’s bones flesh out from there to keep the people satisfied and coming back: creature features should run 88 minutes; the creature must appear by minute 15; there should be a death every 8 minutes; movies should be seven acts, with six cliffhangers, a climax, and two money shots.
What all this research and these facets and mainstays of a SyFy original movie amount to is a title, a monster, a metaphor, and a vision. And Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy lets us down on pretty much every single one of them.
When I googled “hammerhead shark movie” and was confronted with those images, I was expecting something amazing. A legitimate campy b-movie creature feature instead of the unimaginative crap that gets slotted in under that category. And that just didn’t happen.
Under SyFy’s own metric, the title is fine — it is definitely no Sharktopus or The Boner Snatcher — but it’s misleading. Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy tells me two things: There will be a hammerhead shark and presumably a frenzy of them. Instead there’s one cut scene of a school of hammerheads and a half-hammerhead half-man named Paul.
“But it was renamed Sharkman!” you yell. First of all, don’t yell at me. Second of all, the sharkman monster is fantastic, but they don’t show it! With his hella jacked rubber-suited body, he could have been a memorable faux-villain (re: sharks are never the true villains) for SyFy, but we are never allowed to feast our eyes on him and instead get only eye close ups, blurry cams, and bad CGI.
The metaphor is sort of there, and we’ll talk about that below, but the vision, in general, loses steam. The movie is just not as fun and over the top as it should be considering its predecessors Mansquito and Snakeman and the idea “what if we grafted a shark onto something else?” The concept is aces; the execution is flawed.
This movie could have been better if SyFy’s formula prevailed. But it didn’t. And we’re left with this and the dream of what could have been.
Divine intervention rating: 0/1 waterfall
The murky ethics of ‘The Reef’
Oooo would we call this a true story? Seems more like it puts the exploitation in sharksploitation. And yes, this movie…
Hitchcockian Flare: Not everything is as it seems…except that it is.
Hammerhead asks some big questions about science versus nature and morality versus mortality that it definitely doesn’t have the answers to. Much like its conflicting fashion sense, this movie is a hodgepodge of inspiration: it’s Frankenstein meets Island of Dr. Moreau meets Deep Blue Sea meets Barb Wire. Which again, sounds great, but those movies, like great horror movies, still attempt to do more (except Barb Wire which is just a straight up rip off Casablanca).
Jaws’ deeper meaning was so influential because it was layered and had subtext. It’s ambiguity and vastness allowed the audience to imbue our meaning onto it — to Spielberg it may have been just a shark movie, to others it’s about America! It’s about morality! Hammerhead, similar to Deep Blue Sea, doesn’t seem to understand the subtlety (full stop) of subtext and just goes straight text. There’s a directness and spoken meaning to every moment and potential oddity — for example, when Amelia, scientist and former fiance of Paul, attempts to touch Dr. King’s mutant plant, he cautions “not everything is as it seems” and then demonstrates exactly what this means to the group — yet there is no actual answer or understanding that follows. It’s a quick resolution to nothing.
The real meat of meaning lies in Dr. King. Dr. King is absolutely modeled on two famous mad scientists: Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Moreau. Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. King never understands the severity and immorality of what his experiments have done — possibly because he is truly, unrepentantly evil. He sexually abuses women through forced insemination and attempted rape. He defies nature to advance human evolution with shark hybrids. He plays god curing and resurrecting Paul through unethical means. He does it for the love of his son and spirals out of control for the scientific glory, never reining himself back in. He is the emotionally blinded Dr. Susan McAlester in Deep Blue Sea mixed with the sadistic, penchant-for-animal-human hybrids Dr. Moreau, eventually also dying at the hands of his creation.
But Dr. King’s death, and therefore the whole point of the movie, is rendered meaningless because his creation Paul never gets to have the level of awareness and therefore sympathy as the Beast Folk, the Last Shark, or Frankenstein’s monster.
Instead, in the final scene, as Amelia dangles over Paul waiting to be raped, Tom, Amelia’s current boyfriend, tries to save her and battles Dr. King. In the ensuing frenzy, Paul is freed from his harness and rips off Dr. King’s arm and kills him only as an animal reverting to his natural instinct not a man first conquering his altered DNA and then misguided father. It’s a missed opportunity and the audience never gets a chance to consider the gravity of the completely bonkers situations we were forced to take in or see a standoff between Paul and his father.
Oh what this movie could have been if Paul went out in a blaze of glory after confronting his father and his dicey scientific experiments, saving his former fiancé dangling over him in suspended horror. That would have had meaning. That would have had a moral. That would have had a talking half-sharkman we could sympathize with.
Instead we watch an action movie hero’s exit and a sharkman spontaneously combust from a nitrogen blast to the face, which is definitely not a thing. 47 Meters Down was pretty clear about the dangers of nitrogen narcosis.
Hitchcockian flare rating: 3.5/10 gold medals
The crushing disappointment of ‘The Meg’
I paid $15 to sit on a weird couch in a movie theatre and all I got was resentment.
Filmin’ est terrible.
Blurry cam is not an acceptable filming style to convey action, period.
The filming feels like an attempt at an Evil Dead style shoot, or perhaps it’s just low budget. It’s very point and shoot or run and try to shoot. It’s shaky and incoherent. We aren’t really treated to any Sharkman POV and instead stay in a wide shot waiting for literally anything shark-related to appear. There are no dolly zooms or interesting stunt effects or extra long tense scenes. There’s not even a Dutch Angle shot, which seems an obvious, if not hackneyed, addition. The director seemed to opt for tell don’t show as his ethos, and boy, did that ever not pay off. The style stifles the movie and slows it down. Action sequences are boring and death scenes aren’t particularly jarring or surprising. Things just sort of happen and you’re left waiting for the movie to crescendo to the climax that instead fizzles out in the end.
Filmin’ rating: 0/4 video cameras
‘Red Water’ and the trappings of shark movies
If you put a shark in a movie does it instantly become a shark movie?
Verna “Mother Cutter” Fields is rolling in her grave I tell ya. I know, it’s a TV movie, but it doesn’t excuse the lack of imagination and tedious sequences that ratchet the tension down instead of up. Cut scenes jump from the same close up of the sharkman’s eye to the victim stumbling around to either a blurry death scene or nothing at all. Did that seriously injured scientist get snatched by the sharkman and die outside? Don’t know! because Tom just shut the door and shook his head. And that was like the fourth time that happened.
It’s clear the movie just didn’t have faith in its creation. “It struck as if they built a monster suit, decided it just wasn’t convincing enough, created computer-generated shots of the creature, realized the CGI didn’t look all that more realistic than the rubber suit, and tried editing both types of effects shots together only to do so in such a dizzying fashion that it end up sucking a lot of the fun out of watching the monster attacking people,” explains Jon Condit and I 100% agree. Above all, a sense of realism has no place in this movie and its inability to “embrace its ridiculousness and go all-out” hurt the film and my eyes while watching it.
Mother cutter rating: 0/2 scissors
The silent panic of ‘The Shallows’
Silence, silence, ATTACK! Is Blake Lively your new Final Girl? Or is she shark food for a beast with a grudge.
Good humour: Lake Placid had better chemistry. Lake Placid.
In Jaws, Spielberg took three characters that didn’t like each other and bonded them through a drunken scar-sharing sing-a-long shark hunting mission and endeared them to the audience. Hammerhead took the opposite approach casting a random assortment of mostly unlikable people, making us hate them more, and then killing them in unspectacular ways. People gotta die, but this formula was just brutal.
And while this movie most definitely has no humour in it, forced or otherwise, and we definitely aren’t bonded to our people through humour or really anything, it also never broaches fun. I’ve come up hard against Sharknado because I just couldn’t find the fun in it, tweeting or not. However, after watching Hammerhead, I yearn for Sharknado. (No not really.) Sharknado, with its terrible CGI work and stiff performances is light years ahead of Hammerhead in terms of watchability and nonsense. I hear you saying Dr. King though, and fine, but to me he wasn’t over-the-top enough because the material was so bad. He did the best he could with what he had, but it feel short. It all fell short. I really thought this movie would be an outrageous shitshow of ridiculousness and instead it was a tame, boring last gasp through the Bulgarian forest. Bummer.
Good humour rating: 0/5 popsicles
‘Sharknado’ is the first great movie of twitter
A powerful moment in history. A truly terrible movie at its core.
Lack of CGI: Justice for the Sharkman rubber suit!
Imagine creating a hammerhead shark on the top, shredded dude on the bottom avec cutoffs costume made entirely of rubber and not putting it front and center in your movie. Seriously. This movie took the whole “don’t show the shark” rouse way too far. Even Spielberg had his shark fully leap out of the water at one pointw (RIP Quint). In Hammerhead, e did not, once, see a full shot of the sharkman monster (rule #1 out the window). The production stills show a more complete version of the monster than the movie ever dared too and that is just devastating because the sharkman is *chef’s kiss*.
Lord. Talk about a shark daddy, amirite?
SyFy movies are typically rotten with CGI and it’s very upsetting. Yeah, it’s probably cheaper and quicker to just sub in the digital images, but it’s a real dishonor to the classic horror movie genre that SyFy tends to harken back to. “Where are the people in costumes, bro!,” I tend to yell at SyFy movies. Hammerhead had the rubber shark suit and instead of shoe-horning it into literally every moment like it should have, there was a sprinkling of horrible shark-slithering CGI, closeups of an eyeball and back muscles, and blurry shots. Technically, there wasn’t a lot CGI used, and it mostly feels like an afterthought jammed in last minute, but there also wasn’t a lot of shark non-CGI either because, for whatever reason, the movie lacked faith in its rubber suit. This movie will always be the jacked rubber suited-sharkman movie that got away and that’s a shame.
No CGIs rating: 2/3 mechanical shark fins
The Fated Origins of ‘Blue Demon’
The evolution of the shark movie led to this abomination. It’s…not tight.
A Spectacular Wildcard
There are a lot of wildcard contenders here: Three-eyed pigs and carnivorous plant props, Sciiiiiiiiiiiiiience!, Dr. King, and the fact that humans will not immediately explode Spinal Tap-style if shot in the face with nitrogen.
But to me, the ultimate wildcard is…disappointment. I just can’t get over how great this movie could have been! I would like to petition SyFy to remake this movie with the same beefy rubber suit and some narrative adjustments, and then just lean the fuck in. Show the love story between pre-shark Paul and Amelia so we can have a fucking feeling about them. Get rid of the extraneous team members — I know we need bodies in the water, but there are just too many of them. Cut the weird insemination plot line because it is horrifying and overly complicates the sharkman creation. Show the damn sharkman! And let Paul talk! Paul needs to confront his father and tell him he’s totally nuts and then kill him. Have Amelia rescue Tom from Paul so we can have a shred of volition within our female character. Also, Paul should die shirtless on a closeup. Now that’s a good movie.
Wildcard rating: 1/1 Spielberg heads (I was spectacularly disappointed!)
‘47 Meters Down’ knows your darkest fears
Come expecting campy fun, leave haunted by your deepest fears and a mind-blowing ending.
Final thoughts: Our Sharks, Ourselves
This movie probably fits into some people’s category of “guilty pleasures” or “so bad it’s good” or “campy little b movie.” I don’t subscribe to the belief of the guilty pleasure. Like Margaret H. Willison’s two-axiom Grand Unifying Theory of Pleasure Without Guilt, I believe any cultural thing that brings you joy is worthy of your attention and doesn’t need to be justified because we gain value from engaging with the things that we love. Experiencing and prioritizing this joy can be a form of resistance and survival in this terrible, awful, obscene world too. We can prop up others doing the work, providing relief through laughter, or remind ourselves it’s okay, good even, to take a moment to feel something other than anguish. The third season of GLOW grapples with this question of grief and laughter brilliantly in the immediate aftermath of the Challenger explosion paralleling the ongoing dumpster fire of this world. The episode asks Is it disrespectful to entertain the evening of the catastrophe or can it provide an escape? Should we acknowledge the tragedy or prioritize the distraction? Truly, in situations with a sharp definable moment, there is no easy answer. However, we currently find ourselves in a long, drawn-out series of horrors with no end. We can’t consume all the news, all the horror, without it decimating us — putting on the show or not will not provide the solution to our horrible situation. So we must learn that delicate dance of fighting back, supporting others, and taking time for ourselves to feel and experience more than anger and sorrow. We can take up those margins with joy and leisure and seek solace in movies, tv shows, or maybe even a silly shark movie.
But this, I regret, was not that. If you think Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy was your fun so-bad-it’s-good guilty pleasure, well fine go forth, but you’re wrong because we deserved better than what Hammerhead had to offer. This movie wants so bad to be that and about all the things, but it does nothing well. It doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain. We don’t get our sense of relief from this world, we don’t get our joy. Every time I think about this movie (re: a lot) I think what it could have been: a pre-Sharknado gem filled with cheesy action, rubber suits, bizarre plot lines, something worthy of the moniker “campy little b movie.” But it’s not and we have to admit that it is not. It’s not so bad it’s good. It’s not a guilty pleasure. It’s not camp. It’s just bad. It’s okay if a movie is bad. Bad movies happen. Nobody bats 100. I didn’t like Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy even though I wanted to. If you did, own it and enjoy it and defend it to the death. You don’t need to couch it in a million layers of fake accolades and invisible nuance. Love your movies, start your blogs, and tell me why you love, actually love, things not why you think you should. We’re going to get through all this together, bad movies and all.
Next up: A Sharkometer roundup!
How to find the best shark movies since Jaws: Part 1
There’s a lot of shark movies and they can’t all be “campy B movies” or “the best shark movie since Jaws”!
For a complete list of Sharkometer movies, swim here.
References and Recommended Readings
As always, support and references are linked throughout and below are some related and unrelated reads that helped shape this piece.
Nobody Cares by Anne T. Donahue
Do I Have To Be An Internet Social Justice Warrior?! by Evelyn From the Internets
The Island of Dr. Moreau episode by How Did This Get Made
You’re Wrong About podcast
Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood
by Karina Longworth
Sharknado and the Syfy Strategy: ‘If We Don’t Have a Good Title, We’re Not Going to Make the Movie’ by John Sellers
We’ve Created a Monster! by Gary Wolf