Saturday, September 3, 2011

Shark Night

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (O) Fr. Dennis (0 stars, like other movies of this type, it _sort of_ “has a message,” but the message condemns itself)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -

Shark Night (directed by David R. Ellis, cowritten by Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg) is a movie that can be read as a gigantic F-U to “red necks.”  Indeed one of  the buffoonish (when not bigoted) red neck characters goes by the name of Red (played by Joshua Leonard).  What to make of a movie that's so slanted/insulting to an entire group of people?  And what to make of the movie’s taking such pleasure in portraying violence (the videotaping of a whole slew of people at least appearing to be eaten by sharks?)

Well, it has long been noted that slasher movies are rarely kind to “country folk” especially its males.  One thinks of Deliverance (1972), the rape revenge fantasy I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).  

I’ve read an explanation of this phenomenon some years back, in a book by Carol Clover a professor of Film Studies, yes entitled, Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in Modern Horror Film (1993). (I had read this book while studying another aspect of these films -- that often the person who finally defeats "the monster" is a woman, usually the easily identifiable "good girl" (Virgin) in the movie.  Being from a Marian Order and in Catholicism, Mary (the Ultimate Good Girl) is portrayed as "crushing the head of the snake with [her] heal" (Gen 3:15) in the iconography of the Immaculate Conception and remembering these films from my teenage/young adult years, I found this phenomenon interesting and found it further interesting that someone had actually studied the "final girl" phenomenon, if not linking it in anyway to Mary/Catholicism).

Anyway the author, Carol Clover, noted that Americans, especially American city dwellers have always feared (and grudgingly respected) “the people of the land.” The original “people of the land” in the United States were the “red skins” (Native Americans) who white European-descended Americans so feared that they largely wiped them out.  Those “red skins” were replaced “red necks,” who “more civilized Americans,” living in cities, and with better educations _continue_ to fear, look down upon, but also depend on for survival.  For who raises the food that we eat?  Who slaughters the cows and chickens to bring meat to our tables?  Who fixes our cars when the break down, especially when they breakdown on a deserted road, far from home?  In recent years, frankly, who largely fights our wars?  (And finally who sends them there to fight, kill and die?)   

This fear, grudging respect and _certain_ dependence on the _quite literally marginalized_ country-dwelling Americans by richer, more educated, more connected, city-dwelling folks forms a good part of the sub-text of these stories, Shark Night being no exception.

The other sub-text to this particular story is certainly the polarization that exists in our political system, divided _in good part_, actually, between city and country.  For there are two groups in this movie that come to a clash: 

On the one hand, there is a group of “pampered” and (if their banter is to be believed) sexually promiscuous, but also multiracial/diverse, tolerant, fairly well educated college students represented here as coming from Louisiana’s Tulane University. In the movie, they go on a weekend trip to (finally) visit the (turns out palatial) country home of a classmate, Sara (played by Sara Paxton).  Since this movie is set in Louisiana, this palatial home turns out to be on an island in the bayou.  Note also that since Sara was going to college (to a _private_ university) this indicated also that although Sara’s family was also “from the country’, it had to be somewhat rich, represented by that palatial home, exaggerated perhaps, but in its exaggeration actually making the point.

On the other hand is a group of “red neck” males that Sara grew-up with (and _left behind_) centered around a _former boyfriend_ named Dennis (played by Chris Carmack), who didn’t have the opportunity or resources “to leave the swamp” like Sara did.

Notable are two “insights” in this movie: 

The first is that the richer, more diverse group appears capable if at least superficially (without having to experience the marginalization and hardships...) to appreciate the beauty of “simpler” country-living (smiling, drinking beer, enjoying the fresh air and general tranquility of the water...) and is even capable of reaching out and incorporating the marginalized “red-necks” from the other group “so long as they don’t get too crazy...” (The college students initially trust the country-dwelling rednecks, initiating conversations with them, sharing their beer with them ...) 

The second “insight” is that technology and the internet are reaching everywhere.  So “on their own” those “poor, dumb, red necks” had “come up with a sure-fire plan” to make a whole bunch of money on the internet – selling video of people, preferably young, good looking people _being eaten by sharks_.  (What a hoot! ....) Sure this is really, really _evil_ but given that “shark week” is so popular on cable television ... it ought to finally make them a boatload of money. 

And there you have it...  

The challenge proposed by this film to society (if “society” is willing to watch a movie this and then tries to figured out what it’s trying to say) is to _finally_ figure-out how to welcome/include/incorporate _everyone_ in itself including the marginalized people (“red necks”) of the country before these marginalized people do something so evil on their own trying to catch-up that it destroys (in this case, _literally consumes_) everyone.

Am I reading _way too much_ into this film?  Consider that the plot of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie was about a family that had worked at a slaughterhouse/meat processing plant for generations.  When the plant closed down, the family, which knew only how to slaughter cows (hammer to their foreheads) and cut them up (with chainsaws), started to do that to people.  The idea of these simple, if obviously deeply troubled/resentful, “red necks” in this movie of mounting cameras on sharks, “like the folks filming the penguins did in the March of the Penguins...” and then filming the sharks attacking people, is of the same class of boneheadedness.  And Shark Nigh is of the same (slasher) genre as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was. 

Can one recommend this movie to anyone?  Obviously not to kids.  Then just because a movie can be made, doesn’t mean that it should.  Whatever “message” expressed in this movie, could have _certainly_ been expressed in a less violent way.  Indeed, this movie is but _one notch_ below the boneheaded scheme of those “boneheaded red necks.” Shark Night presents “a simulation” of young people being chewed-up by sharks, not the real thing.  Wow, what a difference.  So yes, this is a movie that perhaps “has a message” but it’s a message that condemns itself.   

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  1. Great review, Father. This was always on my "wait for the DVD" list, but at least now I'll have something substantial to ponder when I get around to watching it.

    I also appreciate the link you made between Final Girls and Mary. I may just have to rip that off for my own blog someday :)

  2. Hi, thanks for your comment! I actually did write an essay some time back On The Marian Imagery Present in The Terminator ( that may interest you. At the end of that movie (Sarah Conner, note the Biblical name Sarah) crushed the head of the Terminator (who had lost his legs) in a mechanical press.

    Interestingly enough, in this movie, Shark Night, Sara (again) tells her new soon-to-be boyfriend that she had mashed the face of Dennis, her ex-boyfriend (and the movie's chief villain) by running him over with the outboard motor of her boat at the end of a fight (in which he had nearly killed her) just before she left home to go to college. It's another version of "crushing his head with her heal..."