DVD: Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976)

November 10, 2020 | By

Film: Good

Transfer:  Good

Extras: Good

Label:  Retro Media

Region: 0 (NTSC)

Released:  February 20, 2018

Genre:  Sharksploitation / Eco-Thriller / Horror / Drama

Synopsis: After loaning his sharks to unscrupulous humans, a supposed pacifist with telekinesis ratchets his bloody vengeance!

Special Features:  1991 William Grefé Interview (6:39) / Super 8mm Sound Digest (7:34) / Italian Trailer.




The immediate impression of William Grefé’s shark film is that it’s another quick & cheap Jaws rip-off, but as the Florida-based writer-director-producer recounts in the DVD’s interview, Grefé had written the story of a murderous shark-lover several years before Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster was produced, and in spite of shopping his Mako script around to various sources, none took the bait. After Jaws became an international hit in 1975, calls came in, funding slid into place, and Grefé shot his drama, adding another entry in the newfangled sharksploitation genre.

Grefé’s story bears strong similarities to Stanley, his 1972 eco-thriller in which a Vietnam vet and snake lover uses his slithering friends to mete out sharp-fanged revenge after his father’s sudden & suspicious passing. Sonny, Mako‘s anti-hero, is motivated by a more naïve drive: teach filthy shark hunters – professional, idiot tourists, and profiteering tour operators – a lethal lesson for hunting his misunderstood friends.

Known for playing supporting tough guys in a diversity of genres in film & TV, outrageously prolific Richard Jaeckel (Attack, Cowboy, The Flaming Star, The Green Slime) had a rare opportunity to stretch himself in a leading role, but wannabe pacifist Sonny Stein is an awkward fit. Jaeckel looks the part and handles most of the scenes well, but Sonny’s outright naivete and a pivotal scene of sadness come off as rather stiff.

Mako begins like a classic 1970s slasher: a wetsuited killer harpoons and tosses his victims into the sea to be finished off by sharks. There’s no confusion as to the killer’s identity: Sonny is hugely protective of two Mako sharks, a couple expecting their first progeny, but he’s also amazingly trusting for a man with such a stark black & white moral code.

Scumbag oceanographer Whitney (Ben Kronen) tells Sonny an outrageous ruse: if he loans him the pregnant female for a genteel study, the data will help prevent a bounty the government is poised to impose on the misunderstood predators. And after rescuing underwater artist Karen (The Female Bunch‘s Jennifer Bishop) from a pair of drunken rapists, he foolishly loans the male shark for her kitschy show in which she spins and swirls in a tank while the Mako swims behind a thick plastic sheet.

Of course, neither loan ends up being fair: Karen’s sleazy husband Barney (corpulent Buffy Dee) forces a sale that cannot be abrogated, and Whitney has more sadistic plans for the pregnant Mako – events that make Sonny go haywire, and exact revenge on everyone until there’s literally no survivors from the central drama.

Jaeckel’s Why God Why? moment is more bathos than tragedy due to Grefé designing Sonny as a man-child who trusts everyone in spite of his own physical strength, but perhaps because Mako isn’t what the poster and press pumped up – a killer fishy film – it’s a pleasant surprise. It’s also a slasher film cloaked under the Jaws veneer where morally bankrupt characters are devoured, Sonny is ultimately hunted down like his Mako friends, and he comes to an end that also brings the character’s arc full circle, having betrayed both his friends and the species.

Sonny’s relationship with sharks is tied to a peculiar symbiotic event: during a jungle pursuit that forces him to swim across a shark-infest a lagoon, the local carnivors attack Sonny’s armed trackers. Sensing a rare, special kinship between fish and man, a local faith healer gives him an amulet that both honours his special relationship and protects him from becoming chum, thereby telegraphing the inevitable deadly encounter when the amulet comes off.

Sonny’s also able to communicate with the sharks through telekinesis, but Grefé directs Sonny’s conversations with the sharks as either a personality quirk, or Sonny being a little delusional. His naivete also encompasses a pubescent belief that Karen really likes him, and their initial distant friendship is tied to his appreciation of her kitschy tank ballet, and saving her from a gang rape.

The rapists are also profiteering hunters, and it’s inevitable they’ll suffer grisly fates after Sonny learns of a large shark massacre. Grefé’s casting choices of the two nemeses are unique, with prolific character actor John Davis Chandler as grinning Charlie, and Harold ‘Odd Job’ Sakata (Goldfinger) as Pete.



Unofficial tagline: “Gnargh! Gnargh! Gnargh!”


Grefé’s eco-thriller was tightly budgeted, but like his second unit work for Live and Let Die‘s shark footage, the material is really impressive. The lengthy Main Title sequence, supported by a weird yet effective ambient jazz cue by William Loose, shows Sonny swimming with sharks and being tugged along by grabbing onto a dorsal fin, and Jaeckel does appear with the Makos in several shots. (In his interview for what’s ostensibly a prototypical eco-thriller, Grefé also admits that sharks were killed for the film, and he recounts a near-death encounter by actress Bishop, who soon retired from film & TV after Mako.)

The finale – a police-led mob hunting Sonny to his ramshackle home – is effectively choreographed as a chase amid a violent hurricane – but whether it’s the source print or Retro Media’s transfer, the day for night scenes are very murky; in both the Italian trailer and a cut-down Super 8 digest archived on the DVD, the finale is much brighter, and works better without the excessive nighttime timing.

Grefé’s feature film career spans a variety of exploitation films – besides Stanley, the ridiculous Death Curse of Tartu (1966) is his best-known work – but he seems to have stepped away from feature films after Whiskey Mountain (1977) and concentrated on short films.

In 2016 he was profiled in the documentary They Came from the Swamp: The Films of William Grefé, and Arrow Video has planned He Came from the Swamp: The William Grefé Collection, a boxed set with Sting of Death (1966), Death Curse of Tartu (1966), The Hooked Generation (1968), The Psychedelic Priest (1971), The Naked Zoo (1971), Mako: Jaws of Death (1976) and Whiskey Mountain (1977).



© 2020 Mark R. Hasan





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