THE JAWS OF DEATH (1976) Reviews and overview

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‘Sheer terror!’
The Jaws of Death is a 1976 American action thriller film about a Vietnam veteran who has a psychic connection to sharks; he discovers their exploitation by the local aquarium and a bar owner and so begins a reign of terror to avenge them. Promoted as Mako: The Jaws of Death

Produced and directed by William Grefé (Stanley; Impulse 1972; Death Curse of Tartu; Sting of Death) from a screenplay written by Robert W. Morgan [as Robert Madaris] based on a story by Grefé.

The Mako Associates-Universal Majestic Inc. co-production stars Richard Jaeckel (The Dark 1979; Day of the Animals; Grizzly; The Green Slime), Jennifer Bishop, Buffy Dee, Harold ‘Oddjob’ Sakata (Impulse 1972) and John Davis Chandler.


Sonny Stein (Richard Jaeckel) loves sharks. He really bloody loves sharks. He sublets the watery basement of his island house to his shark friends. He has insane baby-talking conversations with them. A character even comments that he wouldn’t be surprised if one of Sonny’s pregnant fishy housemates birthed a litter resembling Sonny. Yes, Sonny is a total sociopath with a mystical connection to sharks. And he’s our hero.


Sonny is tricked into selling one of his beloved sharks to Barney (Buffy Dee), a local millionaire and the obese owner of a sh*tty bar. Morbidly obese Barney wants to use the shark in a skimpy bikini underwater act starring his wife (Jennifer Bishop). Yep, his wife. He promises Sonny not to hurt the shark, but it’s not long before he cackles madly and pulls out a sonar sound system to torture the performing fish.

Sonny is also fooled by an evil professor, Whitney (Ben Kronen), who fools Sonny into revealing his secret shark hot spot. Sonny is a pretty gullible guy. Whitney’s idiotic henchmen, Pete (Harold Sakata — yes, Odd Job) and Charlie (John Davis Chandler), go on a shark-murdering rampage. It is this massacre that sets Sonny over the edge.

The Jaws of Death opens with Sonny brutally murdering a trio of shark hunters and tossing their bodies into the ocean to be gulped down by what was once their prey. From this slasher-esque opening, it’s clear that Mako is not your average shark film. At this early point, despite the bloodshed, director William Grefe could probably still pass Sonny over as a clearheaded, animal-loving anti-hero. But Jaeckel’s amazing performance does not allow for that.

Jaeckel gives it his all in this role, presenting Sonny as a seriously unhinged individual. Sonny stares down people. Then blinks uncontrollably. In a scene that genuinely made me uncomfortable, he has an incredible meltdown when he sees what Whitney has done to his beloved sharks. There is an almost Joe Spinell à la Maniac lunacy to his performance. Some may think he is over the top, but I loved it.


Jaeckel gives it his all in this role, presenting Sonny as a seriously unhinged individual. Sonny stares down people. Then blinks uncontrollably. In a scene that genuinely made me uncomfortable, he has an incredible meltdown when he sees what Whitney has done to his beloved sharks. There is an almost Joe Spinell à la Maniac lunacy to his performance. Some may think he is over the top, but I bought it.

Sakata and Chandler chew scenery like mad, desperately trying to steal every bit of screen time they have — and they do. I’m not sure if it was scripted or added unconsciously by the actors, but there is a potent homoerotic undertone to their relationship. Jennifer Bishop is also a lot of fun in her sleazy role — I really like how everyone is a piece of shit in this film. Even bit actors give it their all, like Dick Sterling who plays an idiotic tourist and Don Sebastian who seems to be channelling Lou Costello.


Mako has to be judged somewhat differently in its shark rating. Sharks aren’t the monsters here, humans are — on both sides of the spectrum. Sonny is a loony killer (“a sickie”, as Jennifer Bishop calls him), and those who antagonise him are greedy @ssholes. Though their threat is diminished, the scenes with sharks are impressive indeed.

The film proudly thanks its shark stuntmen in its opening frame, and rightly so. The underwater footage is impressive, presenting sharks in the majestic light they deserve. The few scenes where sharks chow down on humans are not gory but handled well (outside of a few shots obviously captured in pools).

Mako‘s ethics, like many sharksploitation efforts, are a little questionable. As it defends sharks and attempts to present them as misunderstood, a lot of (real) slaughtered sharks appear onscreen. I can’t say for certain if the filmmakers had the sharks killed specifically for the production — perhaps they were sourced from fishermen — but certain scenes leave behind an icky taste.

Shark genocide aside, despite its rather terrible reputation and a name that cashes in on Spielberg’s classic, is one of the few post-Jaws efforts to stand as an entertainingly bizarre shark film. It does its own thing. It doesn’t parrot Chief Brody or Quint. At the centre of its success is its manic leading man. Richard Jaeckel ignores the film’s low budget and dull aesthetics and, for some reason, gives this role everything he has.

Dave Jackson, guest reviewer via Mondo Exploito

Other reviews:
“It’s just a shame that the script cannot do a better job for the cast of characters because the main premise, as silly as it seems, is at least interesting and unique enough to help this stand out from a crowd of movies that came along in the wake of Jaws (no pun intended). It’s a pro-shark movie that still has them featured as the main threat, and it juxtaposes their uncomplicated shark ways with some of the uglier aspects of human nature.” For It Is Man’s Number

” …this is a unique (and absurd) shark tale […]it’s waterlogged by a soggy script that has no real, sustained plot. Terrible acting (and dub jobs) and uninspired direction further sink it, and it only occasionally resurfaces when it gets awesomely silly…” Oh, the Horror!

“There’s some impressive shark footage in the movie that adds to the tension in a few key scenes and an interesting environmental message in the picture at a time when that wasn’t as common in movies as it is today. Jaeckel aside, the rest of the cast is pretty uneven but again, Grefé paces the picture pretty well and manages to do a nice job of taking advantage of the locations afforded him.” Rock! Shock! Pop!

“Low production standards hamper the effort’s final grade, but worth a watch for shark thriller lovers.” The Terror Trap

“Borrowing liberally from his earlier drive-in success with the Ben/Willard with snakes horror/revenge effort Stanley, Grefe adopts a comparatively light, sunnier feel marked by a more warm-hearted, even vaguely environmentalist tone […] Suffice to say, it’s all a lot sillier (not to mention more entertaining) than it sounds summed up on paper.” Third Eye Cinema

Choice dialogue:
Charlie: “Ok, shark boy, I’m gonna break your fin!”



Blu-ray release:
On November 24th 2020, Arrow Video released He Came from the Swamp: The William Grefé Collection on Blu-ray.

The 4-disc limited edition set comprises seven of the director’s films, all newly restored from the best surviving film elements: 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). It also includes a brand-new, extended version of Ballyhoo Motion Pictures definitive documentary They Came from the Swamp: The Films of William Grefé

High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations on 4 Blu-ray discs
Original uncompressed mono audio for all films
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Fully illustrated collector s booklet featuring an extensive, never-before-published interview with William Grefé and a new foreword by the filmmaker
Reversible poster featuring newly commissioned artwork by The Twins of Evil
Reversible sleeves featuring newly commissioned artwork for each of the films by The Twins of Evil

Sting of Death (1966) + Death Curse of Tartu (1966)
Brand new introductions to the films by director William Grefé
Archival audio commentaries for both films with William Grefé and filmmaker Frank Henenlotter
Sting of Death: Beyond the Movie Monsters a-Go Go! a look into the history of rock ‘n’ roll monster movies with author/historian C. Courtney Joyner
The Curious Case of Doctor Traboh: Spook Show Extraordinaire a ghoulish look into the early spook show days with monster maker Doug Hobart
Original Trailers
Still and Promotion Gallery

The Hooked Generation (1968) + The Psychedelic Priest (1971)
Archival audio commentaries for both films with director William Grefé and filmmaker Frank Henenlotter
Hooked Generation behind-the-scenes footage
Hooked Generation Original Trailer
Still and Promotion Gallery

The Naked Zoo (1971) + Mako: Jaws of Death (1976)
William Grefé s original Director s Cut of Naked Zoo
Alternate Barry Mahon re-release cut of Naked Zoo
Original Mako: Jaws of Death Trailer and Promo
Still and Promotion Gallery

Whiskey Mountain (1977) + They Came from the Swamp: Extended Cut (2020)
Whiskey Mountain Original Trailer
Still and Promotion Gallery

Cast and characters:
Richard Jaeckel … Sonny Stein
Jennifer Bishop … Karen (as Jenifer Bishop)
Buffy Dee … Barney
Harold Sakata … Pete (as Harold ‘Odd Job’ Sakata)
John Davis Chandler … Charlie (as John Chandler)
Ben Kronen … Whitney
Paul Preston … Second Patrolman
Milton ‘Butterball’ Smith … Butter
Bob Gordon … Bartender
Jerry Albert … Mate
George Johnson … Captain
Richard O’Barry … First Patrolman (as Ric O’Feldman)
Luke Halpin … Third Patrolman
Dan Fitzgerald … Deputy
Bob Leslie … Client
Raff Prieto … Attendant
Marcia Knight … Secretary (as Marcie Knight)
Dete Parsons … Helper
Dick Sterling … Tourist (as Richard Sterling)
Mal Jones … 1st Man
Jack Nagle … 2nd Man
Don Sebastian … Customer
Arthur C. Gulliver Jr. Arthur C. Gulliver Jr. … 1st Vigilante
Courtney Brown … 2nd Vigilante
Herb Goldstein … Fisherman
Lucille Blackton … Annie

Technical detail:
91 minutes
Audio: Mono
Aspect ratio: 1.85: 1


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