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Hollywood loves a beach getaway gone awry. It’s a genre unto itself. There’s something about the twist of coastal idyll turns bloody nightmare that keeps film executives reaching for their wallets and bankrolling yet another would-be blockbuster. This summer they’re at it again with The Shallows and Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens. Execs have, apparently, yet to meet a coastal horror too fantastic to reject. They also seem to have a preoccupation with sharks, no matter how tangential to the storyline. At storyboard meetings, do they pound the table with their fists and demand, “More sharks, more sharks!”?
While the best coastal horror movies can offer cheesy, breezy fun, they often display a warped, two-dimensional, and, er, less-than-scientific understanding of the realities of our coasts. But where is the fun in reality on a steamy, rainy night? Here are five classics to watch before summer’s end.
This is the movie that kick-started the genre in 1975. The Steven Spielberg-directed original launched a flotilla of sequels and parodies. It still holds up: police Chief Martin Brody’s brooding, never-quite-explained fear of the ocean; hunter-for-hire Quint’s mad fascination with sharks; and the legendary score that lets you know the man-eater is coming back for more. Jaws, however, has a complicated legacy—it’s credited with prompting more funding for research into sharks, but also with needlessly demonizing the animals and fueling a devastating trophy hunt.
Sharknado delivers on what the word mash-up promises: hundreds of killer sharks literally falling from the sky and noshing on the unlucky humans within their reach (whether those jaws are still airborne or on the ground). The campy made-for-TV movie was an unexpected hit when it aired on Syfy in 2013. Ian Ziering (of Beverly Hills, 90210) stars as Fin, a retired pro surfer who runs a beachside bar. When a hurricane floods Los Angeles and sharks start flying through the air and swimming in the streets (the exact meteorology behind the action is a bit hazy), Fin and his crew of barstool regulars head out to save his estranged wife and daughter. It’s a lot of gory fun—if you can forget everything you know about how the natural world actually operates.
Into the Blue
What would you do if you found a crashed plane on the ocean bottom, filled with dead bodies and neatly packaged cocaine? That’s the dicey question facing a pair of dive bums in the Caribbean in the 2005 film Into the Blue. There would be no story without their poor judgement, and soon enough the diving duo is joined by corrupt cops, murderous treasure seekers, and the plane’s drug-cartel owners. The antagonists in this flick are mostly human, but sharks do get to play the horror card, even though Jessica Alba’s character, Sam, one of the divers, spends the early part of the movie reassuring tourists that it’s safe to swim with most sharks. Attacks are usually “a case of mistaken identity,” she explains. Foreshadowing! The filmmaker throws in a few timely chompings anyway because, well, no one was expecting it, right?
Leonardo DiCaprio is a disillusioned backpacker in The Beach, released in 2000. DiCaprio’s character, Richard, is staying at a seedy Bangkok hotel when he hears about a hidden paradise on an obscure Thai island—a secret commune where people live free from the entanglements of modern society. He makes his way there and thrives at first, but it turns out the man-made utopia has darkness at its core.
The unraveling is precipitated by (what else?) a shark attack, but this story is more about the fallibility of people than of paradise. Still, the beach is cast as an either-or entity: paradise or nightmare. The lack of portraying anything in between may be the genre’s unifying characteristic—screenwriters flatten a dynamic system that is full of wonder into two extremes. Complexity does not a blockbuster make.
A Perfect Getaway
There are plenty of practical, real-life things to worry about while hiking Hawai‘i’s classic Kalalau Trail: slippery paths, cliffs with no guardrails, or even blisters. But in the 2009 film A Perfect Getaway, the true danger is a pair of murderers who’ve taken refuge on the trail after killing a honeymooning couple in Honolulu. Paranoia and confusion reign as three couples tramp along the path, everyone suspecting everyone else—and, for once, no shark interventions are required to resolve the conflict. The story is far-fetched, but with humans identified as the real threat on this delicate stretch of coastline, this thriller may be the most realistic of the bunch.