Filthy underwater animals

In the summer of 1975, director Steven Spielberg made audiences scared to go into the water with “Jaws.” The story of police chief Martin Brody and his pursuit of a great white shark terrorizing the Martha’s Vineyard-like Amity Island, “Jaws” became a box office smash often identified as the first summer blockbuster.

Prior to “Jaws,” the notion of a man-versus-animal struggle was relegated mostly to the sorts of films you would find in cheap, dingy exploitation or grindhouse theaters. These low-budget productions lacked all the suspense and acting pedigree that made audiences shudder with “Jaws.”

While there has been minor success at duplicating the impact of “Jaws” – particularly in the “Piranha” series, which started with director Joe Dante’s original in 1978 and saw a revival with “Piranha 3D” and the upcoming “Piranha 3DD” – many of the films that followed in the wake of its success also lacked its bite.

This Friday sees the release of “Shark Night 3D,” where sharks mysteriously invade a Louisiana lake to slaughter unsuspecting teenagers in silly ways. As “Shark Night 3D” seemingly strives to be taken seriously this Labor Day weekend, Scene & Heard tracks the steady decline in underwater terror since the release of “Jaws.”

“Piranha” (1978)

After the success of “Jaws,” every movie studio began looking for its own killer animal success story. While films like the bear thriller “Grizzly” came and went, B-movie king Roger Corman saw a real opportunity to finally have an audience for the type of films he was making well before “Jaws.”

While 1978’s “Piranha” may have more of a satirical edge – thanks in no small part to director Joe Dante – the film still made audiences scream upon its release. It received a modestly successful run at the box office, and is still regarded today as a cult classic.

Clearly, Spielberg saw some talent in Dante, as the pair went on to produce several features together including 1984’s “Gremlins.” While so many studios had tried to duplicate the success of “Jaws,” it took somebody with a little sense of humor to overcome being completely derivative.

“Lake Placid” (1999)

The year 1999 saw a new breed of non-threatening, underwater killer animal movies with the release of the shark-infested “Deep Blue Sea” and the “Jaws”-influenced “Lake Placid.”

What these films share in common is perhaps most prevalent in “Lake Placid,” which is that some terrible CGI creation runs amok in place of a killer animal. While primitive effects have steadily dated films like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” the CGI at work in “Lake Placid” pretty much dated this film upon arrival.

“Lake Placid” shares much in common aesthetically with this week’s release of “Shark Night 3D” – the film is devoid of the great practical effects found in “Piranha” and “Jaws,” along with any real suspense.

Still, it managed to scare up a pretty good chunk of change at the box office, even though this marked a time for many filmgoers when monsters in the water became a whole lot less scary.

“Piranha 3D” (2010)

“Piranha 3-D,” a supposed reimagining of Dante’s 1978 film, brings underwater terror to a whole new level. Instead of asking us to fear what lurks beneath, we laugh as the tiny piranha chomp on half-naked porn stars and spit human phalluses at the screen.

While the terror in “Jaws” was derived mostly from the grotesque nature of the shark’s attacks, there is little to be scared about here as the piranha act more like funny little “Gremlins.”

“High Tension” director Alexandre Aja injects the film with some genuine suspense, but a nude underwater ballet and a 20-minute, gore-filled finale that rivals the opening of “Saving Private Ryan” in bloodshed do little to ask the audience to take it seriously.

Even the tenser moments in the film – like when two characters are being rescued from a luxury yacht that’s ready to explode – are mostly undercut by a sly wink at the audience, even including a cameo by “Jaws” actor Richard Dreyfuss.

“Shark Night 3D” (2011)

It’s hard to imagine why the creators of “Shark Night 3D” would ask anyone to fear sharks that have supposedly infiltrated a Louisiana lake, but apparently they are.

While the trailer portrays a sense of humor that rivals that of a frat comedy like “American Pie,” the scenes of exploding lake houses and Jet Ski races with sharks prove that the film’s creators are attempting to pull this off with a straight face.

If the gimmicky “3D” in the title isn’t already enough of an indicator of this film’s quality, perhaps the final moments of the trailer – which shows a close-up derrire shot of actress Sara Paxton wading helplessly into shark-infested waters – will.

For now, it appears as if the sort of films that were once meant to scare us have now been simply reduced to opportunities for obscene amounts of T&A. Couldn’t audiences just use the Internet for that?