On June 20, 1975, the release of Jaws revolutionized the way Hollywood sold movies to the American public. Its marketing innovations have been documented so exhaustively that most students of film history can recite them by heart. Jaws was the first movie to benefit from a television ad campaign. It opened in 465 theaters simultaneously, bucking the historical strategy of slow, targeted rollouts, and it practically invented the summer blockbuster, smashing box office records at a time when conventional wisdom held that late June was a moviegoing dead zone.
Steven Spielberg’s first masterpiece ushered in a golden era of mainstream filmmaking. It also opened the door for an avalanche of blatant knockoffs, from major studios and underground producers alike. An exceptional trio of films from that initial wave of post-Jaws aquatic creature features — 1977’s Orca, 1978’s Piranha, and 1980’s Alligator — put plenty of blood in the water, but they also delivered on stranger, more subversive ambitions. They’re all available to watch at home, and they’re all worth your time, decades later.
When producer Dino De Laurentiis saw Jaws, he told screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) to “find a fish tougher and more terrible than the Great White.” Vincenzoni came back with Orca, a script in which a killer whale dispatches a great white shark in the opening sequence. That made for a gloriously unsubtle metaphor, but any notion of taking down Jaws was wishful thinking — Orca was a critical laughingstock and a notorious box office flop for Paramount. With the benefit of 45 years of hindsight, it’s clear that its biggest sin was that it wasn’t a meticulous re-creation of its main inspiration. Directed by Michael Anderson, fresh off the success of 1976’s Logan’s Run, Orca owes as big a debt to Herman Melville as it does to Spielberg. At times, it feels like a loopy adaptation of Moby-Dick, helmed by someone who only read the SparkNotes.
Orca pits a hyperintelligent killer whale against the steely Captain Nolan (Richard Harris), a fisherman who accidentally kills the whale’s pregnant mate while trying to poach her to sell to an aquarium. The surviving orca spends the middle act of the movie trying to goad Nolan into a showdown on the high seas by destroying boats, blowing up buildings, and biting off Bo Derek’s leg. Nolan is a reluctant Ahab, but he eventually accepts the whale’s challenge, chasing it up the Canadian coast and facing off with it in a climactic battle near the Arctic Circle. If the inherent ridiculousness of that synopsis suggests a self-aware, winking horror flick, think again. Anderson and his cast treat Vincenzoni’s script with utter seriousness, and the movie is all the better for it.
In addition to Harris, who portrays Nolan’s descent into blood-and-thunder madness with gusto, Orca gives us two more excellent performances. An enigmatic Charlotte Rampling plays Rachel Bedford, a marine biologist who begins the film warning Nolan not to try capturing the orca and ends it begging him to shoot it. Muscogee actor Will Sampson (Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) is given a stereotypical “wise Indian” role as Jacob Umilak, but he makes a meal out of it, rooting the character in his effortless gravitas. That trio of performances might be Orca’s closest spiritual tether to Jaws; Harris, Rampling, and Sampson are giving Anderson every bit as much as Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss gave Spielberg. Buoying the whole thing is a criminally underrated Ennio Morricone score, one of the Maestro’s finest. (Its moody, aquatic atmospherics can be heard as a kind of strings-heavy precursor to the water level music of ’90s video games. Orca treaded so Ecco the Dolphin could swim.)
Most striking today is the film’s very modern view on animal rights. The entire plot hinges on orcas’ exceptional intelligence and the cruelty and futility of trying to keep them in captivity. The harm Nolan inflicts on the whale is repaid in kind, and he’s never presented as any more sympathetic than the animal, even when he details his own grief. The first SeaWorld parks were open in the U.S. by Orca’s 1977 release, but concern over the treatment of killer whales in captivity wouldn’t go mainstream until decades later. Yet here we have Charlotte Rampling practically delivering PETA talking points directly to the camera in a Jaws rip-off. Orca isn’t an overwhelmingly political film, but it does raise some of the same issues that documentaries like 2013’s Blackfish would eventually turn into real political change.
Orca is available for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.
A year later, Roger Corman’s New World Pictures produced Piranha, a Jaws riff that was both more slyly political and more luridly entertaining than Orca. Corman and De Laurentiis were kindred spirits of a sort in the world of genre cinema, but where De Laurentiis took bigger financial swings, Corman was more comfortable with movies that he could make quickly and cheaply and turn a tidy profit on. He had an eye for top-flight talent, though, and directors from the New World stable frequently found themselves making big Hollywood films after leaving Corman’s side. One such person was eventual Gremlins mastermind Joe Dante, who made his solo directorial debut with Piranha. Already, Dante was an anarchic genius, and Piranha is loaded to the gills with his idiosyncratic touches.
An early clue that Dante knows exactly what kind of movie he’s making comes in a scene at a rental car office, where Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) is shown playing the infamous Shark Jaws arcade machine. The game was developed as a Jaws tie-in, but when Atari failed to secure the license from Universal, the publisher released it anyway, adding “Shark” in comically tiny font next to the enormous “JAWS” logo. (It feels worth mentioning here that Universal also considered an injunction to stop the release of Piranha.) The characters in the scene don’t remark on the game at all, but it’s easy to picture Dante laughing his ass off at its inclusion.
At Corman’s behest, a lot of the beats in Piranha have a direct analog in Jaws. Dante delighted in wedging his personality in there alongside them. His camera is kinetic, his jokes land, his shoestring special effects look great, and his pacing is masterful. When a weird little stop-motion fish-monster ambles through the frame, or a scenery-chewing Paul Bartel shows up to bark commands at summer campers, that’s so clearly Dante just having fun. Impressively, he always integrates those touches into the tone of the overall project.
The other crucial ingredient in Piranha is its screenplay, written by future Matewan director and reliable left-wing rabble-rouser John Sayles. In Sayles’ script, mutant piranhas make their way into American waters after a secret Vietnam War project called Operation: Razorteeth goes haywire. Military scientists genetically engineered a strain of piranha that could survive and procreate in cold water with the intent of collapsing the Vietnamese river system. The project is abandoned, but a rogue researcher continues to experiment on the fish in America, ultimately watching in horror as they’re accidentally released into a river.
In 1978, the failures of Vietnam still struck a painful chord with American audiences, and Sayles shoots straight for the heart. The distrust and disgust with authority that’s permeated his entire career is in full bloom in his debut script, and no one is spared — the military, the police, public officials, greedy capitalists, even Bartel’s puffed-up camp counselor are painted as craven, buffoonish, or both. What Sayles and Dante both understood is that even goofy, gory fun can make a point. That’s why Piranha works so well, and why competing cheapies like The Last Shark and Tintorera didn’t work at all.
Piranha is available to watch on Shudder, AMC+ and Peacock, for free with a library card on Hoopla or Kanopy, or for free with ads on Tubi, Plex, Freevee, and Pluto TV.
Sayles’ politics also infiltrated his script for 1980’s Alligator. The Lewis Teague-directed film is based on the urban legend of alligators getting into the sewer system, but Sayles takes that starting point and turns it into an effective piece of agitprop. The alligator may have gotten into the sewer by being flushed down the toilet, but it turned into an insatiable 50-foot-long menace by ingesting growth hormones that were put there by a pharmaceutical company. An arrogant corporate scientist, a slimy CEO, and a sniveling mayor are all tied up in a conspiracy to experiment on dogs and dump their corpses in the sewer, where the alligator ultimately eats them.
In Alligator, Big Pharma is as corrupt as every other edifice of authority. (Somewhat surprisingly, a cop played by Robert Forster is the film’s protagonist and moral center.) Unchecked capitalism in all its forms was clearly on Sayles’ mind when he wrote the script; as soon as the alligator finds its way into the city pond, a cottage industry of vendors selling rubber reptiles and illicit pets pops up. When Forster’s Detective Madison shuts one hawker down, he accuses him of being a communist and an enemy of free enterprise. One imagines Sayles has been called worse.
Beneath its simmering political anger, Alligator is probably the most crowd-pleasing of this loose trilogy of post-Jaws flicks. It’s got a bit of a noirish flavor, as Detective Madison spends the film locked in a battle of wits with a criminal who always manages to stay one step ahead of him. (The criminal happens to be an alligator.) There’s a boat explosion, a swaggering big game hunter who gets chomped to death in a dark alley, and a memorably gnarly scene involving a swimming pool at a kid’s birthday party. The scenes shot with a real alligator on miniature sets look incredible, and a climactic garden party sequence allows Sayles to live out his “eat the rich” convictions in gloriously literal fashion. It’s a total blast, and it closes the golden age of Jaws knockoffs on an immensely entertaining note.
It shouldn’t be all that surprising that Jaws was such a fertile launchpad for these other movies. Spielberg’s film was political, too — try to find a better piece of American art about institutions mobilizing to protect capital in the face of imminent danger. It was also stridently independent in spirit and execution, alive with the feeling of a talented young director making it up as he went along. That sense of discovery carried through the next decade of genre cinema, at the big studios and in the underground. Orca, Piranha, and Alligator were cash-ins on Jaws mania, yes, but they were also fully realized visions.
Alligator is available to watch on Shudder and AMC+, or for free with ads on Shout! Factory TV.