TV Review: Syfy's 'Ghost Shark' is no 'Sharknado'
Richard Moll tries hard, but effort alone does not a 'Sharknado' make
I am writing this review of Syfy's "Ghost Shark" because I want to get the name "Sharknado" in a headline for SEO purposes.
It's exactly this sort of blatant opportunism that would make me feel just a tiny bit unclean were it not for the simple fact that the only people with more invested in linking "Ghost Shark" and "Sharknado" in audience minds than online headline hounds are the good people at Syfy. "Sharknado" was a phenomenon that Syfy knows it can't regularly reproduce. The Twitter maelstrom generated by the "Sharknado" premiere was nice, but the word-of-mouth tsunami that followed and that generated the increasingly popular repeat airings and the very real injection of a nonsensical meteorological concept into the vernacular were the true achievements for Syfy. And just because "Ghost Shark" is no "Sharknado" in terms of genuine or guilty pleasure hasn't stopped Syfy from attempting chum up the waters in the hope that viewers will confuse the one with the other. Heck, "Ghost Shark" premieres on Thursday (August 22) night after yet another "Sharknado" encore.
As an occasional viewer of Syfy original movies, I can verify that there are tiers. "Sharknado" featured four or five vaguely familiar actors looking for career resuscitation and special effects of a caliber such that you were frequently able to tell what the CG blobs were supposed to be and what they were supposed to be doing. Over the course of the "Sharknado" running time, there were between five and 10 moments in which I laughed out loud, either due to sheer goofy inspiration or marvelous, fully committed awfulness.
You think that those expectations represent a low bar for achievement. You think that way until you watch the average Syfy original movie and realize how easy it is to fill 82 minutes with little more than a gleefully mutated title and hints at a plot to justify that title.
In the balance, "Sharknado" was somewhere in the vicinity of 50 percent great title and 50 percent execution, which is close to the Golden Ratio by Syfy standards. Anything more heavily weighted towards the title fails to deliver sustained buzz. Anything more heavily weighted towards execution costs more money than Syfy is willing to spend.
"Ghost Shark," in contrast, is probably closer to 75 or 80 percent "great title," with the execution lagging behind. That may not be better than some on the Syfy slate, but it's better than many and there are moments of fun here, even if they come way too early in the movie and set "Ghost Shark" up for a final act that fizzles.
[More after the break…]
"Ghost Shark" is the story of a shark who's a ghost.
I could draw you a picture, but I suspect that you're probably able to assemble almost the entirety of "Ghost Shark" in your head already and I want to leave something for your imagination.
Like "Sharknado," "Ghost Shark" begins on a fishing boat. While this fishing excursion is competitive and the ship in "Sharknado" is commercial, I think it's crucial to remember that these Syfy originals have valid lessons about the despoliation of our oceans and not overfishing our seas.
Oh, I'm just messing with you. The only lesson in "Ghost Shark" is that if you're out on the open sea and you decide to kill a great white shark, it's better not to let it swim away to complete the act of dying in a nearby voodoo-infused cave, because if a shark dies in a voodoo-infused cave, the result is… GHOST SHARK.
Sounds pretty plausible, right? Well, since I've been watching a few episodes of "H20: Just Add Water" on Netflix, I'm inclined to believe that magical caves and grottos are capable of just about anything and I'm not prepared to delve into the relative realism of peppy teenage mermaids versus vengeful ghost sharks.
Now let's just say that you're a ghost and you become a shark. What do you do? Well, revenge is obviously your first course of action, but once you've gotten at least a modicum of revenge and none of the people responsible for your ghostinsharktrication remain alive, what's a Ghost Shark to do? Go after the residents of a seaside town, of course. As you do.
In this case, the town is the appropriately named Smallport, a community with A Skeptical Sheriff, A Money-Hungry Mayor, A Fat Kid, A Ditzy Blonde, A Crazy Lighthouse Keeper and five or six other paid extras. It's not an expansive cinematic universe, but that's OK because the characters are mostly just kibble for the arrival of... Ghost Shark.
I don't want you to ponder the spiritual implications of ghost sharks. That would hurt your head and, more likely, your soul. Does this suggest that sharks have souls? Does this mean that there's Shark Heaven? [Trademark pending.]
Director Griff Furst and writer Paul A. Birkett, triumphantly reuniting after "Arachnoquake," aren't especially into the spiritual implications of ghost sharks and much more into the metaphysical implications. Specifically: How does a ghost shark move? Answer? Through water. How much water? Almost any amount of water is enough to harbor a ghost shark. This is a tremendous leap forward in the sharkfiltration of our great nation. After all, the sharks in "Sharknado" required a certain level of storm to take down Los Angeles, while Ghost Shark requires only a slip-and-slide or a bikini car wash. Previously, you would have needed the proprietors of a bikini car wash to ignore all warnings of inclement weather in order to have them fall victim to a shark attack, but thanks to the advent of ghost shark technology, there's a built-in delivery mechanism. No matter how much I'll eventually criticize Furst and Birkett, society will always be in their debt for this fusion of land-locked bikini carwashing and sharks.
See? That got your attention. Suddenly you're all, "That got my attention! The ideas in 'Ghost Shark' intrigue me." Any circumstance in which exposure to an unthinkable horror initially seems avoidable but turns out to be inexorable -- like ducking Freddy Krueger simply by staying awake -- makes for good drama and, as any good mogwai owner or teenage mermaid can tell you, water is tough to dodge.
You will, alas, be sorely less engaged by the way that those ideas are brought to life.
In 1996, FOX had the rights to NHL games, but they decided that they'd discovered the barrier-from-entry keeping American viewers from loving the game: In short? We could not follow the puck. So the FOX geniuses invented the FoxTrax puck, which produced a blue-ish glow around the puck. On a slapshot over a certain speed, a red comet tail would appear as well. Unlike the magical yellow line that tells football fans where the first down marker is, the FoxTrax puck was not widely viewed as an improvement to the viewing experience and then hockey changed to ABC in 1998, the FoxTrax puck didn't follow. It was assumed that the technology died with the FOX deal.
However, I'm pleased to report that the FoxTrax glowing puck technology wasn't actually dead. It was merely wounded and it made its way into a voodoo cave and it has returned... In shark form!
That was convoluted, but it's the best description I can possibly give for the level of technology that was required to bring Ghost Shark to life. He's a shark, but he glows blue. He's also translucent. Sometimes. How does Ghost Shark work? Other than that whole "water" thing? I don't know. Sometimes if Ghost Shark flies through you, you die. Simple as that. Sometimes Ghost Shark can still eat you. In those cases, sometimes you vanish and sometimes only parts of you do.
I think the best answer for how Ghost Shark kills is, "Whatever way happens to be cheapest." A solid 90% of the gore effects in "Ghost Shark" involve severed or displaced legs, leading me to believe that the production got a discount at the prosthetics store. But sometimes, people just vanish, because the only thing cheaper than "discount plastic legs" is "your actor just steps out of frame." See, because Ghost Shark is translucent, he's basically an overlay effect the entire time. In "Sharknado," there were some practical effects, even if they weren't all that good, and there were also sharks that had to have corporeal form, so at the very least they blocked out the actors when the squished them. Here, it's like somebody took a still frame of a blue, glowing shark and just slid it across the frame. Instant Ghost Shark Attack! I'm not even sure that the "Ghost Shark" budget included tennis balls so that the actors had a clue where Ghost Shark was coming from or what he was doing. That puts a lot of pressure on the cast to authentically simulate the experience of being attacked by a ghost shark through either sense memory or other actorly tricks.
That's a big challenge because, to put it kindly, the cast of "Ghost Shark" isn't especially good. Say what you will about their credits, but with Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, John Heard and Cassie Scerbo, "Sharknado" had a cast that was reasonably well-stocked with thespians versed at attempting to give performances in front of cameras (and sometimes even succeeding).
In constrast, "Ghost Shark" has Mackenzie Rosman, best known as Ruthie Camden from "7th Heaven." Rosman got her start at a very young age and in an industry in which juvenile performers are often praised for being gifted-beyond-their-years, this was not an accusation often hurled in her direction. [It's here that *some* "7th Heaven" devotee is going to direct me to Rosman's 2004 Supporting Young Actress prize at the Young Artist Awards. I have no response.] Rosman hasn't acted much lately and "Ghost Shark" is more of an opportunity for her to showcase her new bikini-ready physical maturity than any evolution in her acting range. Rosman's performance in "Ghost Shark" ranges from "sullen" to "sullen." In early scenes she's sullen because she's being called a virgin -- an accusation that is never mentioned again -- and in later scenes she's sullen because loved ones keep getting eaten by Ghost Shark. Truthfully, I can't say that my own reaction to being in a similar situation wouldn't also be "sullen," but I'd also hope for different shadings of sullen. Rosman offers none and yet she's easily the most dynamic of the cast's young performances. Nobody looks like they're having fun and everybody looks as if they weren't given more than a single take in any scene. There's an almost improvisational looseness to a couple scenes that I actually attribute to people not being sure of their dialogue.
There is one exception and that's Richard Moll. Leaving aside his successful run as Bull on "Night Court," Moll is a man who knows his horror and who also knows that if you don't want to be upstaged by a ghost shark that isn't even there, sometimes you have to deliver a performance that critics of refined entertainments might call "oversized" or "hammy." And, in Finch, Moll has a part that's perfectly tailored to devouring scenery the way a ghost shark devours a skeptical stoner. He growls and bellows and staggers around drunk and does exactly what you'd want a supporting character in a "Scooby-Doo" episode to do. I don't expect "Ghost Shark" to boost Moll's credibility in the way that "Sharknado" returned Ian Ziering to the A-list ("a" standing for "available for work"), but I must salute Richard Moll for making "Ghost Shark" better for his presence.
Even Moll's game efforts aren't enough to elevate the last 15 or 20 minutes of "Ghost Shark." What inspiration the movie has is nestled in the middle. When we reach the obligatory "Here's what Ghost Shark is and here's how to stop him" stage, I stopped caring, especially since I was actively hoping that everybody other than Moll could get eaten so that the hypothetical sequel could cast anew.
Part of why "Sharknado" kept people tweeting was because every time you thought the level of insanity had peaked, somebody would fly at a shark with a chainsaw. In "Ghost Shark," there really is a peak to the insanity and it arrives too soon (and probably doesn't rise high enough). I guess "Ghost Shark" should be relieved that shark-based movies no longer have to rise to the level of "Jaws" or even "Deep Blue Sea," but even "Sharknado" leaves it with fins that prove too big to fill.
I'm sticking a "C" on "Ghost Shark," but I'm not sure I've ever given a more meaningless grade. Either "Ghost Shark" is much worse than that, if you grade on empirical cinematic merit, or it's probably somewhat better than that, if you happen to be watching with friends on Twitter or making fun of it while intoxicated.
Perhaps you'll get a kick out of "Ghost Shark." Why do I know? I've just written 2000+ words about a movie called "Ghost Shark."
"Ghost Shark" airs on Thursday, August 22 at 9 p.m. on Syfy.