When Rogue Pictures announced that their forthcoming horror film “Shark Night 3D” was going to be rated PG-13 instead of R, they shepherded it into theaters with two strikes already against it. Especially following the go-for-broke gratuitousness of Alexandre Aja’s “Piranha 3D,” but really in the wake of every single killer fish movie since the original “Jaws,” to deny an audience gory dismemberments or even just gloriously pointless nudity feels, well, irresponsible. But with “Snakes on a Plane” director David R. Ellis behind the camera, “Shark Night 3D” is a full-fledged, bottom-of-the-ninth strikeout, a trashy, stupid, joyless, and overlong thriller that makes Aja’s grand guignol look positively arty by comparison.
The woefully unlucky Sara Paxton (“Last House on the Left”) plays Sara, a coed who rounds up a group of college buddies and retreats to her family’s lake house for some fun in the sun. Joining her is Nick (Dustin Milligan), a bookworm who harbors a secret crush on her, horndog hotties Beth (Katharine McPhee) and Blake (Chris Zylka), quick-witted friend-zoner Gordon (Joel David Moore), and star athlete Malik (Sinqua Walls) and his girlfriend Maya (Alyssa Diaz), who run afoul of locals Dennis (Chris Carmack) and Red (Joshua Leonard) before they even arrive at the lake.
Not long after they decide to take out the boat for a spin, Malik mysteriously loses his arm while waterskiing; but when a shark attacks Nick while he tries to retrieve it, the group discovers that they might end up as the main course at a seafood buffet. Enlisting Dennis and Red to retrieve the authorities, Sara and Nick are forced to take charge of the situation in order to get their injured friend to safety and protect the lives of everyone else from the threat that lurks beneath the surface of the lake.
The first problem with “Shark Night 3D” is that despite being a film that purports to emphasize suspense over gore, it has no idea how to construct that suspense, and then no confidence in pulling it off. In the first five minutes there’s a standalone sequence in which two characters are eaten by a shark; not only is this executed with heavyhanded point of view shots and ominous music that all but obliterates anticipation, it occurs inexplicably after the opening credits sequence, which makes the leap to the main ensemble’s collegiate antics that much more jarring. Then the film wastes a good 20 minutes of screen time using time-lapse montages setting up relationships and back stories that could have been established in mere seconds, if they were important at all.
Moreover, the movie games every possible opportunity for these characters to find themselves imperiled, starting with not one, but two very emphatic announcements that at the lake house, there’s no cell phone service. Evidently there’s also no regular phone service, because once they need to get help for Malik, they are without any options, except to solicit the assistance of a literally buck-toothed, racist bumpkin. Notwithstanding the ridiculous goddamn reason why the sharks are in this lake to begin with (a spoiler we’ll leave you to discover for yourselves), they aren’t just man-eaters, they’re manhunters; capable of literally any feat shy of walking on land: chasing down skiiers, catapulting themselves out of the water, and successfully attacking and disabling moving vehicles. Simultaneously, every single death in the film plays like the scene in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” where Ace falls into that shark tank and is comically tossed around, although Ellis and co. apparently thought that adding some red food coloring to the water would make that scary instead of funny. It doesn’t.
No matter how many episodes of “Assy McGee” and “Best Week Ever with Paul F. Tompkins” screenwriter Will Hayes wrote prior to “Shark Night 3D,” we refuse to believe that he meant for this film to be a campy thrill ride, or at least he never told Ellis if he did. For example, the second and third acts of the film are dependent on the plot development that Malik is too unstable to move, and therefore cannot be transported to safety; somehow, however, he is later able to locate an actual spear, venture out into the lake, and retaliate against a shark, single-handedly. Sara, meanwhile, shares some unspoken history with the local hillbillies, and for a while it looked like Hayes and his co-screenwriter Jesse Studenberg actually created some sort of thoughtful history or mythology to explain the sharks, but any and all revelations about her relationship with Dennis and Red are completely unrelated to the reasons why an army of man-eating sharks are cruising the waters of the Louisiana Gulf.
After surviving both this film and “Last House on the Left,” Sara Paxton is overdue for a genuinely good horror film, which thankfully Ti West’s “The Innkeepers” is. And as her hunky bookworm love interest, Dustin Milligan mostly absolves himself of responsibility for this turd. But as a straightforward performance or even parodic interpretation of a clichéd horror bumpkin, Joshua Leonard is offensively awful as Red, and Sinqua Walls creates one of the most shamelessly stereotypical “black” characters in the last decade of horror movies. But all real blame for this film’s abject failure falls squarely on the shoulders of Ellis and the executives who either allowed or insisted that it not be R-rated – less for the lack of gore and nudity, however, than the PG-13 rating’s unspoken insistence that this be neither a full-fledged indulgence of horror conventions or a send-up.
Burdened by the obligation to deliver a teen-friendly crowd-pleaser, the film could neither go balls to the wall with its bloody payoffs nor truly goof on the genre it theoretically would be satirizing. Instead, it’s forced to find a middle ground between being scary or silly, and ends up being just plain stupid. Ultimately, “Shark Night 3D” distinguishes itself from SciFi Channel garbage like “Megashark vs. Giant Octopus” only because it somehow found its way into theaters, even though it’s just as crappy and incompetent. If by some chance Ellis’ film is meant to become a midnight movie on DVD somewhere down the line, it can’t happen soon enough, because the quicker it leaves theaters, the quicker we can get to never, ever see it again. [F]