She Gods of Shark Reef/Shark Reef (1956/1958) *
When Samuel Arkoff and James Nicholson decide to sit on a movie for most of two years, you know you’re dealing with an absolute, utter stinker. These, after all, are the guys who released The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues, The Beast with a Million Eyes, and Voodoo Woman without batting an eyelash. How fucking awful would a movie have to be in order to make them say, “Ehh… Let’s keep this one under wraps until we’re in really serious need of some ready cash?” She Gods of Shark Reef was the side-project to the only slightly less daunting crime-in-the-tropics film, Naked Paradise, and to all appearances, we’re looking at another one of those cases where Roger Corman slapped together the ideas for a couple of movies in order to justify taking a vacation somewhere even sunnier and beachier than Southern California. It’s a truly piss-poor little clunker in which the high point is an extended hula dancing scene.
Some guy who will later identify himself as Lee Johnston (Don Durant)— albeit under circumstances which suggest that that isn’t really his name— stealthily climbs out of the water beneath a pier; he is soon joined by another man who is supposed to look like some sort of South Asian native, but doesn’t. The two men attempt to commit a crime of some sort (the movie will be damn near over before they are described as rifle smugglers, and there’s precious little basis on which to make that identification in this scene), but they don’t get very far before they are interrupted by a policeman or a security guard or some other such person. The fake Burmese/Indian/Sri Lankan/whatever stabs the interloper in the gut with a machete, and then both crooks swim for their lives under a hail of poorly directed gunfire from a second guard.
Johnston’s voiceover then tells us that his first stop after fleeing the scene of his failed crime was the home of his brother, Chris (Bill Cord). Chris owns a boat, and has a sufficiently hypertrophied sense of family loyalty that he can be convinced to use said boat to ferry Lee to a remote island in the Sulu Sea (evidently Corman figured no one would be able to tell the difference between Hawaii and the Philippines) where some presumably equally lawless friends of his will be willing to take him in. On the way, though, the boat encounters a hurricane. The storm blows it onto a shallow reef in the shark-infested waters surrounding another tiny island, and for a while there, it looks like none of the passengers are going to survive. We should be so lucky. No, a bunch of cute island girls come swimming to the rescue, hacking their way through the schools of hungry blue sharks to cut the Johnston brothers free from the kelp that entangles the submerged part of the reef and carry them to safety ashore.
The island turns out to be owned by the imaginatively named Island Company, an international pearl-harvesting concern. All of the islanders work for the company, which provides for their every need as part of the operating overhead for the pearl business. Mind you, none of that explains why there are no men on the island, or why all the inhabitants but two are of the beautiful and barely legal persuasion. Those two are the huge, nameless fat broad who guards the hut where the pearls are stored, and an older woman named Pua (Jeanne Gerson, from The Bride and the Beast and The Touch of Satan), who rules over the island’s all-female society like a surly, Polynesian mother superior. Pua is not happy to see the Johnstons, and she is especially peeved with Mahia (World Without End’s Lisa Montell) for leading the effort to save them from the sharks. But since there’s nothing left of Chris’s boat but a bunch of kindling, and since Pua’s girls all have much better things to do with their time than shuttle castaways to their intended destinations, the boys will just have to stay there for the ten days until the next company boat comes calling to drop off supplies and pick up the latest consignment of pearls.
Very quickly, it becomes apparent that there is a religious reason for Pua’s dislike of the outsiders, and for her visible displeasure with Mahia as well. It’s been a rough season for storms out on the Sulu Sea, and the reef offshore has been practically collecting boat-wrecks. The sharks, meanwhile, have been even more vicious than usual (it probably has something to do with all those wounded people who keep falling into the water when their boats break up on the reef), and the islanders have gotten it into their heads that the sea god Tangaroa— of whom sharks are supposed to be a living manifestation— is in a bad mood. Local religious tradition has it that Tangaroa can be placated only by permitting the sharks to eat people, converting their spirits into servants of the god, and so by saving Chris and Lee, Mahia has risked bringing divine wrath down upon the entire island population. It doesn’t make Pua any happier when Mahia and Chris fall in love, and start spending time together when the girl really ought to be diving for pearls and earning her keep from the Island Company. Chris thus has a pretty good reason for wanting to leave the island as quickly as possible, preferably with Mahia in tow, and that puts him right on the same wavelength as his brother. After all, we can be pretty sure that the company boat won’t be stopping over at the pirate’s haven where Lee was hoping to escape the legal system’s attentions. Fortunately for all concerned, Lee has discovered a junked but reparable outrigger canoe on the opposite beach from the village, which two nights’ work should be able to render seaworthy. Counterbalancing this stroke of luck, however, is the fact that Pua has just concluded that the only chance for appeasing Tangaroa is a human sacrifice, and I think we all know exactly who she has in mind for feeding to the sharks of the reef. We might also anticipate that a storehouse full of pearls will be much too big a temptation for a career criminal like Lee to resist, adding yet another reason for Pua and her flunkies to thwart an attempt on the part of him, his brother, and Mahia to skip town early.
It struck me about a third of the way through She Gods of Shark Reef that this is the kind of movie Andy Sidaris would have been making had he been in business in 1956. As with Andy’s uniformly dismal work, She Gods of Shark Reef uses a tired action-movie premise (in this case, a desperate criminal and his upstanding but too-loyal-for-his-own-good brother on the run from the consequences of a crime gone maximally sour) to set up an almost plotless cheesecake parade. And just like the typical Sidaris film, She Gods of Shark Reef fails by being insufficiently committed to either sex or violence. It’s pretty well useless as a crime drama or an adventure tale, for the simple reason that little or nothing happens for most of the time between the Johnston brothers’ arrival on the island and their final, calamity-beset escape attempt, and even when we do get some real action, it’s usually staged and edited in such a way as to suck just about all of the life out of it. For most of the film, we’re forced to make do with ogling a bunch of sexy Hawaiian chicks in skimpy, floral-print dresses, but even in the mid-1950’s, a determined exploitationeer could get away with a hell of a lot more tease than this. I just hope Corman and company had more fun on their Hawaiian vacation than I had taking in the official justification for the trip.