She Gods of Shark Reef (Roger Corman, 1958) 🇺🇸
"You'll never go in the water again!” Spielberg warned us in one of the posters for his cult film, Jaws. There's no better catchphrase to spoil your holiday. But I'm afraid that hanging the She Gods of Shark Reef poster in your living room, bedroom or bathroom – though not above the bathtub! – will only aggravate your "squalophobia" (or fear of sharks). It's because of all those shark movies that I'm reluctant to swim in the salty waters of the sea, preferring fresh water or even chlorinated water in crowded swimming pools – at least I'm not claustrophobic!
A frightening scene plays out on this vivid and powerful poster, between a gigantic black shark glistening with voracity and a defenceless nymphet, bound hand and foot as a result of who knows what cruel punishment. The monstrous fish charges straight at her before our helpless eyes, staring murderously, baring its double row of jagged teeth, impervious to her imploring look of innocence. Three other aquatic goddesses rush to her aid, but in vain. If her predator does not devour her whole, its sidekick will gobble up the remains – except, possibly, the poor flowers, the reminder of a “lush earthly paradise”. Danger does indeed lie under the waves, at the foot of a reef where a "hideous stone god" reigns supreme. She is insatiable, with her constant demands for victims. Her face, as attractive as a death mask, is surrounded by a yellowish halo, spreading divine terror. The title in blood red letters leaps out of poster, announcing what’s to come: expect 63 minutes of horror and fright!
This is exactly what I expected before I saw the film. Shocking images of nubile virgins torn apart by hordes of hungry sharks, dictated by the mysterious underwater burial rites of a vengeful goddess. The story takes place in Hawaii, on the island of Kauai to be precise, famous for its legends involving gods and goddesses, ghosts and goblins. Like Kū, the god of war who demanded endless sacrifices of girls and boys. And Pele, the goddess who furiously triggered earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. So Hawaii wasn't always the surfer's paradise it seems! Scriptwriters Robert Hill and Victor Stoloff must have been inspired by it, even though the goddess on the poster did not appear in the original title (the far less catchy The Shark Reef). But while the story is brimming in myths and superstitions, there is not a drop of blood in sight. This film can be watched by absolutely anyone – except a very demanding audience.
Two brothers who have survived a storm (triggered by the goddess of the sea?) are stranded on an island populated exclusively by women pearl divers. They seem to have lucked out. But their arrival stirs the goddess' wrath once again when the nice blond brother (Bill Cord) falls in love with the prettiest woman (Lisa Montell) while the dark-haired brother (Don Durand), who has already killed a man, steals a bag of pearls. The village elder, Queen Pua, is merciless. In her eyes, there is only one deadly outcome: sacrificing the young woman to the sharks to appease divine anger. Dressed in her finest attire, she is pushed into the water by the evil matron. Saved in the nick of time by the blond brother, we can guess what happens next. They spend the last fifteen minutes of the film exiled on the famous shark reef they reach by building a makeshift canoe. The other brother is punished for his greed by ending up as shark food. The two lovebirds, alone at last, take to the sea emptied of its monsters and head towards a calm and soothing horizon.
Initially prompted by the sort of morbid curiosity that drives you to watch horror films, I soon realised that it was a harmless B-movie adventure and stopped expecting anything other than exotic escapism. The tropical settings, with their lush vegetation and sandy beaches, are not, in fact, unpleasant. The same can be said of the bodies of the two muscular males, advantageously displayed by the simple female loincloths they wear throughout the film. While I learned a few things about Hawaiian customs (such as never breaking the "lei" or flower garland you are given), other details went straight over my head, such as the signals sent by raising flags or that strangely husky language, halfway between the local language, I presume, and Elizabethan English, which made me stick to the subtitles. I finally got used to the sharks, which seemed anaesthetised, if not euthanised, and gradually felt the urge to stroke them, as Lisa Montell does, gently pushing them away with her hand when they attack. I now know what I need to do one day to conquer my fear once and for all: go and whisper in the sharks’ ears!
Check out the French version of this article.