Tag Archives: Mississippi River Sharks

Misty Talley Puts the Heart in Sharksploitation

Wholesome is not a word typically used to describe shark-attack movies, but it’s exactly the right word for the films of director Misty Talley. Talley has made four of the most enjoyable recent low-budget shark movies by taking a positive, character-focused approach that repudiates the cheap cynicism of most movies in the subgenre. In her four features as director (Zombie Shark, Ozark Sharks, Mississippi River Sharks and Santa Jaws), Talley brings a welcome sense of humanity and cheerfulness to the requisite mayhem and bloodshed.

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It may seem counterintuitive at first, but it makes sense that Talley has worked extensively as an editor on Hallmark movies with titles like My Southern Family Christmas and Every Time a Bell Rings. Hallmark movies, like shark movies, follow an expected formula and frequently rely on pun-based titles. They’re also best when filmmakers take the easily dismissed subject matter seriously, treating their characters and their audience with respect. That’s exactly what Talley does in her shark movies, and the effort comes across in a viewing experience that’s upbeat, pleasant and surprisingly rewarding.

There’s a thin line between playfulness and mockery, and while Talley’s films are lighthearted and often self-deprecating, they never insult the audience’s interest in seeing a shark-attack movie to begin with. Talley’s films are filled with references and callbacks to other shark movies — including her own — but they’re affectionate and celebratory rather than snarky.

In Zombie Shark, the patient zero shark that spreads the zombie infection is named Bruce, after the nickname for the animatronic shark in Jaws. A scientist’s inspirational speech gets cut short when he’s abruptly eaten by a shark, just like Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea. These gentle, knowing touches are fun for shark-movie aficionados, but Talley and screenwriter Greg Mitchell don’t bombard the audience with them. There are no heavy-handed winks at the audience to make sure that viewers know that the filmmakers are in on the joke of their own movie’s terribleness.

Instead of leaning into her movies being bad, Talley actually puts in the effort to make them good within their genre and budgetary limitations. Jason London (and, briefly, his twin brother Jeremy) is the biggest star in any of Talley’s movies, but she works with actors who bring genuine emotion to their characters. No one in a Talley movie comes across as inauthentic. Her films are built around strong family relationships, and when the plot involves people getting eaten by sharks, it helps that the characters care about each other. In turn, that allows the audience to care about what happens in such a ridiculous scenario.

The main characters in Zombie Shark are sisters Amber (Cassie Steele) and Sophie (Sloane Coe), who may work together at a Hooters-like establishment called Hook’d Up, but aren’t just onscreen for eye candy. They have a troubled relationship that’s slowly explored amid the zombie shark attacks on a mostly deserted resort island off the coast of Louisiana. 

Even the scientist who inadvertently created the zombie sharks is motivated by a family connection, attempting to create an organ regeneration formula to honor her brother who died in combat. She’s truly remorseful, doing everything she can to make up for her mistake. 

Those character moments never overshadow the enjoyably silly shark story at the center, and Zombie Shark features severed shark heads that continue chomping, a guy going after a shark with a weed whacker, and London’s special-ops agent wielding a rocket launcher.

The stories in Ozark Sharks and Mississippi River Sharks are more grounded, although no less goofy. They involve more straightforward animal attacks, without any sci-fi elements, although of course the sharks don’t behave in a way that resembles any real-life creatures. The lack of expository back story about the sharks’ motivations or transformations gives Talley and screenwriter Marcy Holland (who wrote both movies) more space for character development.

Like Zombie Shark, both Ozark Sharks and Mississippi River Sharks are rooted in family dynamics, and those families are less dysfunctional than the sometimes contentious sisters in Zombie Shark. There’s affection in the way that siblings Molly (Allisyn Ashley Arm) and Harrison (Dave Davis) tease each other in Ozark Sharks, as they reluctantly tag along with their parents for an Ozarks lake vacation. Harrison and his grandmother (Sharon Garrison) have such a sweet, easygoing connection that there’s real sadness when she’s eaten by a shark that has made its unlikely way into the Ozarks.

Likewise, in Mississippi River Sharks, the relationship between college student Tara (Zombie Shark’s Cassie Steele, one of many performers in the unofficial Talley repertory company) and her father Ray (Miles Doleac) is believably loving. Their simple conflict over whether Tara will pursue her dream of studying biology or take over the family hardware store is honest and heartfelt. As silly as the shark attacks are – with their janky special effects and defiance of the laws of physics and biology – grounding them in clear, relatable character dynamics gives them extra emotional weight.

The silliness is appealing, too, of course. In Ozark Sharks, the characters ultimately destroy the sharks with fireworks, leading to multiple shots of sharks shooting out colorful flashes like they’ve become living sparklers. Molly, Harrison and their family rely on local fisherman and hunter Jones (Thomas Francis Murphy) to help defeat the sharks, thanks to his cache of homemade weapons, including a crossbow that shoots “weaponized deer antlers” and a high-powered air cannon called Big Betty. In the opening scene of Mississippi River Sharks, a shark is launched onto the deck of a riverboat via the ship’s paddle. Later a victim is killed by being impaled through the torso by an entire shark.

Led by London’s good-natured performance as a blowhard movie star, Mississippi River Sharks doubles down on shark puns as titles for the various sequels to his fictional Shark Bite franchise. One of those titles is Sharks in the Ozarks, referring back to Talley’s previous movie. Another is Here Comes Santa Jaws, which foreshadows her crowning achievement in the gloriously cheesy Santa Jaws

Santa Jaws returns to the realm of the fantastical, but it also presents the warmest, most family-oriented story of any Talley film. It’s more of a fable than a shark-attack thriller, since the title character is conjured up by a magical pen and has essentially no connection to reality. Artist and awkward teenager Cody (Reid Miller) brings Santa Jaws to life from the pages of a comic book he created with his best friend, not realizing the mayhem it can cause in his sleepy seaside town.

Once Santa Jaws rises up and kills Cody’s grandfather (Ritchie Montgomery), Cody is on a mission to save his family. Like the scientist in Zombie Shark, he takes responsibility for his actions and works to make amends, which involves using Christmas-themed weapons to fight the Christmas-themed shark. Cody’s parents may have been stern with him about acting out at school, but as soon as they realize that he and his brother are in danger, they do everything they can to save their kids from the holiday horror. Like hardware store owner Ray in Mississippi River Sharks, they’re touchingly concerned with making sure their last interaction with their child isn’t an argument.

With a shark that has glowing red eyes like Rudolph’s nose, teeth made out of Christmas tree ornament fragments, and a candy cane horn, Santa Jaws has attracted enough ironic attention to make it into the lower levels of the shark B-movie pantheon. Still, Talley hasn’t directed another movie since, although she’s worked steadily as an editor, including on several Hallmark movies. Her sensitivity and craftsmanship make her perfect for moving between those genres. It’ll be a cinematic injustice if no one ever hires her to make Hallmark Sharks.