Eyes Wild Shut #001 — John Oak Dalton Chats Shark Encounters of the Third Kind (2020)

In the first of a new ongoing series, Dave delves into the bottomless library of low-budget distributor Wild Eye Releasing, and draws attention to some little-known curiosities that are free to stream via Tubi.

Spawned from acting royalty on 4th July 1907, Thomas Carr made a career out of supporting roles in silent pictures before stepping behind the camera in 1945. A couple of years later, he was credited with co-directing the live-action Superman serials. What’s interesting about this barely-known journeyman is how an aspect of his career correlates with that of Schlock Pit icons like Fred Olen Ray and David DeCoteau – and that’s speed. Because towards the end of the B-movie era for Westerns, Carr managed to shoot six features in thirty days – a feat that inspired modern day scripter John Oak Dalton when he was faced with a similar creative mountain to climb.

Over the last seventeen years, Dalton has penned close to twenty films. More recently he’s tried the director’s chair out for size with a pair of recommendable genre movies in the form of The Girl in the Crawlspace (2018) and Scarecrow County (2019). Renowned for his lengthy partnership with legendary low-budget auteur Mark Polonia, it was a three-picture deal with distribution house Wild Eye Releasing that saw the prolific Pennsylvanian hit up his go-to screenwriter.

“All the scripts for this deal had arrived with titles and basic descriptions,” recalls Dalton from his Indiana home. “The caveat, though, was that he wanted them all done in six weeks. I’m at the point in my career where if I write something for somebody, there has to be a reason for doing so; and it’s my fascination with Thomas Carr – which I don’t think enough has been made of – which made this an interesting challenge.”

“I had NEVER written this fast in my life! Typically, I can write a full script in three weeks if I’m pushing it. I think I worked on these for an average on ten days each. They were written at fever pitch – and honestly, I didn’t remember a lot of detail until I saw the final product, and even then I wasn’t sure what I thought up and what Mark added. Rewind to when I wrote my first movie for Mark, Among Us (2004), during another period where he had a three-picture deal, and he asked me to pen all of them in a year – and I wasn’t sure that THAT was possible!”

“Amityville Island (2020) was the first of the three for Wild Eye. I had written a movie for Mark a few years before called Doctor Zombie that had not been made, but I noticed it had similar beats to the Amityville premise. It was heavily influenced by Mark’s love for Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (1979) and Amando De Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972), with my own interest in Eric Louzil’s Lust for Freedom (1987) thrown in.”

“Aliens vs. Sharks [the original title] was the third one that I wrote [1], and to be honest, it was the hardest to get my mind around. But once I got going it started cooking, and again I don’t exactly remember writing it. It came with a four-page outline with a lot of the beats, mostly the effects that were going to be made or on hand, and a little bit of a story”.

With its superior retitle, SHARK ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (2020) concerns itself with a group of aliens who crash land in the small fishing village of Port Oceana, California, and use their persuasive powers of mind control to brainwash the local shark population into ripping apart members of the community. This little hamlet won’t take such terror lying down though, and their unique collection of inhabitants band together in order to quell this freak-finned frightmare.

Mark Polonia seems to be doubling his output every ten years. The ‘90s saw him direct nine movies, the 00’s had him lensing eighteen, and this past decade has somehow seen that multiply again to just under forty. It’s a DeCoteauian rate of production, and with that comes an element of apprehension that you can actually keep up with watching this Olympian pace of movie-making. However, if you’re lagging behind, then you could do far worse than checking out the aforementioned Amityville Island, as well as Frozen Sasquatch (2018) and Sharkenstein (2016).

Shark Encounters of the Third Kind might not quite hit those giddy heights, but it’s still an immensely fun seventy-five minutes. The Polonia regulars are here – including the director himself as a nefarious treasure hunter, partnered up with the ubiquitous Jeff Kirkendall and both on the hunt for some Nazi gold (“Nazi gold? Pah! That wouldn’t even make a credible Tom Cruise movie”). Titus Himmelberger is the star, mind. A frustrated writer who just wants to go away and pen Westerns, he’s in the last few days of his job as the harbour master when he gets embroiled in this conspiracy from outer space. Dalton’s script is peppered with smirk-inducing lines (“I needed to get gas and kill aliens, and I was out of gas. No, seriously! I had no gas”), and he’s able to take a very simple premise and expand it with a strong ensemble of quirky characters and idiosyncrasies that grow your affection for them.

“I always try to hang my stories on things I was interested in,” Dalton explains. “And one in this case is a lawman who is basically on his last day on the job and isn’t going to be a lawman anymore.  Honestly, I had also buried a family cat in my back pasture and thought it might be a good set piece for a movie, and that’s in there, too.  Just the flotsam and jetsam you pick up through life, interest in culture, interest in other people.  Whether people see it or not, I try to put in elements that might resonate with someone besides aliens shooting rayguns. I like to try to make them funny, with nods to horror fandom, lots of energy, and outlandish situations and characters.  I’m not sure every viewer is in on the joke, but that’s what I hope.”

And that is the secret. A pompous cinephile might scoff at Polonia’s cheap n’ cheesy special effects (underwater sequences with dry hair are always a winner) [2], but these micro-budget endeavours are made for an appreciative audience, and it’s one that the screenwriter is all too aware of.

“I think the biggest thing to note is that I have never been involved with a movie that comes from cynicism; these kinds of movies are made by people that love the genre for people that love the genre.  Horror fans, by and large, are the most loyal and devoted and will follow you where you want to go, whether you have the money to make the trip or not.”

With a Thomas Carr influence hanging proudly over this speedily shot series, all that remains now is to wait for the third film in this Wild Eye threesome, so we can discover if Shark Encounters of the Third Kind is Dalton’s Hostile Country (1950) or his Crooked River (1950)  – although on this evidence they’ll be nearer the quality of the latter.

[1] The currently unreleased film in this trifecta is described by Dalton as “full of time travel, dinosaurs and alternate timelines.”
[2] Brett Piper looked after the effects for this and also Sharkenstein. Piper is a cult movie legend in his own right with a thirty-year career behind the camera, directing memorable crazies like A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell (1990) and Screaming Dead (2003).

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