12 Days of Terror (2004)
"Based on the terrifying true events that inspired Jaws"
It's 1916 and the beaches of New Jersey are packed with swimmers, eager to forget the stories of the war coming across the Atlantic. However that all changed on July 1st when, during a twelve-day period, a killer shark takes up residence in the waters, threatening New Jersey's thriving tourist industry.
Ah, the killer shark genre. Never has a sub-genre been so inept at coming up with anything remotely as exciting as the original Jaws. The first true killer shark flick and it's still head and shoulders above the rest despite more recent films having bigger budgets, access to better special effects and shooting schedules that don't go wrong at every opportunity. So how is it that none have come nowhere near recapturing the scares, the thrills and the overall entertainment of Spielberg's classic? In fact if anything, they've moved further away with the 2010s-2020s obsession with gonzo shark flicks like Sharknado and Sand Sharks. 12 Days of Terror is actually a different take on the whole sub-genre. Instead of just rehashing the same material, this one takes its cue straight from history and bases itself around the true events which inspired Peter Benchley to write Jaws. It's no coincidence that this one plays out pretty much the same way as the classic blockbuster but at least it can't be called a total knock-off.
12 Days of Terror is a TV docudrama which isn't really an outright horror film and which at least has a different slant on the same genre material that has been presented to us over and over again. I guess it's the period setting which helps. The makers of the film do an excellent job in recreating the early nineteenth century Jersey shore resort feel, with sets and costumes looking the part of history. Aside from looking good, the period setting also allows the film to reset shark knowledge back to 1916. So there isn't a know-it-all scientist, Google or reference books for the characters to find out more about them. The characters in 12 Days of Terror know as much about sharks as we did back in 1916 and this adds a a certain primal fear which there hasn't been in modern shark films and a feeling of helplessness during the attack scenes. The people just don't know how to handle the situation and their equipment and technology is primitive at best so there's no easy fix.
The novelty of the period setting soon wears off though and we're straight into run-of-the-mill shark film territory. 12 Days of Terror has one glaring problem and that it's downright tiresome. I am sure that the actual events were a lot more exciting than this makes out, given the plodding pace and real lack of anything to get the audience involved with the film. There's a tepid love triangle between the main characters which is totally pointless and just serves to pad time out. Despite this film being based on the events that inspired Jaws, it seems more like the other way around and that Jaws inspired this film given the way things pan out with the mayor not closing the beaches, the lead characters setting off to sea to kill the shark - which apparently didn't happen in the true events either. According to the reports, the shark was never caught and it just swam back out to sea. So the finale here with the characters trying to kill the shark in a rickety old boat seems to have been fabricated to add a little bit of excitement. This begs the question: if the writers were going to take liberty with the outcome, why not take liberties with a few other parts of the film too? Either stick to the facts all the way or use a bit of artistic licence for dramatic effect.
Attack scenes consist of little more than the actors thrashing around in bloodied water, with an odd fin floating around nearby. The shark rarely makes a full appearance, though when it does later in the film, it's reasonably effective for 2004 and for a TV movie. Some scenes are clearly CGI but if I'm not mistaken there is an animatronic used in a few shots. There's no build-up to attacks and little tension or suspense as they're taking place. The shark doesn't even fully eat anyone here, just bite off a few legs, so don't expect there to be lashings of gore - I'd have settled for a shot of a disembodied head or leg floating to the bottom of the sea but 12 Days of Terror isn't that type of film.
Cast wise is what you'd expect from a TV movie. I have no idea who most of the people are and upon researching the main actors, its apparent they're all stalwarts of television so this sort of production would have been no problem to them. The only really noteworthy member of the cast is John Rhys-Davies, hamming it up a little as the Quint-like grizzled fisherman who offers to track down and kill the shark. Whether or not this was part of the true story or whether the writers have included this because of Jaws remains to be seen. But herein lies 12 Days of Terror's duality. It wants to do something different but it is too caught up in post-Jaws territory to know how to do anything different. Part of it appears 'smart' and doesn't dumb down its approach to the levels of a modern sharksploitation flick, but then in the next breath its making some silly decisions as to what happens next. I wanted to like it more but just couldn't.
12 Days of Terror hopes it's period setting can buy a bit of credit with the audience but once this has worn off, what you're left with a tedious plodding drama and lack of real bite when needed. Somehow the terrifying events that inspired Jaws get a stripped-down, lethargic knock-off which begs the question of why you just wouldn't go back and watch the 1975 film and fill in the historical bits with Wikipedia.
12 Days of Terror
Director(s): Jack Sholder
Writer(s): Richard Fernicola (book), Jeffrey Reiner (teleplay), Tommy Lee Wallace (teleplay)
Actor(s): Colin Egglesfield, Mark Dexter, Jenna Harrison, John Rhys-Davies, Jamie Barlett, Adrian Galley
Duration: 87 mins