Tintorera: Killer Shark

Tintorera: Killer Shark ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Tintorera is as if someone had seen Jaws and thought “that was okay, but it could have done with less emphasis on the shark and more on disco music, full frontal male nudity and polyamorous activity”. The film born out of that moment of inspiration finds Andres Garcia and Hugo Stiglitz playing a pair of men about town who eventually bond over a shared love of impaling women (in the sexual sense) and impaling sharks (in the non-sexual sense). “Givin’ it plenty” a disco song used here (and even more so in Lindsay Shonteff’s No 1 of the Secret Service) is an apt anthem for these two beach dwelling Casanovas whose attempts to shag most of the female population are occasionally hindered by a party pooper of a tiger shark, who has a nasty habit of gobbling up their love interests.

Don’t ask me why but for years I’d laboured under the misapprehension that Tintorera was one of those all-star Lew Grade disaster movies, although it didn’t take long for the film itself to shatter that illusion. The amount of nudity and hanky panky on display here would have never gotten in front of the cameras on Lew Grade’s watch. In reality Tintorera was made in Mexico by local exploitation film powerhouse René Cardona Jr, with some of the financing coming from Hemdale, a British company formed in the late 1960s by the actor David Hemmings and Hemming’s’ agent. The dual nationality of the production being reflected in the casting, which serves up British crumpet (Susan George, Fiona Lewis) alongside Mexican beefcake (the aforementioned Garcia and Stiglitz) as potential shark food.

Considering that Cardona’s directorial decisions were frequently dictated by popular trends, his apparent disinterest in directly imitating Jaws here comes as an unexpected surprise. The main focus of Tintorera isn’t really the tiger shark of the title, but Andres Garcia’s character Miguel, a laid back, happy go lucky womaniser who lives a humble but fun filled existence in the Caribbean Island of Isla Mujeres. Tintorera is hugely infatuated by Miguel, and thinks the world of him, as do the two other main characters in the film. Steve (Stiglitz) a rich American born businessman initially butts heads with Miguel, only to eventually be taken under Miguel’s wing. In the process Miguel changes Steve’s outlook on life for the better. A hyper macho, hyper sexual attitude is strong in the early stages of Tintorera, scenes and dialogue draw comparisons between the two men’s hunting of sharks to the two men’s hunting of women, with Steve and Miguel in constant competition over which one of them can outdo the other in these stakes.

The macho front unexpectedly drops however, and the film and its male characters display a more romantic side with the arrival of Gabriella (Susan George) a British tourist with a sexually adventurous nature. (George’s career aim, stated in the Tintorera press book, “I’ve always wanted to play a nun” was clearly not going to be fulfilled by this role.) Unusually it is Gabriella rather than the guys, who initiates a ménage à trois living situation between herself and the two men, albeit with the stipulations that neither man can get jealous of the other and neither can sleep with any woman other than her “because I’m enough for both of you”. It is this unorthodox, three under the sheets, living situation that is really at the heart of Tintorera, and a subject that completely captivates Cardona. “One for two and two for one” is the motto of these three sexual musketeers. In another unusual touch it is the male stars of the film that are more forthcoming when it comes to onscreen nudity here, maybe Susan George was still holding onto those hopes to one day play a nun. Gabriella’s house rule about jealousy may lead you to anticipate a situation whereby the men’s competitive streak re-emerges to cause conflicts within this three way love affair, yet the film goes against such expectations by its steadfast refusal to go down that route. Indeed no such complications surface as a result of this "triad relationship" form of polyamouous hook up, or ‘the triangle’ as it is referred to in the film. Gabriella basks in the attention of not one, but two men, and the men in return are rewarded with what must be their most emotionally deep relationship with a woman to date, considering their promiscuous track record of one night stands. To find a film that is non-judgemental about a three way love affair would be difficult, let alone one that is as enthusiastically positive about the subject as this film is. For all the macho, chest beating bravado of the early scenes, Tintorera develops into quite the romantic, love letter to polyamory. The film favouring this type of union over traditional male and female monogamy, Steve’s earlier attempt to initiate a mutually exclusive relationship with another British tourist (Fiona Lewis) resulting a nothing but pain, jealously and unhappiness for Steve. It is this aspect of Tintorera that fascinates and intrigues the most, especially as the reasons why this subject effectively hi-jacks the entire film remains a mystery. It isn’t as if there was a wave of films dealing with ménage à trois relationships that this film was trying to cash in on. Nor does this subject matter surface in Cardona’s other films, ruling out the idea that Cardona was attempting to crowbar his own personal, sexual agenda into his films, Cardona wasn’t Derek Ford. It remains doubtful that a post Jaws audience, imaging they’d get more of the same from Tintorera, was expecting this film to sail into the lusty waters of troilism, but it is this aspect that guarantees you’ll remember Tintorera over all the other common or garden Jaws rip-offs.

The other, less endearing reason, why Tintorera sticks in the memory is the amount of for real animal fatalities in the film, with various sharks, barracudas and stingrays being harpooned and bashed about the head during the course of the running time. Suffice to say, don’t go expecting any reassuring ‘no animals were harming during the making of this film’ credit at the end of Tintorera. In recent years this has led to the film being compared to Cannibal Holocaust in some quarters, although personally I’d draw a very slight line of distinction between the two, myself. Admittedly these two films probably killed off an equal amount of animals during filming, but the animal fatalities in Tintorera are of a comparatively brief, matter of fact nature, and Cardonia appears less inclined to make a sadistic spectacle out of animal killings than Ruggero Deodato did in Cannibal Holocaust. The fact that the animal violence in Tintorera is all played out within the more ‘socially acceptable’ context of fishermen hunting animals for food and financial gain, tends to make this an easier pill to swallow than the pointless and unjustified nature of the shooting of a pig and butchering of a turtle in Cannibal Holocaust. Cardona doesn’t allow criticism of the hunting of animals to go unheard in the film either, with Steve initially remorseful “maybe you hate them, but I feel sorry for them” and Gabriella freaking out after their first encounters with animal killings. Ensuring that there is at least some acknowledgment in the film about how abhorrent these fishing techniques are to outsiders. Perhaps because of these reasons Tintorera is the one that got the easier ride of the two films. Cardona’s film, attracting none of the controversy and censorious backlash over its animal abuse that awaited Cannibal Holocaust upon its release, with the British censor passing Tintorera without cuts for its UK theatrical release in 1977. Even so, those averse to animal cruelty in films would be wise to give Tintorera as wide a berth as Cannibal Holocaust.

Ironically the destruction of the ‘triangle’ comes not as result of societal pressure to adhere to the norm or jealousy between the two men rearing its head, but the re-emergence of the Tintorera itself when the film finally remembers that it is meant to be about a killer shark. While the subsequent death of Miguel could be interpreted as a slasher movie-type display of moralising over the character’s sex life, you never really get the impression that Cardona was on a disapproval trip here. On the contrary, Miguel can do no wrong in this film’s eyes, and while I wouldn’t go as far as saying Tintorera is anti-American, there is a definite preference for the Mexican way of life over the American one here. There is a deliberate contrast throughout the film between Mexican Miguel’s hand to mouth existence and ‘joy de vivre’ attitude to the pessimism of the rich yet uptight and unfulfilled American Steve. Miguel’s rejection of materialism and passion for sun, sex and tequila does eventually rub off on Steve. In the process Steve goes from being regarded as a privileged outsider, disdainfully referred to as ‘the American’ by the locals, to earning their respect and blending in to his new surroundings. When Steve introduces himself and Miguel to Gabriella he even claims “we’re both Mexicans”. This could just be a gaffe on the part of the filmmakers but it could also be taken as evidence that through Miguel, Steve has reconnected with his Mexican heritage and cast aside his association with American culture.

A bit of research into the Tintorera cast tends to help explain at least part of the film’s character. Once you realise that its star Andres Garcia was a huge deal in Ibero-American territories when the film was made, it begins to make sense why the film is less inclined towards shark action and greater committed to capturing on film Garcia’s charisma, charm and ‘women want him, men want to be him’ sex symbol status. The death of his character, in quite a spectacularly gory fashion, would therefore have had the same huge shock value to a home crowd as an American film of the same vintage would have had were it to have killed off, say Charles Bronson or Steve McQueen two thirds of the way into a film. For audiences unfamiliar with Garcia, and who don’t have that connection to the actor, the outpouring of grief that follows his character’s demise can come across as a tad over the top though. Cardona is definitely guilty of pulling at the heartstrings at times, especially towards the end of the film and the reminder of the threesome in happier times that plays out over the end credits. “Together, take me, memories are just a moment, together until goodbye, until goodbye, until goodbye” someone warbles over the end credits, I’m sure there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Miguel provides his own obituary a few scenes prior to his death when he tells Steve “to enjoy life has been my goal, remember me that way, if I die tomorrow you have a party for me”. A piece of bar-room philosophy the film seeks to impart onto its audience. The overall message of Tintorera seems to be that you should live for the day and squeeze all the hedonistic love, fun and pleasure out of life that you can, because who knows tomorrow a great big git of a tiger shark might chew off your head and send the part of you that women enjoy the most sinking down to the bottom of the ocean.

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