12 Days of Terror
directed by Jack Sholder
(Discovery, 2004)

Jaws is kids' stuff.

OK, the Peter Benchley novel and the movie it inspired are actually really good. But there's something about the low-budget docudrama 12 Days of Terror -- based on actual events in 1916 that supposedly inspired Benchley's book -- that brings the real terror home.

In July 1916, the coast of New Jersey was the setting for five bloody shark attacks, four of which were fatal and three of which took place, not in the ocean, but in a creek a few miles upstream from the coast. Like in Jaws, which updated the story to the 1970s, local officials and businessmen ignored the danger at first because they feared a loss of tourism dollars. And, like in Jaws, news of the attacks sparked a frenzy of shark hunting -- which may or may not have caught the actual killer.

This film was never intended to be a summer blockbuster, so it reins in the special effects and the shock value a bit. This shark, unlike the 20-footer in Jaws, is of more realistic proportions, and it doesn't show the same uncanny intellect that drove Benchley's (and Steven Spielberg's) shark into the popular imagination. (In fact, although a juvenile great white shark was credited with all the attacks, it's possible another shark, possibly a bull, was responsible for the three in the creek.)

The movie does play with the facts, changing the name of one victim (probably to avoid confusion, since two victims were named Charles), condensing the area in which the attacks took place to make it seem like one small town, greatly expanding the characters played by Colin Egglesfield (local lifeguard Alex, who actually had a role in only one of the attacks) and John Rhys-Davis (a local fisherman), inventing a fictitious friendship between Alex and one of the victims, and overdramatizing the final shark hunt.

But 12 Days of Terror is in many ways more satisfying than Jaws simply because it comes across as a more plausible series of events -- and the things that can happen are always more frightening than those that can't.

by Tom Knapp
3 February 2007

Buy it from Amazon.com.