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Snakes on a Plane Director Fighting to Call His Next Film Untitled 3D Shark Thriller

When David Ellis's campy 2006 action-horror film Snakes on a Plane wound up being released under its working title, many lamented it as a sad metaphor for the movie business: Could things get any more reductive? Happily, Vulture readers, they can! Mr. Ellis's next movie, which currently carries the sublime working title Untitled 3D Shark Thriller, is set for release this September by Relativity Media, but spies tell us Relativity's marketing department is working to change its title in America. The film was sold to overseas exhibitors as Shark Night 3D, but we're told Relativity Media execs hate that title and plan to give it a different one in the U.S.

But why!?! Could there be a more apt, descriptive, or honest name for a movie about freshwater sharks dining on lissome coeds at a lake house than Untitled 3D Shark Thriller? At the very least, its director doesn’t think so.

“I hated the original title [Shark Night 3D], too," says Ellis, reached in his editing bay, "so at our weekly production meetings, I made everyone on the crew come up with names — Chums, Fins, Terror on the Lake — but they all seemed kind of cheesy. And so until I hear a better name, I like what we’ve got right now: Untitled 3D Shark Thriller. The title says everything you need to know: 'We’ve got sharks.' 'It’s in 3D.' and, 'It’s a thriller.'”

Even rival studio marketing chiefs agree it could work.

“These days, there are two routes to take,” says one, “It’s either titles like Snakes on a Plane or Hot Tub Time Machine — or you can try for highbrow and say, ‘From the people who brought you Avatar, comes … ’ — but neither seems to have any real effect; I don’t think anything matters anymore, so why not Untitled 3D Shark Thriller?”

Why not, indeed? Relativity declined to comment on its naming process, but horror veterans contacted by Vulture did offer some cautionary advice.

Heather Menzies-Urich, the star of Joe Dante’s 1978 cult classic Piranha and the original reductively titled snake movie, 1973’s Sssssss, warns that there’s a hard-to-find sweet spot in horror titles. Her phonetically titled Sssssss, Menzies says, went too far: "Everyone looked at it as kind of a joke. I think it hurt the movie. I mean, don’t you feel funny just saying it? 'Sssssss.' How many people would go around saying, ‘Have you seen Sssssss?’ I wound up calling it the ‘S-movie,’ which may have been a better title for it."

But Piranha, Menzies explains, struck the right balance between too-reductive and not-reductive-enough: “People are so scared of piranhas. Just the word sends chills up spines. That, and the fact that we couldn’t really call it 'The P-movie.'"

Does she think Untitled 3D Shark Thriller strikes the sufficient balance? "Absolutely,” Ms. Menzies insists.

But Roger Corman, the dean of American horror producers, has mixed feelings about the efficacy of using Untitled 3D Shark Thriller as the film’s actual title. He fears it may be “too hip for the room,” though he also concedes that it is original, and that the outer limits of acceptability are constantly expanding.

“In the last couple years, I’ve done a couple of pictures for the SyFy Channel: Dinocroc and Dinoshark. They both got very high ratings. Then SyFy Channel called me and said, 'You’ve come with these titles, and they’ve done well. We’ve come up with one, and wanted to know if you wanted to make it.'"

"So I said, 'Let me hear it.'"

"They said, 'Sharktopus.'"

"I said, ‘No way. Not interested. My theory is this: You can go up to a certain level of insanity with your titles. Dinocroc and Dinoshark are within those limits. Go over it, and the audience turns on you.’ But [SyFy] wore me down, and I agreed to make it. What happens? Sharktopus got the highest rating of any original movie on the channel in five years. Which shows that the level of insanity is higher than I thought it was, and that even at my age — and I’m 84 — you can learn something.

"They want titles that I would not have considered almost a year ago. I just agreed to make a movie called Piranhaconda, which goes above the limit of what I previously thought was the limit of insanity,” Corman says, pausing to add, “We shoot in March."

Photo: Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images