< Horror Film History — Jaws (1975)

The Best Monster Movie Ever Made?

Jaws (1975)

Jaws was based on the bestselling novel of the same name, written by Peter Benchley. Young director Steven Spielberg took what was classic B-movie fare (big shark chews up skinny-dipping teenagers who scream alot, the adults trying to solve the problem start having affairs with each other) and turned out a masterclass in suspense. It was a massive massive success - from a budget of $12M US its total gross was well over $400M - and began the era of the modern Hollywood blockbuster. It was the first film to exceed $100M in box office receipts. Jaws built on the mainstream appetite for horror created by films such as The Exorcist, but gave us a monster that was, uniquely, neither human nor supernatural nor the result of mutation. Sharks are real. They're out there, swimming around, snacking on swimmers, right now. The movie's success is rooted in this terrifying premise, as well as in the inspiration taken, in terms of marketing and distribution as well as content, from the big monster movies of the 1950s.

Sharkbite

"I know now that the mythic monster I created was largely a fiction. I also know now, however, that the genuine animal is just as—if not even more—fascinating."

— Peter Benchley Shark Trouble

The film kickstarted the cult of the shark which is still with us today (see Discovery Channel's endless "Shark Weeks"). Sharks are big, elemental animals. As Hooper tells Mayor Vaughn in the movie, they are eating machines: "All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks and that's all." They don't do anything else. Their basic design has not changed in hundreds of thousands of years. They have mean black eyes and teeth far sharper and scarier than the biggest baddest wolf. They make excellent movie monsters, cruising inexorably towards their victims, and chomping them up without remorse. They operate in the space of many primal fears - under the water. And they attack most frequently at sunset, rushing silently up from the depths as the last rays of sunlight fade from the sky. They represent an absolute, primal darkness, that has nothing to do with superstition, religion, aliens, radioactivity, technology run riot, evil, whatever. Sharks are real.

In terms of dark sexual symbolism, a shark can represent both a phallic object and a vagina dentata (see the poster, right), making it a creature of nightmares for men and women alike. The shark is the ultimate slasher, goring and mutilating its victims without a motive. These victims are randomly selected; male, female, young, old whose only transgression was to enter the watery world of the shark. The POV underwater camera takes us into the shark's mind, and we see that it is casual and indiscriminate in its choice, picking off one pair of splashing legs rather than another simply because.

In reality, sharks are shy creatures, who really don't bother human beings unless they are stupid enough to go swimming in an area where a lot of sharks live (admittedly, humans often do this after a plane crash, so it's not entirely their fault). Many shark species are also endangered, the result of humans destroying their habitat or, worse, getting all "riled up" and chasing them with harpoons. Bear in mind that mosquitoes kill hundreds of thousands more humans than sharks do, and no one has yet made a horror movie about them (ants, bees, slugs, not mozzies... to the best of my knowledge). Sharks are everything we think a monster should be, yet they are not really monstrous. We instinctively fear them, harking back to early man's vulnerability to natural predators, but we are happy to do business with Patrick Bateman. Our fear mechanisms have clearly not evolved with our civilisations.

Peter Benchley has gone on record as saying he 'regretted' writing the book because of the damage it hs done to the Great White's public image. Jaws did demonise sharks to a great extent, but a great deal of conservation work is now being done to protect them.



Making The Shark Work

In the 1970s, SFX were still largely mechanical - they made life-sized puppets of Linda Blair for The Exorcist, for instance. Therefore three mechanical sharks (all named Bruce, after Spielberg's lawyer) were constructed, at a cost of $150,000 each. They worked fine when tested in the workshop, but when shipped out to Martha's Vineyard for location filming, they sank. This meant that many of the planned shots of the film, where the camera and characters got up close and personal with Bruce, had to be discarded, and frantic improvisation ensued. This production constraint turned into a real strength in the final cut - the movie is most scary when we don't actually see the monster, when is it represented through POV shots, darting between one dangling pair of swimmer's legs and another, or when its location is identified only by bobbing yellow barrels. The shark is a little disappointing when it does turn up, but it really isn't overexposed until the final reel, when it's chowing down on Quint.

Spielberg had to stop when the movie ran out of money. Some of the final effects were filmed in the producer's swimming pool, and there are major continuity errors in the final sequence ( constantly changing weather conditions, amongst others) that could have been corrected by reshoots. Yet it is for reasons of economy that Jaws (and Psycho before it) works so well. The film relies heavily on pacing (editing, music) to create suspense, and the camera shows us exactly what we need to see, no more. The narrative is so enthralling, you don't notice the cracks.

Characterisation

Jaws works because Spielberg knew exactly what he was doing with the material - his trademark sentimentality, later a flaw, is a boon to this genre. We care desperately about some of the minor characters - Pippett the dog, for instance, or Alex's mum, calling plaintively on the beach for her son who will never come out of the water again. The relationship between the three sharkhunters, Quint, Hooper and Chief Brody, is fluid and mesmerising, and given plenty of screen time. The three men could not be more different, and between them they represent the whole spectrum of Western masculinity - Quint (Robert Shaw, drawing on a star persona that encompassed everything macho from Shakespeare to Bond, via a couple of westerns) is the lone killer, existing outside the domestic and civilised in a realm of sea shanties, whisky and the bleached bones of past maritime conquests. Chief Brody (Roy Schieder) is the family man who sacrifices everything for his family. For a police chief he spends a lot of time in family spaces - in his home, on the beach, talking to kids. And Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is the arrogant young academic, who flaunts his education and equipment. When these three men are crammed on the small boat the Orca, the conflict is much more complex and its resolution more rewarding than Man vs. Monster. In some ways this is Spielberg's best film: he works tightly within the confines of genre and budget, and thrives on the discipline.

Peter Benchley on choosing Spielberg as director:

It [the movie rights to the novel] was not sold for a great deal of money. No-one thought that this was going to be Lawrence of Arabia. The intention was to make a B-movie and this was one of the reasons they hired Spielberg. He'd done good work moving a camera around with Duel and Sugarland Express. And they thought it might be another good exercise for him, because they knew he was a genius, but little did they know that he would take over this production and turn it into the phenomenon it was.

Spielberg, given his education, adopts many techniques developed by Hitchcock for the creation of suspense. He also proves himself the master of shock/startle. This is a psycho-perceptual phenomenon you can read more about here.



Sequels

Given the success of the original, sequels were inevitable. It was also inevitable that one of them would have the impact of the original, and they get steadily worse as the series progresses - Jaws 2 is OK if you've nothing better to watch, while Jaws 4 is risible. Jaws also inspired a number of 'killer fish' ripoffs (Orca, Piranha), as well as as the uninspiring Deep Blue Sea and Open Water. One day, someone will make another good shark movie. It's been 30 years now...

Jaws 2 (1978)

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...

Another Great White chooses the waters off Amity as a happy hunting ground, and Chief Brody (Hooper's in the Antarctic) must face off against the shark and the town council members who refuse to accept its existence. Brody is fired for shouting doom and gloom around the town, even as divers, waterskiers, a killer whale, and various bubble headed teenagers all disappear in "mysterious boating accidents". In an overly long climactic sequence the shark attacks Brody's son, assembled teens and a helicopter, before finally being electrocuted by Brody.

Jaws3-D (1983)

The third dimension is terror
Brody's sons are working at Sea World in Florida, when a female shark and its pup get trapped in the underwater park. Terrible special effects, even with your 3D glasses on. With sharks, less is definitely more.

Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

This time, it's personal
After munching on her younger son, Sean, a killer Great White tracks Ellen Brody 2500 miles to the Bahamas and seems hell bent on eradicating the remains of the Brody clan. Not even the presence of Michael Caine, Mario AND Melvin Van Peebles, and The Shark That Roared can save this from being one of the worst movies of all time

 

Further Reading

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