If you’re old enough to recall the summer of 1975, congratulations! Like me, you remember a time before computers, cell phones and Star Wars; a time when our younger selves would be outside playing till the streetlights came on and nobody worried about it; a time when horror films were something we caught on the movie of the week or the weekend double feature matinee. And most importantly for this holiday weekend, you remember when a little-known director named Steven Spielberg made us all positively terrified of the ocean, just prior to the Fourth of July. Of course, I’m referring to the classic Jaws, the first real summer blockbuster; what’s more, it was a widely recognized and popular horror film. As it approaches it’s fortieth anniversary (yeah, it makes me feel old, too), I thought I’d take advantage of this Fourth of July weekend to watch it again and share my thoughts with you all.
I’ve had folks argue with me over the validity of this flick actually being a horror film; I’m sure I don’t have to debate that with you Fellow Fans. It’s a monster movie, the monster movie of the entire decade of the ’70s; the only difference between it and say, King Kong, is that it featured a monster that actually exists. The fact of the matter is that it’s a well-written, acted, and directed horror film backed by a big studio (Universal), which back then just didn’t happen very often.
Martin Brody has a good life; he’s left behind the hustle and bustle of a career as a NYPD police officer, and landed the plum job of police chief in the seasonal island community of Amity, a picturesque little town that is a tourist magnet in the summer season. He and his family have recently settled in, and he’s staring down his first summer as the top cop in the area.
Fate, however, has more in store for Brody than a simple season of parking tickets and noise complaints; just before the summer festivities really get started, a young woman first goes missing, then her shredded remains wash up on the shore. The medical examiner initially cites a shark attack as the cause, but under pressure from the local Chamber of Commerce and Mayor’s office, he quickly changes his assessment to a boating accident. Reluctantly, Brody agrees with the group, provided the M.E. stands by his report. Soon after, in full view of the early summer crowd, a young boy is taken just offshore by a large shark. This creates a panic, both amongst the tourists and the city’s store owners; this kind of news was bad for business. A hunt is organized, fisherman from all around coming to try to claim the reward money offered by the mother of the boy that was killed, and Brody calls the local marine research institute for assistance. Matt Hooper, a shark expert, answers the call, and after the aforementioned hunt yields ambiguous results and two others fall victim to the shark, he and the Chief enlist the aid of local fisherman (and colorful character) Quint to aid them in ending the threat of the killer fish haunting the island’s waters…
The film deserves every accolade it’s received, as it was a benchmark in not only suspenseful horror but in filmmaking as a whole. Spielberg’s direction was inspired, his talent with getting the most of his actor’s performances taking center stage. Also remarkable was his cinematography, a full quarter of the film shot from the level of the water itself, putting the audience in the position of being much closer to the action than may have been comfortable.
The acting was exceptional, Roy Scheider leading a terrific cast as the beleaguered Chief Brody, dealing with his aquaphobia and insecurities as a professional but balancing it with a strong sense of civic duty and human responsibility; Richard Dreyfuss (in one of his earlier roles) breathed a convincing sense of intelligence and rich-kid-trying-to-be-a-normal-guy vibe into the character of Hooper, and the character of Quint was owned by Robert Shaw, oozing the aura of an old, experienced salt with just a touch of madness. The remaining cast, from Murray Hamilton as the disbelieving Mayor to Lorraine Gary as the stressed and frightened Mrs. Brody were done with impeccable realism…to this day, I still know those characters as those actors.
All of those are things that not only worked, but worked perfectly. However, what also made the film so powerful was what didn’t work; most importantly, I’m talking about the mechanical prop shark that was intended to be the “star” of the film. Built by Bob Mattey (who also built the giant squid from the original 20,000 Leagues Beneath The Sea ), the animatronic sharks were to scale and very impressive with what they could do…until they were submerged in salt water. It was then discovered that they did very little at all.
Discouraged, young Spielberg was forced into further character development and finding clever means of representing the shark on film, such as POV shots and the use of items like docks and barrels to show the beast’s movements. The end result of this was a far more suspenseful and nerve-wracking film than it ever could have been had the effect functioned as originally designed; as it is, when the shark did work, Spielberg and crew filmed all the climactic scenes, and those images of horror are indelibly etched in our collective minds. Thus “Bruce” (as the main shark was called) was really a double blessing: when it didn’t work, it made the movie better; when it did, it made the movie memorable. What more could you ask?
I won’t close this without mentioning John Williams’ score for the flick, although hey, it’s John Williams; does he really need a mention? The plodding base tones he created as the theme for the shark are terrifying to this day. He used the well-done script skillfully and took his cues from the excellent direction, balancing the score with much lighter nautical fare when it was suitable. This took the film in a direction that is difficult for a horror film to manage; you’re high and low with the characters…it’s not a foreboding dread-fest throughout. The audience experiences times of exhilaration and optimism with the characters, and this makes those times of terror all the more effective.
It’s a timeless story, mixing elements of Moby Dick with what could be considered slasher flick tropes and a “buddy” movie into something that transcends being pigeonholed into any particular vein. In so many ways, it’s in a class by itself, spawning three sequels (from not-bad to abysmal as they went along) and scores of imitators and homages to this day (Sharknado, anyone?).
Sure, it has it’s plot holes (even though a scuba tank can explode, puncturing one does not typically cause it to blow up like three sticks of dynamite taped to a five gallon can of diesel fuel), but it did what it was supposed to do: it scared the hell out of us. It’s a proven fact that beach attendance that summer dropped off sharply, and to this day people still fear sharks, by and large very irrationally, all because of this movie…that’s a powerful flick, people.
If you are among the forty-six people over the age of ten that haven’t seen this one, folks, you need to remedy that situation…just don’t do it right before your beach trip.
Happy Fourth of July weekend, friends.
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