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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Jaws, the Scariest Movie Ever Made and Why I Love It

Just about everybody has seen JAWS at some point in their life. The imprint it has left on millions of moviegoers around the world is undeniable. The first US blockbuster to make 100 million at the box office, JAWS is just as potent, just as primal, just as terrifying today as it was back during its premiere in June of 1975. It's about as perfect a film of this genre as you're going to find. So much has already been written about JAWS, I decided to approach the subject differently. This isn't a review, but what I like about Spielberg's movie and its best and scariest moments, inconsequential details, and how it's affected me over the years.


The very first scene immediately after the opening credits is one that recalls a similar sequence from 1954s CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Only in that film, there was an air of morbid romanticism with the creature swimming just below Julie Adams as if it was choosing a mate. Essentially, the monster wanted to love the girl, not devour her.

In JAWS, a male islander chases a pretty young girl down to the beach to skinny dip. This being most likely a prelude to sex, this sequence foreshadows the same 'Have Sex and Die' scenario from countless slasher flicks that would emerge in popularity with HALLOWEEN (1978) and snowball with the release of FRIDAY THE 13TH in 1980. This scene, like most of the films scenes of terror, works because of what we don't see.



This slow zoom through the shark's jaws just as the Orca passes through the harbor is indicative of what will happen later. It's a strikingly symbolic image of man against nature. While Quint is an ace shark hunter, the time will eventually come where he will end up a catch in a fish's stomach.

"Well this is not a boat accident! And it wasn't any wasn't any coral reef...and it wasn't Jack the Ripper. It was a shark."


Upon Matt Hooper's arrival, he's shocked to find the remains of the young girl removed from a freezer in a small tray. We've already seen a tiny portion of what was left of the girl that washed up on shore covered in bits of hair and hungry crabs.

Hooper's scientific description of the damage done is somewhat lost on us, but the repellence on his face and his shortness of breath clue us in on what sort of damage this up to now unseen menace is capable of; as well as building a sense of dread leading up to the moment where the enormous beast is revealed much later in the picture.


"Look out behind you!" With JAWS, this popular line shouted out loud by just about everybody that ever enjoyed a scary movie in a theater or at home no doubt occurred here, too, when Hooper, with his back turned while inside the shark cage, gets an unwanted "tap on his shoulder".


 The scenes of Chief Brody interacting with the townsfolk successfully convey the day to day activities of this tiny hamlet even with the most limited of dialog. The script and the acting, including that of the incidental characters we see little of (as well as those that have no dialog at all), turn this New England township into a Northern version of Mayberry, NC; only sheriff Taylor never had to contend with a 25-26 foot man-eating Great White. 

In keeping with Spielberg's masterful hand at capturing great character moments, JAWS has a few striking moments of male bonding. The first is when Brody is at the table with his son, Sean. The little boy copies his father's body language--covering his face, hand motions, facial twitches--this makes for a touching moment that requires no dialog to demonstrate this father and son relationship.


Images of the various people populating Amity add an immeasurable amount of atmosphere to this film. It gives off this air of realism that almost places you right there with the rest of the cast. You can almost smell the salt of the sea in the air with the impeccably nautical aura Spielberg provides in his movie. The fisherman pictured above is a perfect example of this. Every time I see JAWS, I imagine this guy as the poster design for coastal living and then I have the POPEYE theme in my head for the next few days.


Later in the film, there's more male bonding, this time aboard the Orca. Prior to the three men--the sheriff (Brody), the oceanographer (Hooper) and the salt of the sea (Quint)--embarking on their search for the Great White, Quint and Hooper butt heads alluding to some rough waters ahead for this sea bound triumvirate. Quint is of the working class and sees the intellectual Hooper as inferior, that he's been "counting money all his life". 

Later, these two unlikely chums seem to slowly bond while Brody remains lost at sea as something of an outcast. At one point, Quint antagonistically gulps down a beer then stoically crushes the can. Hooper follows suit, but with a Styrofoam cup, all the while imitating Quint's motions much in the way little Sean Brody mimicked his dad earlier.

This makes for a light comedic moment which leads to another bonding scene where both Quint and Hooper drink to the scars they have on their legs. Yet again, Brody feels left out while skimming for some scar of note to share with the other two.


Why do they always end up hitting the shark's fin? Wouldn't it make more sense to hit them anywhere but in the fin? In JAWS, the big fish's dorsal fin is hit three times by Quint's harpoon gun. This happens in the other JAWS movies, too. Even in other movies about big, rampaging, sea-going creatures such as ORCA from 1977 the dorsal fins take lots of abuse. In the defense of the three main characters, Bruce the shark does take some punishment at the hands of Hooper's knife, Quint's machete and a long spear wielded by Brody. 

"Now look, fellas...let's be reasonable, huh. This is not the time or the place to perform some kind of a half-ass autopsy on a fish...and I am not going to stand here and see that thing cut open and see that little Kintner boy spill out all over the dock!"

The death of Alex Kintner was a shocking cinematic milestone. Kids had been killed in movies before, but in this instant, it was rather graphic and cruel in execution. It's also the first time we see a glimpse of the shark; even if it's only the fins breaking the surface of the water as it rolls and tears at the flesh of the little boy, dragging him down through the center of the geyser of his own blood. The gurgling sounds of the boys last screams as he'd pulled deeper into the oceanic abyss are also heard on the soundtrack. It's a particularly unnerving moment and one of a few gruesome bits that pushed the envelope of the PG rating.


At the end when the shark has been blown all to hell, its headless remains sinks to the bottom of the ocean. As it descends the blood-encrusted water, you hear a roar on the soundtrack; which was intentionally done as a nod to Spielberg's 1971 TV movie classic, DUEL, a film that had a similar premise.
 Speaking of this ending, the destruction of Bruce the shark also made its way into the alternate ending of JAWS: THE REVENGE (1987). For whatever reason, the extended shots of that films shark impaled on the boat's prow were removed and the shot of the headless shark from the original JAWS sinking below the waves was reused.

Among the great shock moments in horror history (and one of a few in this movie) is the grim discovery of the "cargo" floating around in Ben Gardner's nearly sunken boat. Hooper dives into the dark depths to investigate and finds a big hole in the boat's hull. Upon closer inspection he's greeted by the head of Ben Gardner, his face frozen in a visage of stark terror and an eyeball missing. I remember this classic jump scare affected me as a kid. It scared me so bad, that every time I saw JAWS from that point on as a kid, I'd cover my eyes till the music hit; then it was safe to look again.


"Brody...sick vandalism! That is a deliberate mutilation of a public service message! Now I want those little paint happy bastards caught and hung up by their buster browns!"
In every single 'Animals Attack' movie post JAWS, there's always some reputable civic figure who absolutely refuses to close the beaches, parks, lakes, or any other public recreation facility that provides a splendid buffet for a variety of hungry monsters.

This sequence was originally far more gory wherein the shark attacks Mike Brody in the estuary; but he's saved by a man that sacrifices himself to get the boy out of the sharks approach. The scene as originally shot (see cut scene above) had the man in the shark's mouth, carrying him through the water while still holding onto Brody. As blood erupts from the man's mouth, the beast descends the waves with its catch. 

Spielberg cut this gruesome bit of business and reshot it as the scene we're all familiar with now. It's still gory (we see a ripped off leg sink to the bottom) and also gives us a better, if shadowy first look at the enormous Great White as it latches onto the boatman, dragging him down as he screams his last.

I remember when I first saw my dad's Jaws Log book, there was a two page spread showing this shot of the shark with a man in his mouth and regurgitating blood. At the time, I wasn't so much interested in reading as I was in looking at pictures. I was struck by this image and was momentarily curious as to why it wasn't in the finished movie.


If you watch closely at 1:35:59, you'll see a falling star pass right behind Brody's close up (see above). And several seconds later at 1:36:11, you'll see a falling star (possibly the same one from a different angle) in long shot of the Orca come down from the upper left of the screen (see below).


"...Why don't you come down here and chum some o' this shit!" 

The first time we get a good look at the title "Jaws" is one of the great moments in horror. JAWS, as described in this article, is home to a few of them. The scene in question is akin to the shocker reveal of the Phantom in the original PHANTOM OF THE OPERA from 1925. Only instead of a scarred madman, it's a gigantic Carcharodon Carcharias.

In it, Brody is relegated to the dirty jobs around the Orca. One of those jobs is tossing chum into the sea as a means of luring the big fish to them. Little do they know just how big this big fish really is. Brody gets an eyeful leading to one of cinemas greatest, and iconic lines of dialog.


"...Another thing about a shark is he's got...lifeless eyes. Black eyes, like a dolls eyes. When he comes at ya' he doesn't seem to be livin'...until he bites ya'. Then those black rooooll over white and then...ahhh, and then ya' hear that terrible high pitched screamin'...the ocean turns spite of all the poundin' and the hollerin', they all come in and ya' to pieces."

 Arguably the single most unsettling sequence in the entire movie is the USS Indianapolis speech. Quint's delivery of that fateful ordeal still manages to elicit shudders all these years later.

Apparently some of the historical details are inaccurate, but it's a powerful oration just the same. The look on Quint's face with his slight grin as he meticulously tells his eerie recollection of the horrific incident is genre gold. One almost gets the feeling that Quint is slightly insane from the ordeal. His revelation comes off like a campfire ghost story; the subtle, yet ominous music giving it additional leverage while the vessel crackles and creaks as it rises up and down from the waves of the blackened sea.

It's also at this point that the extent of Quint's obsession, and fear of sharks is fully realized. This scene is so powerfully memorable, it led to interest in a film built solely around the historical true story about the sinking of the Indianapolis ship and the fate of her crew. That production has yet to be realized.


The shark's alarmingly frequent inability to work behind the scenes proved to be a blessing in the end. Where the huge fish couldn't be used, a POV was initiated by way of a simple fin breaking the waves, a chunk of a pier gliding through the water, or the shark pulling barrels shot from a harpoon gun substitute for the big fish moving just below the surface.

These early scenes where little to nothing is seen cause us to envision just what this shark looks like and how big it might possibly be. From another perspective, we're never quite sure just what this thing is. The title of 'Jaws' doesn't really say what the monster could be. We're told it's a shark throughout the movie, although it's stated that the damage the thing does is unlike any shark that is known. This, too, adds to the primal terror of what is out there in the ocean or just under the water that we cannot see. JAWS has went a long way in reiterating that what we don't see is often scarier than what we do see.


Of course JAWS would be far less effective without John Williams' seminal score. The main theme is arguably the most recognizable piece of music of all time and perfection in its simplicity. I remember regularly playing it on my grandmother's piano and I don't even know how to play a piano.

I think it's safe to say that the first time anybody ever got back into the ocean after this movie came out, that the ominous, two note main cue was somewhere playing within their minds.

The scariest memory I have related to JAWS occurred one summer while me and my grandparents were at Holden Beach, NC. This was around 1986 or 1987. It was Indian Summer. I was out a bit too far and baby Blue and baby Hammerhead sharks had been caught closer in from where I was by folks fishing from the nearby pier. Anyway, this big wave came and lifted me up into its crest. As it did, I felt something very long and coarse brush up against me. Needless to say, the first thing that popped into my head was that damn main shark theme from JAWS...and swimming for my life. 


The finale of JAWS bows with an astounding finish. After the maniacal Ahab that is Quint is finally consumed, it's up to Brody to eliminate the briny beast; the safe haven that was once the Orca quickly sinks after the huge beast nearly cracks in two. Managing to force a diving tank into its mouth, the shark being blown to smithereens by Brody is no doubt on the audiences mind as they barely maintain their composure at the very edge of their theater seats.

This last white-knuckle moment of mano-a-sharko resulting in a soundtrack crescendo just before an explosion of fish guts and water also yields yet another memorable line. I can't think of another movie before JAWS that did it, but Spielberg's film is most probably guilty of giving birth to the movie one-liner. Brody's last ditch effort to kill the shark is accompanied by the utterance of "Smile you son of a bitch!" From here on out, a great many movies have utilized a one-liner, or even abused it to the point the viewer becomes numb to its usage. Needless to say, it may feel forced in many other pictures, but this climactic moment still manages to bring a smile to this viewers face.


Anonymous said...

Excellent article. Jaws is still one of my favorite movies. I remember going see Jaws on it's opening weekend with my Father and two brothers. Afterwards we went swimming at a municipal pool. My youngest brother, who would have been 10 at the time, refused to get in the water. He was that freaked out.

venoms5 said...

Hi, Vera. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Unfortunately, blogger is wrecking havoc with my post at the moment. Apparently they are messing around with the system itself. I have tinkered with the article to get it to look the way I want it to and it's still not working. Oh, well. Sorry for it looking so sloppy. :(

I can't think of too many other movies that have that sort of effect on people in regards to going into the water.

Django211 said...

You brought up a lot of the stuff that makes this film a classic. Like all great films there are planned moments, great improvisations because of unplanned events & serendipitous moments. Had Bruce worked I don't think the film would have been as fondly remembered. I'm sure it would have been successful but not the classic that it has become.

I think Jurassic Park shows what Spielberg wanted in Jaws but couldn't get, and the result is a successful film but nowhere as great. I like how you brought up some of the imitators. Some tried by repeating the formula and failed while others tried to go in a different direction & succeeded. I like both Pirahna & Orca way more than any of the Jaws sequels. Like Jaws they both had great composers and good stories but they still didn't match up to the original.

For all the accolades Spielberg has received over the years I still find his work from the 70s up through E.T. as his best work. He may have graduated to more serious subjects but I don't think they can compare to the films he was making at that time (excluding 1941).

Franco Macabro said...

Great article, love the detail, I too saw a shark every time I went to the beach, hell because of JAWS I even saw sharks in pools! He heh...I was so stupid. Gonna come back and read it again, but awesome article.

George Beremov [Nebular] said...

Although I disagree with you about Jaws being the scariest move ever made, I still think it's a true classic of a horror film, and love every bit of it. If you want to see another great shark flick, check out 2010's The Reef. I promise you're gonna love it. :)

venoms5 said...

@ Django211: I totally agree with all you said. Although I do like JAWS 2 a great deal, ORCA is a huge favorite and is also reviewed here. I wasn't able to link to it at the time because the interface changed on me while I was posting this. ORCA I think has more to do with Moby Dick than Jaws, but without the shark film, I doubt ORCA would have gotten made. I also agree about Spielberg's earlier works, but I'd go up to TEMPLE OF DOOM, lol.

@ Fran: Thanks, buddy! The movies ALLIGATOR and PIRANHA had me wary of being in pools at night, but I am always a bit spooked about being in the ocean after seeing JAWS, as the story I detailed in the article attests.

@ George: I've had THE REEF since it hit DVD. Great little movie there, as you said, and I talked about it and its director in the fourth part of the Heroes of Horror series. Thanks for stopping by!

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