Monday, October 22, 2018

31 Days of Horror 2018: Jaws

Directed by Steven Spielberg.
1975. Rated PG, 124 minutes.
Roy Scheider
Robert Shaw
Richard Dreyfuss
Lorraine Gary
Murray Hamilton
Carl Gottlieb
Jeffrey Kramer
Jonathan Filley
Susan Backlinie

I saw Jaws way too young in life. I can’t remember the exact circumstances, but I know for sure that I saw this in a movie theater despite being either four or five years old. I can’t say which because back then, hit movies stayed in theaters much longer than they do now. After all, there was no other for people to see it until some television network was granted the rights to air it. That was usually around five years after its initial release. So, there I was with the rest of the country, becoming terrified of the ocean. When it finally came on TV, it aired once a year like a lot of other popular movies. I watched it that way, with whatever cuts the FCC imposed on it, for a couple of years. By that time, the VCR and HBO had gained traction. Therefore, I was able to see Jaws and its sequels uncut. I watched them all, periodically, since they never seemed to be truly out of the cable rotation.

From the time I left home at 18, and throughout my adult life, Jaws grew further away from me. Every now and again, I caught them in the middle on some network or another and watched a bit before it either ended or I was compelled to move on to some other activity. When I started my movie collection, back when DVDs were just coming into vogue, this was one of the first one-or-two hundred purchases I made. I never watched it because I had become a movie snob. By that, I mean I realized far too late that I had mistakenly picked up the fullscreen option. No way I was going to watch that “junk.” After a few years, I sold it to a pawn shop and picked up the widescreen version. That sat on my shelf undisturbed, too. A few more years passed, and I happened to come across a blu ray copy of the movie for a couple bucks. I scooped that up and gave the DVD to a friend. Another year or two went by and I finally said, “Screw it,” and popped it in.

Right away, much of what I had forgotten came rushing back to me as the film’s brilliant opening scene played out. In case you don’t know, this is the iconic scene where a woman is swimming at night and Jaws snatches her from beneath. We never see the shark. Most of what I remembered had to do with just that: either seeing or not seeing the shark and how director Steven Spielberg made both highly effective. Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss were as brilliant as I remembered. I had forgotten, or perhaps never truly understood, that this movie is not really about a predator from the deep, but about the predators on land.

Don’t get it twisted, the eponymous shark is clearly the source of the visceral thrills this movie contains. Being hunted by an insatiable, man-eating beast is a fear many reasonable people have. Spielberg gloriously exploits this. He is so adept at it, he made our society both horrified and intrigued by sharks. Most of us get the reference when someone says, “We’re gonna need a bigger ____.” It’s no coincidence that “Shark Week” butters The Discovery Channel’s bread. We all know that a real or proverbial shark is near when we hear the movie’s iconic, yet dread-inducing score, whether it’s actually being played, or some idiot is standing next to you saying, “Du-dun…du-dun…,” and yeah, I’ve been that idiot. Then, there are the hundreds (thousands?) of rip-offs that followed in its cinematic footsteps.

All of that is just window-dressing. As great a monster as the shark is, he can only impact humans directly when we enter his home. There may be far more ocean than land on the Earth, but it’s not our natural habitat. We’re only in danger when we venture into it. Roy Scheider wonderfully plays the local police chief who wants to close the beach until the shark problem is handled. Therefore, the real villain is Mayor Vaughn who orders him not to do so because it’s the highly lucrative July 4th holiday. He is the real insatiable beast. He willingly risks the lives of others in the name of profit. Time and again, he puts the bottom line ahead of the best interest of the people and behaves indignantly when anyone suggests that this is the case. It’s an outstanding portrayal by Murray Hamilton. He is so good, some might say he outperforms his character’s office. Some forty-plus years on, his performance is downright presidential.

The fact that so much human arrogance moves the plot forward has helped Jaws hold up wonderfully. Note that I said arrogance, not error. To call what happens here an error would be to suggest that no one knew the potential consequences of their actions. That clearly isn’t the case. This is someone flat out ignoring those consequences for financial gain. This is someone purposely putting people in the path of danger. If it were only hapless humans getting eaten by a shark, it would be no different than any number of slasher movies: fun, maybe a bit scary in the moment, but ultimately weightless. Instead, this calls into question the competence and trustworthiness of the people we put in place to protect us. Our lives are in the hands of people who may not care one thing about them. Now that I’ve experienced the weight of capitalism crushing my innards as it bears down on me and felt empowered by it when it’s occasionally been on my side, it’s the economic politics of Jaws that threatens to keep me up at night. Sure, the idea that it’s possible I can be eaten by a shark comes barreling to the front of my brain whenever I get anywhere near the ocean, but I’m far more afraid of the sharks in suits and ties, and with pockets to line.


  1. I don't remember if I saw the whole thing but I do remember being very scared of sharks when I was a kid. I know of some parts of the film but I don't remember if I saw it as a whole. Still, it has some cool moments.

    1. It's really worth revisiting. It's still a fantastic film.

  2. I remember when it came out and I wanted to go with my mom who was taking my brother to this movie. She told me, “No” and that was that. She was right because I had nightmares when I finally saw it. It took years before I could watch it again and now I own a special edition DVD. I actually wanted the shark to eat The Mayor and his horrible suits. I recently watched. A making of documentary on A & E and was shocked by the woman who played the young hippie who got eaten at the beginning of the film....let’s just say she did not age well.

    1. I still can't remember how I wound up at the theater for that. And the mayor's suits...ugh. Haven't seen that documentary, but now I'm curious.

  3. I love Jaws. There's a reason that I've used a still from it as my logo for years and a different still from it to identify myself on Letterboxd.

    I did eventually see this in the theater, although I think it was the next year (second-run theater in my home town). Staggeringly, it's rated PG.

    How can you not love the mayor's anchor-themed sport coat?

    1. Yeah, PG in 1975 was a whole lot different than it is now.

      And the mayor's suits are the scariest thing in the entire movie, to be honest.

  4. Hmmm, I've never thought of this as a horror movie. More of a disaster/action movie with a frightening aspect in the threat of the shark. I purposely didn't go to see it in the theatre, it was SO huge and with it on everyone's lips I was burnt out on it and figured it would never measure up to my expectations.

    I've never been much for going in the ocean anyway, I was caught in a riptide once and that cured me on going in, but just the concept of the shark was unsettling. But I did finally watch it one night probably about 10 years ago when I happened upon it just beginning and discovered it was really an excellently constructed picture with really strong performances. The three leads are all great in their ways but I agree that Murray Hamilton is a real scene stealer as that soulless bastard of a mayor. It's ironic that a good deal of the dread that Spielberg was able to engender with the shark's luring presence is because it kept malfunctioning so he had to keep the camera turned away. I suppose that's part of what makes him a great director, being able to make lemonade out of a lemon.

    It does have that underlying message of corporate greed that keeps it timely that I'm sure was lost in the sequels which I've never seen. Well that's not entirely accurate, one of them played at a theatre I was managing-I think it was the fourth-so I had to watch for the midshow projector change and what I saw was pretty wretched, another thing that kept me from the original for more years.

    1. I've heard others say this is not a horror movie, but I wholeheartedly disagree. That "frightening aspect" is so overwhelming that this became one of a very small number of movies that can claim to have legitimately terrified an entire generation of people.

      Glad you finally saw it. Yeah, I've seen so many docs and heard so many anecdotes about the problems with the mechanical shark, I didn't want to bother going down that road, but agreed, Spielberg's ability to make it all work is remarkable.

      Keep avoiding the sequels.

  5. The arrogance and cover up mentality is as true as ever. It really comes across in the book too. Great review.

  6. It is so, so, so good. This movie never gets old for me.