Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.
Welcome back to the first day of this year’s 31 Days of Horror. Thirty-one consecutive nights of reviews and commentary on some iconic, scary, and sometimes cringe-worthy horror movies. First up is the original blockbuster and the film that made people afraid to go into the ocean, Jaws!
The trailer is certainly something out of a bygone era. It’s over 3 minutes long and seems to go through most of the film. It slowly introduces you to the terror of the film without actually showing anything. There’s a stampede of swimmers, and a number of scenes on a boat as the men hunt for the shark. It doesn’t seem like a typical horror film and that may be part of its enduring popularity.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
A few days before the big Fourth of July weekend, a young girl goes skinny dipping in the ocean off Amity Island and is pulled under the water by something and killed. The next morning Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) discovers the body and begins plans to shut down the beaches due to the possibility of a shark in the waters. The town Mayor, Larry Vaughan (Murray Hamilton), forces Brody to recant on the closures when the coroner decides to call it a boat accident. Brody watches the beach closely the following day when young Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Vorhees) is killed by a shark.
At a town meeting, $3,000 is offered to catch the shark while the beaches will now be closed for only 24 hours. Local fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) says it’ll cost $10,000 for him to catch the shark. At this point everyone in the area wants to make the bounty. A couple of men try to catch the shark from a pier which collapses under the strain. The next morning the harbor is full of men on boats following no safety protocols whatsoever. Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) from the Oceanographic Institute on the mainland (presumably Woods Hole, MA) arrives at Brody’s request.
Hooper performs his own examination of the female swimmer’s remains and determines it was not a boat accident. Some fishermen return with a large tiger shark, but Hooper quickly reveals that the bite radius is too small for this to be the same animal that ate the girl and the Kintner boy. Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fierro) shows up, still in her funeral clothes, and slaps Brody for knowing about the initial attack and not closing the beaches. Hooper shows up at Brody’s that evening and the two get drunk and decide to take a boat out to look for the shark. Hooper scuba dives and discovers the remains of Ben Gardner’s boat…and Ben Gardner, which causes him to drop a tooth of a great white shark–evidence of the attacks.
Brody again tries to warn the Mayor, but it is July 3rd and the tourists are coming tomorrow. At the beach, the Mayor convinces people to get in the water while news crews report on the scene and a number of boats patrol for any sign of a shark. Two boys swim with a fake fin, causing panic. Suddenly the shark surfaces in the estuary where Brody’s son Mike (Chris Rebello) is boating with friends. A man is killed and the boys are helped out of the water. Brody then forces the Mayor to sign the paperwork to hire Quint and close the beaches.
Brody, Hooper and Quint set out on the Orca, Quint’s boat, to find this 25 foot great white. The men hook the beast with a fishing line but it bites through the steel cable. While throwing chum into the water, the shark scares Brody who believes they will need “a bigger boat.” That evening the men relax as best they can, trading stories about their scars. Quint reveals he was on the USS Indianapolis which sank after delivering the Hiroshima bomb, and over 700 men were eaten by sharks. The shark rams the boat and the men resume their hunt.
After putting three buoyant barrels into the shark, they manage to tire it out a bit. Tying off the barrels to the boat only succeeds in having the boat dragged backwards and the cleats ripped out. Hooper believes going into the shark cage with a poisoned spear is the best option. But once in the water the shark eats the cage and Hooper manages to escape into a small outcropping of rock. The shark rams the boat, which starts to sink and also eats Quint as he slides into the mouth of the beast. Brody climbs the mast with a rifle and aims at a compressed air tank which the shark has in its mouth. He fires and causes the beast to explode. Hooper surfaces and the two men paddle on some of the flotsam back to the island.
“This was no boat accident!” – Matt Hooper
While Jaws might not be considered a true horror film by aficionados of the genre, there’s no denying that it definitely delivers chills, suspense, and jump scares aplenty. Directed by Steven Spielberg and only his second feature length film, after Sugarland Express, Jaws was adapted from the book of the same name by Peter Benchley. The film also was the first certifiable blockbuster, choosing to change the way that modern films are released to theaters. Prior to 1975, movies were slowly released into various markets as word of mouth grew. Jaws on the other hand released in a wide-pattern where it opened in most cities on the same day and date. But let’s take a look at whether the film is really a horror film.
By summer 1975 horror films usually were represented by one of two types of antagonists: monsters or killers. Classic horror films at this time showcased suitable monsters like vampires, frankenstein-like monsters and werewolves. Sometimes there were ghosts or demons, and even more recently there had also been a few films that dealt with more realistic premises like The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby, which dealt with the occult and possession. Relatively new at this time was the coming of the slasher film which presented a crazed killer hunting young coeds for reasons unknown. Films like Black Christmas and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre from the previous year were on the cusp of becoming the new norm. So the release of Jaws, about a rogue great white shark in the waters off the coast of New England was not the typical fare for a horror film.
Films about animals attacking humans was not a new subgenre of horror, but it was something that only popped up rarely. After the release of Jaws, the frequency of these films increased a hundredfold. Prior to 1975, the most popular films about animal attacks included Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), probably the definitive film in thus style, and the sci-fi inspired Them! about giant mutated ants. Normally this type of film was usually fare for more B-movie plots like Killer Bees (1974) or Night of the Lepus (1972). But after Jaws, numerous films about killer sharks (three Jaws sequels, Deep Blue Sea), killer whales (Orca), killer piranha (Piranha and numerous sequels), dogs (Cujo), bears (Grizzly), snakes (Anaconda, Snakes on a Plane) and alligators (Alligator, Lake Placid) have terrified audiences.
If the legacy of animal attack films doesn’t convince you that Jaws is a horror film, then maybe looking at the way the film was shot will change some minds. It’s a well-known fact that the various mechanical sharks (all named “Bruce”) failed to perform as expected often. Due to this technical restriction, it necessitated that Spielberg shoot the film in a way that doesn’t show the shark. In fact, the first good shot of the creature isn’t until about 80% of the way through the film. The lack of actually seeing the killer, coupled with John Williams’ amazingly clever and apparently simple soundtrack heightened the tension and suspense just as Hitchcock had done in his films (see last year’s write up for Psycho as a proper example). Spielberg also chose a clever way to film a number of the scenes at the beach, in the water with the swimmers. Instead of putting the camera above the water (in a boat, for example, as would normally be done) he chose to place the camera part way into the water. The lack of vision, with the ocean lapping midway up the frame, added to the claustrophobic feel that almost anything might be under the water.
Spielberg also made a film that utilized editing and in-camera effects to either heighten the tension or to present mundane shots in a more cinematic way. I believe that these interesting scenes also have something to do with making Jaws a standout film, even outside of its horror roots, making audiences want to come back for the thrill again and again. Some examples include the early moments of Brody sitting on the beach watching the ocean for potential shark sign. As extras wipe frame (crossing either left to right or vice versa, filling the frame) and the shot returns to Brody, each subsequent image of the Chief gets closer, moving from a wide shot to a close up. It indicates the intensity in which he is focused on the water. Spielberg chose this more creative editing trick rather than a zoom or a dolly shot. Similarly when the shark does attack, Spielberg uses a smash-zoom or dolly-zoom to really bring Roy Schneider’s fears right into the laps of the audience. This effect is created by zooming out from a subject while subsequently dollying the camera in at the same speed. This particular shot is the definitive explanation of the effect, though Hitchcock also popularized the effect in films like Vertigo. An example of Spielberg taking the mundane and making it extraordinary is typified by the shot on the ferry near the beginning of the film. Brody hops on the ferry to get to the beach. The Mayor and his cronies drive on at the same time. The shot begins as a wide shot of all the characters, with the Mayor talking to Brody and the background moving as the ferry heads across the water. The two characters move close to the camera making it a medium shot, and then even closer making it a close-up shot. The entire time the background continues to change as the ferry pivots to dock across the bay. Spielberg’s decision to use a locked off camera and let the location and actors change the framing of the scene is just one of his many innovative uses of his filmic toolbox.
At over 45 years old, Jaws still proves to be a popular film with audiences, being shown at outdoor festivals and enjoying new releases on home media. The film resonates with viewers so much due to its natural moments and real-world logic. There’s no crazy stalker with a chainsaw or a demonic creature released from an ancient scroll. The monster is a vicious predator that audiences are already familiar with. There’s no need to get into the motivations of the creature either. Everyone knows it’s only doing what it does: swim and eat. It’s very easy to believe that this is something that could be happening on a beach near you. If this is your first time visiting 31 Days of Horror, welcome, and stay tuned each night for another review of a (hopefully) scary movie. If you’ve been reading this series before, welcome back, and we hope you don’t scare too easily. There are some classic chills coming throughout the month!
- Contrary to popular stories, the actress that played the first victim, Susan Backlinie, was not actually injured while being jerked back and forth by the cables that caused her to look like she was under attack. The only surprise for her was being pulled under the water. Otherwise her performance was pure cinema.
- The character of Michael Brody, the oldest son of the Chief, appears in all four Jaws films. Here he is portrayed as a boy by Chris Rebello. In the first sequel Jaws 2 he is now a teenager and is played by Mark Gruner. In Jaws 3-D he was an adult played by Dennis Quaid. And Jaws: The Revenge saw him played by Lance Guest.
- Bryan Singer took the name of his production company, Bad Hat Harry Productions from the line Martin Brody says to an older swimmer, “that’s some bad hat, Harry.”
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.