When it came to movies, my parents had the most bizarre habit of walking into a theater whenever we got there, even if it was in the middle or towards the end of the film, and sitting there as the next showing unspooled — until the point we walked in on, which is when we would get up and leave. I was a kid at the time, growing up in Brooklyn, New York, and even then I thought it was weird, but, hey, if my parents were doing it, then it had to be right. Right? Well, not when they brought 10-year-old me to House of Dark Shadows, based on the daytime soap Dark Shadows that I cherished (be patient, it leads to Jaws).
We had walked in literally 10 minutes before the film ended, watching vampire Barnabas Collins being dispatched via wooden crossbow to the heart in what was a bloody demise (please don’t bitch about spoilers; the film is 52 years old), and completely unlike anything we’d seen on the TV show. The credits rolled, the lights rose and then dimmed once more as we got the MGM lion (I think), and were back in Collinsport, Maine. Things unfolded all over again and, keeping that Gross Family Tradition alive, right before Barnabas was going to be staked, Mom and Dad started to stand up to leave. I couldn’t believe it and demanded (more likely whined in a screechy voice) that we stay through the end. And we did. Victory was mine. Hah!
Flash forward five years and I’m working at the Twin Shirley Theatre in Shirley, New York as an usher. I’m 15 years old and Jaws is playing, which I haven’t seen by this point. On this particular Saturday, I had gotten a roast beef hero for my lunch break and, occasionally willing to continue what I’d been taught (for what I think was the last time), I decided to take my lunch in Twin Shirley auditorium #2 and shared my lunch with a great white shark. Big mistake.
It was the “pier sequence,” set after poor Alex Kitner and his raft became shark chum, the distraught Mrs. Kitner has offered a $3,000 reward for anyone who captures the shark, and a couple of Amity yokels go out on a dock at night, put a hook attached to a chain through a huge pot roast and toss it into the water in the hopes they’ll catch the shark (though exactly how they think they’ll be able to do so isn’t clear, but that digression doesn’t matter). A minute or so later, there’s a jerk to the chain, which is attached to the dock, and it starts getting pulled into the water. Awesome, ain’t it? Well it is, until the chain goes taught and the still unseen Bruce the Shark yanks one more time, and half the dock goes into the water, with poor “Charlie” attached to it as he’s pulled away from land.
Finally, he detaches himself and starts swimming back to his friend who’s calling out to him. Seems like Charlie’s going to be okay …. But then the soundtrack takes on a creaky tone, the dock slowly starts to turn begins pursuing Charlie accompanied by John Williams’ Jaws theme.
Holy. Shit! I am now choking on what had been a delicious roast beef hero, Charlie’s friend is calling out to him to swim and through desperate gasps for air I’m yelling out to him as well, “Yeah, Charlie, swim!!!!”
I’m happy to say that Charlie made it. I almost didn’t, but my man Charlie did.
It is one of the most tension-filled scenes that I’ve ever experienced and the beauty of it is that there isn’t a shark — real or robotic — on display anywhere, which plays so important a role in what makes Jaws so terrifying. And, unlike today’s blockbusters, allows it to excel by embracing the notion of less is more.
What’s most impressive is that in early September of this year I went to an IMAX screening of Jaws and, 47 years later, it holds up beautifully. The characters — individually and together — are just as riveting as they’ve ever been, drawing us into life on Amity Island and conveying the horror of this little piece of paradise turned nightmare, with death (in the words of Monty Python) by big, sharp, nasty teeth able to strike anywhere.
The triumvirate of Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) are just magic. So is the script by Carl Gottlieb and Jaws author Peter Benchley, working hand-in-hand with Spielberg’s direction, which takes these three men with such disparate backgrounds and draws them together, creating a bond, not of friendship, but something resembling respect as things unfold and they get to know each other in so compressed a period of time. It’s similar to what James Cameron would later accomplish with the Jack and Rose relationship in Titanic, tracking that romance from birth to death in just three hours and making it believable and tragic.
And there’s just so much more to the film, from Quint’s chilling retelling of his time on the Indianapolis, sunk by enemy subs and the survivors — himself included — trying to escape death a second time by avoiding the swarming sharks; Hooper going underwater in a cage — and a fool’s errand — to inject poison into the beast; Quint’s seeming destiny to die by the jaws of a great white being fulfilled, and Brody — the man terrified of the ocean — literally taking a shot at blowing up the oxygen tank being chomped on by the re-approaching shark, and doing so at the last possible second.
One of the greatest movie experiences of my life, both then and now and for a time I couldn’t get enough Jaws.
It’s what drew me back into theaters three years later for Jaws 2. That plus the amazing advertising campaign, including the first trailer that showed the ocean at sunset and an ominous voice saying, “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water … the all-new … Jaws 2,” which concludes with a fin breaking the surface. Awesome.
The thing about Jaws 2 is that it works a hell of a lot better than it has a right to. Yes, it’s got Scheider and enough of the supporting players to make things still feel like Amity, but director Jeannot Szwarc is no Spielberg, the film’s look is inferior in comparison, and the kids in jeopardy plot gets to be a bit much. But that being said, there are some damn suspenseful moments (the water-skiing and parasail sequences), and Scheider’s sincerity sells it, right down to his confrontation with shark number two. Plus, there’s that great moment where he tells the town council, “That’s a shark. I know, because I’ve seen one up close. And you better do something about this one, because I’m not going through that hell again!” — which nicely anticipates Bruce Willis’ similar moment in Die Hard 2, where he wonders how the same thing can happen to the same guy twice.
Jump forward to 1983, and we get Jaws 3-D, a gimmicky sequel in which Martin Brody’s son, Mike (played by Dennis Quaid) has to stop a shark that has gotten into a SeaWorld theme park and is eating the guests (Jurassic World took the same plot, replaced the shark with dinosaurs and made a bazillion dollars). I knew we were in trouble from the opening moments of the film, and it drove home to me the diminishing returns of these sequels.
Case in point: Jaws opens with poor skinny-dipping Chrissie getting attacked by a shark; Jaws 2 opens with a pair of scuba divers photographing the underwater remains of Quint’s boat, the Orca, when they, too, are attacked. But Jaws 3 commences with the death of a … fish, its head slowly floating towards the audience in 3-D.
A fish? And we’re supposed to be swept in by that death? Me thinks not.
And, finally, there was Jaws: The Revenge, released in 1987 and directed by Joseph Sargent, who helmed one of my favorite movies ever, 1970’s Colossus: The Forbin Project. Between that and the fact that I was flown to the Bahamas to cover its making for Fangoria magazine, I was pre-disposed to like this movie. Alas, I could not. The plot is … ridiculous — Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary, reprising the role of Martin’s wife) is a widow who comes to believe that her family is being targeted by yet another shark, this one seeking revenge, resulting in the tagline, “This time it’s personal!” — nope, nothing personal about this one.
And yet talking to screenwriter Michael De Guzman on location, he certainly believed they were making a good film. “The mandate as it was passed on to me by Joe,” he told me, “was that we were going to make a good quality film like the original. We all feel as though there was Jaws and now there’s our film. I tell people that this is a story about obsession and fear. Whether what Ellen Brody has in her mind is true or not will be left up to the audience to decide. In a larger, more general sense, it is about any kind of fear so great and so strong that it begins to take control of a human being’s life, and the ultimate knowledge that in order to get on in life, fear must be confronted. In essence, the shark is symbolic of anything that would cause that great a fear. This shark is to great whites what Moby Dick is to whales. But the story takes itself seriously without taking itself too seriously.”
As to the great white of the film, he said, “The shark’s in every scene, though you don’t see it. His presence is felt. In his original novel, Peter Benchley talked about the primeval fear of being eaten alive, and that’s certainly part of it. It is also an unpredictable and uncontrollable kind of monster, as opposed to Frankenstein. You can’t hear footsteps coming up in back of you, and it’s not residing in the castle on the hill. It’s a monster that can strike without warning from any direction at any time.”
Seriously, doesn’t all of that sound interesting? Sadly, the final film didn’t exactly reflect that and as much as I try to block Jaws: The Revenge from my mind, while I was watching it I remembered something else that De Guzman related to me.
“We were starting at ground zero,” he said, “because there wasn’t a script, no fixed concept in anyone’s mind and no givens. We simply started with a clean piece of paper. It soon became a quick progression of events. By the end of October, we had the bare bones of a story. By November 2, we had an outline for the pre-production people. By mid-December we had the first draft, by mid-January a shooting script. The writing has continued throughout production. We’re six months into it, whereas other major releases might still be on a second draft during that same time span.”
Hmm. Maybe there’s actually a reason for that?
Have I mentioned how much I love the original Jaws?