Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb
Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfus
Every year on my birthday, I like to indulge in the finer things. After waking up on a simmering August morning, I take some vitamins, maybe eat some bran, then pop on the 1975 hit summer classic, Jaws. I watch it by myself as it is the only way to watch this film. The suspense is felt at such a greater depth alone, rather than risk watching it with the distraction of other human beings. My father would play the VHS in our living room every summer and would discuss Jaws trivia and general shark information. He recounted the time he first saw the flick on the big screen, when everyone screamed and threw their popcorn at the sight of a decapitated head popping up from a sunken ship.
Before slasher flicks became the mainstream in American horror movies, film makers took a few different routes to create a horrifying experience for their viewers (THE EXORCIST 1973 most notably comes to mind). I believe Jaws is a true horror movie even when it sways to action, drama, adventure and thriller. Produced by David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck, the story is based off of Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws” and was adapted by a young Steven Spielberg who bit off more than he could chew. Surprisingly, the film became quite the success after countless days wading in the water, and Verna Fields scrambling in the cutting room to finish the project. With Barrie Butler on board as cinematographer, the film is warm and beautiful with terrifying shots set-up to make our stomachs churn. The visual is stimulated with the most simplistic, dark and now iconic two-note sound created by John Williams. Our heart beats faster and faster with each da-duh, da-duh…
On the surface, (no pun intended) the story line is about a shark on a murder spree where three fellows set out to hunt and exterminate the creature on a not-so-perfectly sized boat. Underneath it all, it’s a story of fear and the complexities of humanity. The location is Amity, where the summer is hot and the people need to cool down at its most popular tourist attraction, the beach. The hero of the story is new-to-town police chief named Brody, a family man who values his job but is plagued by a deep seated fear of the water. The villain is mayor Larry Vaughn, an ignorant politician fueled by greed as he refuses to close the beach after mauled up bodies wash along shore. When Brody musters up heroic qualities of conquering his fears, he stands up to the mayor and overcomes the ocean in order to battle a much darker force. Supporting characters include Quint, a gruff seasoned sea-man war veteran and Hooper, a young and rich oceanographer with just enough energy to help chase after a great white.
What Jaws has to offer as a horror movie is terrifying suspense, and chaotic death scenes. Compared to horror movies of modern day, however, the blood and gore is not over-the-top but is used when necessary. The powerful introduction of the film sets the mood. The warmth of a sunset and some guitar strumming relaxes the senses until it is assaulted by the point of view shots of an unseen predator, preying on a young woman swimming in the beach. Her death scene is violent without using a drop of blood. Perhaps one of the most chaotic scenes is during the busiest beach day (my favourite shot in all of film history is Brody’s epiphany from the shore) where young Alex Kintner suffers a visually brutal shark attack. The mix of blood, his bright yellow inflatable, and his dismemberment leave a lasting impression. Later, a discussion ensues over the dissecting of a dead shark, and as the mayor claims, he does not want to see “that little Kintner boy spill out all over the dock”, leaving us with an even gorier picture painted in our imaginations. The death finale of the shark himself, or “Bruce” as they named the mechanical shark behind the scenes, suffers a well orchestrated explosive death, giving the audience a sigh of relief.
In the greater scheme of things, the shark is a symbol in this story. It is the greatest monster in the water, a predator, it is aggressive, hungry, and it knows no fear. It does not understand empathy nor will it give mercy. What is most horrifying of all, is that the shark is also given human qualities. The shark works alone, is methodical, and plans to terrorize his victims in the same neighbourhood. It is the reactions from the people throughout the story that reveal true humanity, to squash the offensive in order to create a form of peace. It’s top of the ocean food chain vs top of the city food chain in this epic story telling of fear.
On my birthday this year, I will enjoy the 1970’s birthday suits, bleeding limbs, the feel of real film before my eyes, and sing “Show Me the Way to Go Home”. I will bask in the glory in the making of and viewing of my favourite horror movie, Jaws.