Horror Bites - Farewell and Adieu

JAWS (1975)

There's a lot that can be said about Spielberg's classic killer shark movie, whether its the effects it may have had on sea water ecology, its status as a turning point in the director's career, or of course its reputation as the herald of a new age of mainstream blockbuster releases. But when all this is said and done Jaws is a still simple monster movie at the core. It's not a realistic look at the possibility of tourists being attacked off the coast of Massachusetts, it's a story where a giant fish terrorises the waters maliciously and then targets the boat sent to kill it. Big summer movies as we know them today will never contain this much blood. But it's also a creature feature of the best kind - one which elevates a potentially silly premise through pure film making craft.


Just like Alien a few years later this takes a cheesy, well worn idea and polishes the hell out of it. It may seem literally worlds apart, but outside the mundane vacation setting being rather different to a nightmarish space craft there are plenty of similarities. It's the little things which make both work so well. There's plenty of suspense and drama to build up to the reveal of the killer. There are all kinds of eccentric characters to entertain us during the dramatic scenes with overlapping dialogue and wry banter. You remember these people, even the bit players like the Tiger Shark catching guy who pulls that stupid face. It's all just as memorable as the threat itself, maybe more so. Like Alien, Jaws is also the source of countless imitations - some cheaper and less respectable than others (to say the least) whether they're real sequels or just knock-offs.

Within the narrative these elements come together pretty naturally, and it's never dull just to watch Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) going about his business. There are so many weird complaints and silly busy bodies in the first act that mean it's always enjoyable. My personal favourites include the police station lady passing messages about kids 'karate-ing' the picket fences, and the locals making trivial chit chat at the town hall. Some are likeable, and some are the sort of money obsessed types you love to hate. Of course this film is all about main trio, and soon wealthy biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) arrives to help investigate the situation. Unhinged boat captain Quint (Robert Shaw) is kept out of the picture for large stretches of the story, but always leaves an impression. Like the Great White itself he's a mysterious and larger than life character, so it makes perfect sense to include him sparingly until the final hunting trip.

Of course we eventually get to see some classic horror spectacle as people are turned into fish chow, and all the classic music cues and dolly zoom moments are here to enjoy. The moments of real dread always pack a punch. There's not a huge amount of real violence, but they really use it where it counts. It's all amplified by the score by John Williams; I don't think there has been such an economical use of music notes to create a sense of dread outside The Thing in 1982. Interestingly the most gruesome moments during the big action showdown are shown without music at all, which makes them all the more nightmarish. If I'm honest certain leitmotifs don't quite fit the tone, mainly the victory theme which shows up as the crew of the Orca use their harpoons and ropes against their toothed antagonist. It sounds a bit too much like an romantic adventure tune in places, but this is a minor issue. 


The eponymous beast itself is always really sinister, even before Quint's monologue about his war time experiences colour it with a fresh perspective. The shots of the shark below people in the 'pond' area once the beaches get busy are chilling every time, and the reaction of an unsuspecting Brody as he complains about chum is a both fun and unsettling. The endless robotic chewing of the prop shark 'Bruce' is a major defect that give its workings away, but I have to let it slide it because of the trouble it caused during filming. If there are any real complaints it would be the use of stock footage during the underwater cage scenes, which never fits with the movement or scale of the special effects. They show the face of a real shark too often which clashes with the artificial monster mouth they created

Regardless of the technical matters it all works anyway as an adventure story and a horror film. Of course your personal feelings on razor mouthed sea creatures could sway you more towards the latter. There are all kinds of additions that a standard genre movie of this kind would never usually include, whether it's the shooting stars that pass over the ship after one of the shark encounters, or just some of the dialogue and characterisation. The lines from the scar comparing scene are burnt into so many viewer's memories for a reason. Sure it's a film that features severed heads and gushing blood, but there's a certain playful quality to everything that feels magical instead of mean spirited.

Looking back into the Spielberg archives it's kind of an anomaly when you consider that his first great thriller Duel came before it, but afterwards (depending on your thought about who made Poltergeist) there were few features that hit these kind of dark and eerie notes. Maybe Jurassic Park can be considered his last venture into this kind of monstrous territory. A few more pure takes on a horror story would have been great, but at the same time I enjoy that he went onto have a more varied and eclectic career. As it stands a small selection of definitive entries to the genre movie canon are more than enough for me to be content.