Based on the best selling book by Peter Benchley (who now regrets the damage it has caused to shark populations because of the reputation he helped give them) Jaws was one of the early blockbuster films. It takes many liberties and veers off the book on many areas but, for the most part, you can see why the changes were made and Spielberg has created a true cinema classic partly because he wasn’t a slave to the novel.
I recently watched this movie with my mom and cousin, which is funny because my cousin is terrified of horror movies and when deciding what to watch, she said « nothing scary » and when picking something from my collection she said, « Let’s watch Jaws ». I thought she was joking - this film, even 30 years later - is TERRIFYING. There is a reason millions of people still avoid the beach after seeing it. It starts immediately with a shark attack on a helpless young woman, seen partly from the shark’s point of view from below with John William’s truly scary score heightening the tension and setting us up to get scared every time it starts playing as we know it means something terrible is about to happen. It goes on from there to kill a child, boaters… the death toll isn’t over the top which would quickly become numbing, instead it’s just frequent enough to keep you on your toes and afraid that anyone could be next.
If you are watching the film for the first time don’t be lulled into thinking most of it’s effect will be muted because of it’s age, you’ll be surprised. Yes, the clothing and cars put it in a certain time period but the location - an island off the coast of Massachusetts - is remote enough that it gives it a sort of look and feel that might even enhance the reality of the story. The performances are all great, Roy Scheider as the land-lubber new sheriff faced with a human and economic tragedy getting out of control all around him is very endearing and relatable. Richard Dreyfuss as Hooper the marine biologist is also perfectly cast. Speaking of casting, even the supporting cast is not just good as actors but - as it was still the 70s - they aren’t all fashion models with hot bods at the beach. They look and act like real people. Sure, they are pretty much all men and ALL of them are white but that is maybe the only thing I’d change about it.
On release, Jaws was considered a gorefest to some people when, while it is gory in parts, its not really anything we don’t see on TV today. The impact of the gore is what sets it’s apart. Kudos for Spielberg for showing photos of actual shark attacks to prime us to be scared so when the creature’s presence is hinted at we know the danger is REAL and our emotions respond accordingly. When the 3 main characters take off to find and kill the shark, its feels serious and we know they might die. The attack on the boat, leading to the violent death of the Quint (Robert Shaw), the shark hunter, whose character is this films Captain Ahab in many ways is full of classic dialog, suspense and outright terror. Quint’s gory death is not gratuitous and the gore adds to our fear.
Another aspect of the movie was the marketing behind it. Books, T-shirts, merchandise were all part of the promotion scheme — something we didn’t see done as forcefully until Star Wars came out in 1977. The promotion pushed the film into top grossing category (cost 9 million, box office 471 million) and it’s popularity not only brought in money but had some pretty serious social repercussions. Outside of the film world, this movie to this day is the main reason many people are scared to swim at the beach and at release beaches felt the impact with reduced visitors. The effect of shark populations was even worse and there isa point to be made that his story led to the wholesale slaughter of sharks until many are on the verge of extinction - despite the fact that actual shark attacks are super rare. Sharks it turns out don’t think of us as particularly tasty.
Like many classics, not all the filmmaking decisions were due to simple genius. The idea to use point of view shots from the shark thought most of the film stemmed from the problems with the mechanical version. It was both temperamental and not totally convincing. This made the music all the more important and the music became one of the most recognizable horror scores since Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
A must see and see again.