Alfred Hitchcock, Bernard Hermann, Blockbuster, creature feature, Film, film critic, Horror, innocence, Jaws, John Williams, movie, ocean, Peter Benchley, Psycho, retrospective, review, scholar, Sinister Summer, Steven Spielberg, Suspense, terror, Universal Pictures, Universal Studios
The original blockbuster! With The Meg opening tonight, the next article in my Sinister Summer series is a retrospective on Jaws (1975). And, we still “need a bigger boat” after all these years. Beginning with the iconic minimalistic score by John Williams, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is still keeping people out of the water more than forty years later. Beyond the film, you can still face off with the most famous shark in cinema history at Universal Studios Hollywood. A favorite for folks to watch on July 4th each year (as I do), this film became the standard for the modern horror creature feature. And at only four minutes on screen, Bruce (Jaws’ nickname), successfully terrified audiences then and continues to frighten beachgoers today. For all intents and purposes, this iconic film set the bar for and essentially created this subgenre of horror movies featuring man-eating monsters from the natural world that exist in places where we typically find joy and relaxation. The ocean, theme parks, rivers, lakes–these innocent places become the setting for unimaginable terror.
If you are old enough to have watched it in theatres in 1975 or fortunate enough to have attended the special 40th Anniversary screenings back in 2015, then you can attest to the film’s evergreen ability to scare you out of your wits. When I watched it on the big screen in 2015, the auditorium was filled nearly to capacity with kids, teenagers, and adults. To see this iconic film on the big screen was truly a memorable experience. Especially so around where I live, since the gulf beaches are just down the road. The atmosphere was incredibly fun. All of these fans, most of which had likely seen Jaws before, were gathered together to relive the terrifying experience of a man-eating shark terrorizing a small New England town during the July 4th holiday season. But why would so many people pay to see a film that they had seen at no additional cost on TV or watched on DVD/BluRay?
Much in the same way Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is often credited, and rightly so, for being the first modern horror film and forerunner to the classic slasher; likewise, Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws is credited as the first modern creature feature horror film and forerunner to the blockbuster (or event movie). I am not negating King Kong, Creature from the Black Lagoon, or other predecessors; it’s important to take note of the word modern. Aside from excellent, visionary direction, both Psycho and Jaws have three important elements in common (1) powerhouse cast (2) strategic suspense and (3) a brilliant, oft-parodied, burned in your mind musical score.
It probably seems like you were born with John William’s two-note Jaws theme in your head, much like Bernard Hermann’s Psycho screeches. The terrifying suspense of Jaws comes in the form of a PG movie. That’s right, Jaws is rated PG. But this film delivers a bigger and more memorable punch than any gory torture porn horror film ever could. The groundbreaking structure of both these legendary films are the prototypes from which their respective branches of horror films are derived. They are the blueprint, if you will, for suspense and horror. The manner in which the suspense is drawn out for most of the movie assists in the ability to enjoy it over and over again, without it ever feeling like a B movie. The drawn out suspense engages you emotionally and psychologically. The feeling of dread lingers and lingers. In fact, you don’t truly see Bruce until the third act of the film when he jumps out of the water in an attempt to bite off the arm of Chief Brody. This intentional drawing out of suspense makes the delivery of that moment pack a powerful punch, an assault on the eyes and mind. Both Psycho and Jaws benefit from an excellent cast. The respective casts could not have been any better. Interestingly, in order to not allow the cast to overpower the story or shark, Spielberg didn’t choose actors with an instant command presence. But they displayed a strong presence nevertheless. It never feels as if they are acting, but truly become the characters they are portraying. The relatability of the characters is partly due to the screenplays, but it takes phenomenal actors to successfully bring these characters to life. Spielberg would repeat this same successful approach to creating blockbusters E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Jurassic Park.
For more on suspense, checkout this video featuring Hitchcock himself.
When Jaws is referred to as the original blockbuster, it’s not simply due to being the first film to break the $100mil box office sales mark, toppling the records previously set and held by The Exorcist and The Godfather. That is a valid observation, but is ultimately incidental. Reasoning behind this thriller’s ability to create the concept of a blockbuster movie is the fact Jaws was seen as an event not to be missed. Looking back at the original crowds of 1975, you’d think the movie was a one-night-only big event. Hence the term blockbuster. The common adjective attributed to big summer movies literally derives from the fact that queues for the box office wrapped around city blocks. It busted the block, so to speak. And the rest is history! Coupled with the summer release date and ticket sales, the allure of Jaws generated levels of enthusiasm and interest never seen before. The film took in so much money at its opening, that it nearly made up the entire production budget by the end of the first week. Furthermore, distribution and marketing companies began to use Jaws as a model for future marketing efforts in order to attempt to generate another blockbuster effect. After Jaws in 1975, the next big blockbuster would be George Lucas’ Star Wars IV: A New Hope in 1977. All these factors contribute to the iconic status of Jaws in terms of its contribution to film business.
Instead of building a thriller on shock value, disturbing imagery, or jump scares, author Peter Benchley’s screenplay for Jaws focussed on crafting a cinematic atmosphere that had an intimate, claustrophobic feel built upon well-crafted drama through character development and conflict, at the center of which is a little heart. Different from contemporary creature features, Jaws picks off swimmers in the single digits and those attacks all happen at a single beach on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. And instead of an entire agency hunting down the man-killer shark, three unlikely men are forcibly thrown together in order to track down and eliminate the terror from the waters off Amity Island. Keeping the principle cast and environment small, enabled the drama to perform strongly. Big things do come in small packages. Coupled with the strong performances from the entire leading cast, this brilliant combination of cinematic elements works together to give us some of the most memorable lines, scenes, and cinematography in movie history. Furthermore, real people swept up into an impossible situation and foolish decisions enable the audience to identify with the characters and the setting in ways that make the terror feel all the more real and close to home–or the beach.
While Bruce is often thought to be the villain of Jaws–and no mistaking it, he is definitely an antagonist–I argue that the true opposition to the goal in the plot is Amity’s mayor. If we accept the goal is to apprehend or kill the man-eating shark, then Vaughn serves as opposing that action. Perhaps you’ve never though of the true villain of Jaws being Mayor Larry Vaughn. A close analysis of the plot reveals that Jaws (Bruce) functions more as a catalyst for the principle conflict between Chief Brody and Vaughn. Other than the death at the beginning of the film, the Mayor is indirectly responsible for the remaining deaths. After all, it’s due to his utter complacency, negligence, and classic greed that led to the other deaths. For most of the film, we spend far more time with Chief Brody’s continued conflict dealing with the social pressures, desires, and ill-fated decisions of his boss than we do with shark attacks. Mayor Vaughn fails to acknowledge the sheer gravity of the dangerous situation, and close Amity’s beaches in order to keep his citizens safe. In effect, he fed them to the shark. Seems like a villainous action to me. Bruce was being a shark, Vaughn was the villain.
Often the central character’s development hinges on the direct and indirect conflict with the opposition to the goal of the plot. In this scenario, Mayor Vaughn stands between Brody and Bruce. The moments in which Brody demonstrates measurable growth in his character arc are when he attempts to stand up to the Mayor showcasing a contrast between public safety and a combination of politics and economics. Unfortunately, we never witness Brody truly standing up to the Mayor to enact measurable change per se; however, it isn’t needed because we witness several moments of Brody shouldering the responsibility of protecting the citizens of Amity as a civil servant. By contrast, Vaughn is more preoccupied with a warped view of civic responsibility that places more importance on increasing the bottom line of the local businesses than public safety. He rationalizes his position opposing the advice of Brody by engaging in classic psychological defense mechanisms such as denial, displacement, and projection. Vaughn’s actions throughout the film depict an elected leader with misplaced priorities in order to better his own career.
The success of Jaws and reasons why it continues to stand the test of time has more to do with the beauty in simplicity and strategic marketing than Spielberg’s filmmaking. Don’t get me wrong, Spielberg is an excellent storyteller and directed many of our favorite films such as this one, Jurassic Park, E.T., Poltergeist (with Tobe Hooper), and more, but it’s the strong screenplay and innovative marketing efforts that give Jaws the chutzpah it has. Jaws quite literally changed the way studios market “blockbuster” films. Prior to Jaws‘ release, the only films to get wide, general releases were B-movies and exploitation films, but Universal Pictures took the chance at cramming Jaws into as many screens as possible, and it paid off in spades! Jaws wasn’t the first film to book theatres in this was, but it was the first to be well-received by by critics and fans. The film was an instant success!
Even if you trust the statistics that you are more likely to be injured or die in a car accident than be attacked by a shark, Jaws still leaves you wondering what may lurk in the depths of the ocean, and by extension lakes and rivers (thanks in part to Animal Planet’s River Monsters). There is a lingering feeling, even if in the back of your mind, that a man-eating shark could live in our oceans. That is the power of this film and why it has continued to pervade popular culture for more than 40 years. Its influence on popular culture is certainly not limited to the dozens or imitations such as Lake Placid, Piranha, Deep Blue Sea, or parodies like Sharknado, but it serves as the inspiration for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the Monster Jam monster truck Megalodon, theme park attractions, and the music is often used in unrelated TV shows and movies. Lines, imagery, music, and characters are permanently embedded in the psyche of the general public.