“Stranger Things” Season Three TV Review

StrangerThings3_tallNetflix’s Stranger Things Season Three represents a return to form! Much like Apocalypse did for American Horror Story, this season of Stranger Things took what worked in Season One and delivered an outstanding third season that has–what could possibly be–my favorite scene in the entire series. Even more than the previous two seasons, this one takes 80s culture and style to the max, complete with a nostalgic shopping mall and carnival. More so than any of the previous seasons, this one is the most roller coater yet. More monsters, more conflict, more horror. It’s also only eight episodes; and to that point, this season is tight, precise, and never leaves you in a lull. Whether you were a kid or teenager in the 80s or not, this season does what Stranger Things does best–connect you with your childhood. Whereas the series has been more science-fiction than horror in the previous two seasons, season three skews much closer to horror giving audiences some nightmarish imagery that echoes sci-fi horror staples such as Invasion of the Body SnatchersThe Blob, and The Thing.

Instead of playing on the mystery or fear of the unknown, season three is aware that the spider-like mind flayer and demogorgon aren’t as scary as they were in the first two seasons. So it delivers a new character of opposition that is terrifying in both mind and body. This parallels the changes that the central characters are going through during this time of encroaching upon adolescence. The boys have deeper voices and the hormones are raging. In addition to navigating the horrors that are befalling Hawkins, our central characters are forced to navigate relationships, sexuality, growing up, and loss. And this exploration of relationships is not limited to the kids, but the adults of Hawkins find themselves forced to face true feelings as well. It’s the added intellectual dimension of the human condition that makes this such a strong season for me. In fact, the more I think about it, the more that this might just be my favorite season, with Season One being a close second. What makes some of the greatest horror films of all time stick with us is the social commentary and thematic depth. Stranger Things season three dives deep by consistently keeping the focus on the character conflict and not simply the other-worldly entities.

One of the most relatable avenues through which to connect with characters is the avenue of relationship dynamics. And there are a plethora of relationships on display in this season. Early on, we have the incessant making out of El and Mike, the sexually frustrated relationship between Joyce Byers and Hopper, the friendship of Steve and Robin, later on we have the breaking up of El and Mike, followed by the blooming friendship between Max and El. We witness the strained relationship between Will and his childhood guy friends as his friends begin dating and leave him to play D&D alone. Then there is the seemingly made-up girlfriend of Dustin’s that he cannot connect with via his powerful  radio. Add a coming-out story to this mix, and we have many different personal and interpersonal relationship dynamics with which to connect. Relationships provide conflict, and that conflict directly impacts the drama. And we have lots of drama this season. Each of the aforementioned relationships provides the means for the characters to experience his or her own arc and grow positively or negatively. On a lighter note, there is an uplifting message of embracing your inner nerd that is evident in the drama that unfolds between Dustin, Robin, Steve, and Erica at the ice cream shop; and further evidence for this message is in my favorite scene in the entire series, The Neverending Story theme song singalong between Dustin and Suzzie. It doesn’t get much nerdier than that.

Skewing closer to horror than science-fiction, season three’s monster is right out of The Blob. There are also elements of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing. I absolutely love the idea of this monster because attacks its victims in two different ways (1) the blob will absorb the bodies of the victims and (2) the mindflayer takes control of the minds and bodies of those it deems are worthy vessels. There is a two-fold nature to this monster that makes it more terrifying than the previous iterations, because it attacks the mind and body. Much like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist took the home invasion horror concept to the next level by a demon invading the house and bodily home of an innocent little girl, the mindflayer, in a similar fashion, takes on many of the characteristics of the demon Pazuzu in Friedkin’s horror masterpiece. Characteristics of the alien entity in The Thing are also included in the actions of the mindflayer, specifically how it takes host of a body and can remain undetected. It’s this multidimensional component in the design of the monster that makes it the most terrifying creature we have encountered in Hawkins, IN.

So much fun! Season three of Stranger Things provides us with a fantastic character-driven plot that deviates from the action-driven plot in season two by returning to form. By the Duffer Brothers going back to what made the first season such a hit, this third season keeps the show going strong. Furthermore, the story is a lot tighter in this shortened season. Just goes to show that even when you have fewer episodes, the quality of the show doesn’t have to suffer. In this case, the quality went up from the previous season. Everything in this season works so very well, from the tight screenwriting to the nostalgic production design. After a mediocre second season, I was anticipating much the same for the tertiary season. Thankfully I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed season three, and feel confident that you will too!

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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Sinister Summer: “The Birds” Retrospective Review

“You’ll never look at birds the same way again” (Jurassic Park). Although Dr. Grant was referring to velociraptors, you can say the very same thing about Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Hitchcock directed more than fifty feature length films, only two of which are horror (Psycho and The Birds). However, he is widely credited, and rightly so, as the director who ushered in the modern horror film, with Psycho being regarded as the first modern horror film. On the heels of the success of Psycho, a film that revolutionized so much about the movie-going experience from movie start times to “not spoiling the ending” (now where have we recently heard that???), Hitch set out to deliver another horror film at the height of his powers. But what would it be about? He turned to past collaborator Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, Hitch’s first American film. Her best-selling novella The Birds had previously been adapted for radio and stage (I’ve actually seen the stage adaptation, and incidentally I prefer the film), but Hitch decided to adapt it (loosely I might add) for the small screen. That’s right, small screen. He originally intended The Birds to be adapted for his wildly popular and successful series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But like Jordan Peele did with Us, which I am convinced started out as an idea for his Twilight Zone series, Hitch decided to take the idea from TV to the cinema! So with the decision to adapt du Maurier’s novella into a cinematic experience, Hitch made history. Not only is it one of the most famous films in cinematic history, it sowed the birdseed for all the “when nature attacks” movies to follow including Jaws and Jurassic Park. This film was also influential in John Carpenter’s The Fog and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. With the question of why did the birds attack never being answered, it leaves the events of this movie lingering in our minds as a possible reality.

To hear a conversation with me on the CineMust podcast chatting about the must-see status of The Birds and Jaws, click HERE.

When wealthy well-known socialite Melanie Daniels (Hedron) finds herself to be the brunt of a practical joke played by lawyer Mitch Brenner (Taylor) at a bird shop while searching for a gift, she decides to return the favor by buying a couple of birds and dropping them off at his apartment. Upon finding that he spends the weekends with his younger sister and mother (Jessica Tandy) north of San Francisco in the small community of Bodega Bay, she drives to the remote town in order to deliver the birds. Soon after her unannounced arrival, the birds of the town begin to act incredibly strangely. Following a seagull attacking Melanie, and Mitch’s mother discovering her neighbor dead from an apparent bird attack, the town realizes that the birds are a real threat. Eventually birds, in the thousands are attacking anyone without reason or explanation as to why this is happening. Trapped in the Brenner household, survival becomes the number one priority for not only our central characters but everyone in the town.

At the heart of The Birds is relationships. Relationships ranging from romantic to familial and then between an outsider and the natives of a close knit town. Paranoia is a common theme in this film as well. The characters and their relationships between one another are so incredibly strong and well–developed that you can ostensibly remove the birds from the equation and the movie still works. Now, it doesn’t work as a horror film, but it works as a drama. The strength of this screenplay, written by Evan Hunter, lies in the complex characters and simple plot. Although the plot is largely changed from du Maurier’s novella, the setting, character dynamics, and the idea of the home invasion are extrapolated from the source material. Outside of the terrifying element of the attacking birds, the film’s subplot is about an outsider invading a close knit community and a de facto love quadrangle between Mitch, his mother, his sister, and his ex. Essentially, Melanie upsets the normal order of the town much in the same way that the birds upset the pecking order of humans vs nature. The screenplay also delivers some outstanding tonal shifts that are seamlessly woven together. Way before the first bird attacks, The Birds begins as a screwball comedy right out of the 1930s, then changes into a soap opera, then suspense, followed by horror. Lastly, the movie takes one final tonal shift from horror to apocalyptic, complete with dead bodies, foreboding birds, and a lack of resolution. This movie has legitimately inspired the real fear of birds (ornithophobia) in how the scenes were shot and the lingering possibility that this could happen in your own town.

There is a brilliant lack of explanation of why the birds are attacking not is there any real means of escape for the townsfolk of Bodega Bay, all while chaos reigns supreme in this otherwise innocent seaside landscape. Yet, this cinematic work is a permanent resident of our sociological zeitgeist. Even those who have not seen the film are aware of its existence. And it has gone from screen to live experience at the former Universal Studios Florida attraction Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies. The reason why we don’t focus on the lack of an explanation for the birds bizarre and violent behavior is for the same reason that we don’t ask why Bruce (Jaws) is attacking people. We accept it because the film is more concerned with its theme than points of origin expositional dumps. We don’t care about why the birds are doing what they are doing–that’s part of the horror. It’s the same reason why it’s important that we don’t know too much about Michael Myers; if we knew too much about him, why he ticks, then he would cease to be the boogeyman. These birds would cease to be terrifying if there was some sort of natural or supernatural explanation. The unknown is frightening. There have been many hypotheses over the years as to what the birds represent. The most popular one is rooted in the red scare or communism. And perhaps that is true, but the real villain (character of opposition) is not the birds but the townsfolk of Bodega Bay. The birds are the personification of the mistreatment of and unwelcoming attitudes of the residents toward Melanie. In a similar fashion, the villain of Jaws is the mayor because he is the personification of the folly of man.

When the true oppositional character in a screenplay is an entity, force, or idea, that component has to be personified in a character(s) because film is a visual storytelling medium, so the outdated, nationalistic attitudes of the locals is personified in the birds. Moreover, the ornithologist in the diner stated that if birds of different species flocked together, then all hope would be lost for humanity as we couldn’t stand a chance against them. That foreboding prediction came to pass as both crows and seagulls (who do not mix together in real life) massed together and terrorized the town and its people. As the birds are the original inhabitants of Bodega Bay, the humans represent the outsiders. This symbolism is also witnessed in how the townsfolk banned together to force Melanie out of the town and in how Mitch’s mother urges him to send Melanie back to San Francisco. All through the movie, there are images and sequences of the way outsiders can be marginalized by the majority of the native inhabitants. Human civilization has long sense been guilty of stigmatizing or marginalizing outsiders. At the root of the symptoms of intolerance is fear. So, Hitchcock took that root cause of unwelcoming attitudes and mistreatment and adapted it into a timeless horror film. It holds up so well because fear is still evident in how certain groups of people treat another in our lives today. Hitchcock used a combination of blue screen and practical effect technologies to bring the terror to life. And of those two approaches, it’s mostly practical-effect driven, all the way down to the real birds that were used during the production (with proper bird trainers/wranglers).

Three scenes that I want to highlight are the birthday party, downtown attack scene, and the upstairs room at the showdown. Nowadays, these scenes would be full of CGI and other post-production work. The actors would be acting with no birds on set, or very few anyway. For authenticity, puppets, mechanical, and real birds were used for these scenes to increase the realness and give the actors something to truly be afraid of. In fact, so many real birds were used that there were multiple large bird enclosures on the set that used as the temporary home of the stars of the film. In addition to bird wranglers, the American Humane Society was on set every day to monitor the treatment of the birds. The birthday party scene was composed of rotoscoping birds, blue screen shots of birds, papier-mache birds, and birds that were tied to actors and even more birds that were freely flying within the enclosure built around the set. Although most of the birds remained in the aviary, a few got out. And to this day, there are decedents of those birds living in the rafters of that sound stage on the Universal lot. In much the same way, the students fleeing the schoolhouse and down the hill to the town center–that scene–was accomplished in very much the same way. However, with this one, the added pyrotechnics were incorporated. The iconic phonebooth was covered in birdseed and shrimp to get the birds to go completely crazy. The upstairs bedroom scene at the end of the movie was completely constructed inside a giant aviary with hundreds of birds. In addition to the birdseed and shrimp that was strewn about the room, real birds were thrown at Hedron. The terror in her eyes that you see in the scene is all too real. No amount of acting can replicate that authentic fear. Despite the very real attack of the birds, Hedron is eternally grateful to have been a part of cinematic history.

The single scene that find is the most fascinating and shows the power of Hitchcock’s innate ability to create suspense with a camera is the scene immediately preceding the schoolhouse evacuation–the scene with Melanie sitting on the park bench with the jungle gym int he background.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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The Predator (2018) Review

A solid reboot/sequel for the Predator franchise! Don’t pay attention to the plethora of reviews from critics who are hating on Shane Black’s The Predator. With an entertaining action-horror plot, fantastic cast, and excellent pacing, this is the Predator that we wanted and got! And I am not alone in this, several podcasts and even the Roger Ebert site agree on Black’s Predator. The tone of the movie feels like a throwback to the original, while acknowledging the other movies to maintain just enough continuity where you don’t question where this film falls of what has happened prior. I went into this movie with moderately low expectations because of what I read in the initial reviews, but I was completely surprised by how much I enjoyed it. And not only me, all of my friends who were with me between Rounds 1 and 2 of Halloween Horror Nights opening weekend. You get it all, grizzly action, humor, and entertaining kills. Unlike past movies that tried to “improve” on their 80s predecessors, this quintessential action-horror takes us back to what made the 80s horror endure the test of time. Instead of building the movie around the title character, it builds it around the lead human cast. And a memorable cast of characters, at that. Where some reviewers have found irreverence or offensiveness in the fact that many of the characters demonstrate cognitive and emotional disabilities, this is actually what works well for the film. Furthermore, it highlights how emotional, physiological, or cognitive disabilities do not determine someone’s degree of courage, determination, empathy, or sense of humor. Each of the lead and supporting characters in the ensemble cast overcome any obstacles that stand in their way, whether the obstacle comes from within or from the outside. It is a fun, exhilarating horror movie that will keep you entertained!

“From the outer reaches of space to the small-town streets of suburbia, the hunt comes home. The universe’s most lethal hunters are stronger, smarter and deadlier than ever before, having genetically upgraded themselves with DNA from other species” (IMDb). When US Ranger McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) discovers a crashed space ship and loses his crew to a mysterious alien with futuristic weaponry, he salvages what he can find from the wreckage and mails–in Dr. Henry Jones fashion–it in order for it to not be confiscated by the US government. Unbeknownst to McKenna, the US government is aware of these Predators, and has one sedated for testing in a secret facility. When the US government gaslights McKenna and believes him to be maliciously upholding an investigation, he is thrown onto a bus of other veterans, whom the government does not want to deal with, to be taken to a mental hospital. When the Predator escapes the facility, McKenna teams up with his fellow soldiers on the bus to take down the alien killer before more harm can be done. Meanwhile, the situation is complicated when a boy accidentally triggers the return to Earth of an even bigger Predator, and only McKennas’ ragtag crew of ex-soldiers and an evolutionary biologist can prevent the end of the human race.

Since there isn’t much to analyze here, I am going to keep this one short. What I find most interesting about The Predator, is what it was NOT more so than what it was. It wasn’t another reboot of a past franchise that overly injects vapid dialogue and self-aware humor or a complex plot. The Predator heeds the maxim “simple plot, complex characters.” Moreover, it also wasn’t a parody or satirical piece that was making fun of the genre or source material as if it was no longer relevant to audiences. It would have been far too easy for Black to have made a mockery of this franchise or wrote-directed something that was just complete schlock; but he did what many thought was impossible with this horror creature feature. He revived what we loved about the original, made a few tweaks, and gave us a strong reboot/sequel that was incredibly entertaining to watch.

After watching the movie, I am left with the conclusion that Black was able to recapture what made the first one work so well and actually repeat it, with some exchanges of grizzly violence for humor. But why does this movie work so well? Black started with characters, then derived a plot from those characters with incredible precision and strategic pacing. The tone and rhythm of this movie are remarkable. Yes, remarkable. Black was able to achieve what fans of great action movies love and take for granted, but is highly difficult to pull off effectively. The placement of dramatic beats. The reason the plot of this movie works so well is because Black knew where to place the emotional and action beats, and how to build up to them, and drive them home. He connects to these beats through character-driven development through which plot is derived.

For fans of the franchise, this truly IS the Predator movie that you were hoping for. Even those who are new to the franchise will enjoy the movie because it works as both an homage to and a pioneer in rediscovering the attraction of this iconic creature feature.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“The Meg” movie review

They finally got a bigger boat. But, it’s still no match for the Megalodon! Maybe The Meg lacks the cinematic genius of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and maybe it isn’t as thrilling as The Shallows and perhaps it doesn’t have the parody and satire of Sharknado, but good thing for you, it doesn’t pretend to be any of those. It proudly hits theatres everywhere this weekend as a thrilling larger than life creature feature horror film about a gigantic shark that wreaks havoc in the waters of southeast Asia until Jason Statham dives in to save the day. Another title for this shark movie of epic proportions could be Dive Hard (haha). With clear homages to JawsDeep Blue Sea, and Jurassic Park, this film plays out as an unconventional love letter of sorts to the aforementioned movies, and the man vs nature horror genre as a whole. Even though recent news suggests that Statham is unhappy with the theatrical we are getting (because it lacks much of the violence that was shot in order to keep a PG-13 rating), you are in for a fun time witnessing the aquatic carnage and high seas action. Movies like this one are designed for one purpose, to entertain you at the megaplex for a couple of hours during oppressively hot summer days of August. At the end of the day, The Meg is an exponentially more expensive SyFy Channel original movie with a fantastic lead actor who plays Jason Statham better than anyone else. But you know what, it’s a lot of fun to watch! Dive right on into the action this weekend.

After a deep sea submarine exploring the Mariana Trench is attacked and stranded by an unknown force, the chief researcher at a state-of-the-art underwater facility, bankrolled by an eccentric billionaire, contacts deep sea rescue diver Jonas Taylor (Statham). With time running out for the submarine crew, Jonas must overcome psychological obstacles from his past in order to lead the mission to rescue the team. Unbeknownst to the research team, they’ve encountered an unimaginable threat that makes its way from the deepest depths of the ocean to crowded beaches. The team must work together to stop the monstrous killing machine knows as the megalodon.

Filled with cliches and homages, director Jon Turteltaub clearly did not set out to direct a Jaws for 2018 nor did he set out to make a comedy like Sharknado, but he did create a fantastically fun shark horror movie that takes itself just seriously enough but still remains playful–as much as you can with a man-eating giant pre-historic shark. The scene with the helicopter flying through the islands to the research facility is taken right out of Jurassic Park. And it arrives at an underwater research facility that is taken directly from Deep Blue Sea, and then several shots and musical scores pay homage to Jaws throughout the remainder of the film. For all the tropes and cliches in the film, they are each executed strategically with wit and style. Statham is great as the hero, and I can think of few other actors who could have done such an excellent job with this film. Bruce Willis is honestly the only other name that comes to mind to have done the character justice. Comparing this creature feature horror film to the other big one this summer Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom, I can honestly that I enjoyed The Meg more. And that is hard to admit since I am a card-carrying member of the Jurassic Park fan club.

If you enjoy fun horror films, do yourself a favor and swim to your local cinema to come face-to-face with Megalodon. You may notice that this review is a lot shorter than my typical ones, and that is because some movies are just meant to be enjoyed for what they are instead of analyzing the storytelling and experience.

Checkout my retrospective on JAWS!

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Sinister Summer: “Jaws” Retrospective Horror Film Review

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 ParkE.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 PlacidPiranha, 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.