|Original caricature by Jeff York of the cast of JAWS (Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider). Copyright 2012.|
Yes, I think it is.
The classic horror movie JAWS is being released back into theaters June 21-24 to commemorate its 40th anniversary. It is a seminal horror film and one that needs to be seen on the big screen for maximum impact. (That 25-footer looks much more imposing when shown closer to scale!) And as moviegoers take another look, it’s a good time to jaw over its place in the pantheon of cinematic horror. The argument could easily be made that it is the greatest horror movie of all time, not only for its importance to the genre, the movie business, and pop culture but also, for the unquestionable and enormous skill present in every single frame of it.
Some may believe that while JAWS is up there, the greatest horror film accolade should go to Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece PSYCHO. You could argue that the story of Norman Bates is more of a psychological thriller than a straight horror movie, and perhaps they have a point, but it still easily fits into the genre of horror. If it’s meant to evoke dread and fear on primal levels, that is horror.
Others might choose THE EXORCIST and it’s certainly one of the scariest horror films ever made. It plays so real that its horrors seem all too humanly possible, which is more than you can say about the threats of made-up bogeymen and fake monsters. If you believe in the devil then this film strikes way too close to the bone. And for those reasons alone it’s a contender.
But this year, as we celebrate the anniversary of JAWS opening on June 20 back in 1975, it is time to assess it fully again. And with that analysis, the landmark film earns the title of greatest horror movie of all time for many, many reasons. It’s scary as hell, it’s expertly done with A-list production values across the board, and it literally changed the horror genre. For that matter, it significantly altered the movie business. And God knows it changed swimming habits for millions and millions of people.
And how many horror films can claim all that? Again, PSYCHO and THE EXORCIST were similarly impactful, but they don’t quite cover as broad a spectrum as JAWS does still today. Don’t believe me? Next time you’re with friends about to wade into the ocean or lake, start humming John Williams’ famous two-note theme from JAWS and you’ll see your friends lose their collective shit!
That is the impact of JAWS still with us in our daily lives. JAWS changed the movie business in ’75 by creating the summer movie season as the bulls-eye target for big-picture releases. Up until that time, studios released most of their substantial movies in late fall or at Christmas, even their popular entertainments. (These days, that is the time to release Oscar hopefuls.) JAWS made the summer the time to go to the movies, to experience the big cultural events together coming from Hollywood. It set the template for films ever since. In subsequent years, such monolithic entertainments as the STAR WARS movies opened in the summer. And we only need to look at all the tentpoles coming out today to realize that Christmas may still be a big-time for releases, but the summer is unquestionably the most important.
How did JAWS transform horror? It is one of the rare frighteners that truly stayed with us after the movie experience, certainly in regards to swimming in a natural body of water as previously described. But JAWS continues to hold a major place in all of our pop culture psyches even when we’re dry-docked. Look around and you’ll see dozens and dozens of places where popular culture begs, borrows and steals from Steven Spielberg’s classic thriller. Year in and year out, National Geographic Channel has its best ratings during “Shark Week.” The SyFy Channel has built a cottage industry out of their cheesy B-movie rip-offs of JAWS starting with SHARKNADO. The movie industry continues to try to equal the success of JAWS with multitudes of other imitations. A-list talent now embraces the genre because acclaimed actors like Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss were willing to do monster movies. Even something like the hugely popular reality series SHARK TANK owes a lot to JAWS.
But in order to be truly heralded as the greatest horror movie of all-time, a film has to stand on its artistry, not just its popularity. That’s why JAWS earns the crown and then some. What Spielberg, his cast and crew created has not only stood the test of time, but the film actually gets better upon each subsequent viewing. With each revisit, one sees how clever its storytelling plays out, how the acting is incredibly nuanced, and how in control of the show Spielberg actually was despite all the production delays due to the shark mechanics and weather on Martha’s Vineyard where they shot.
JAWS is not only eminently watchable, again and again, but it is an absolutely indelible work of art. The film has barely aged. Little in it is dated or seems corny. And aside from the shark’s jump up on the boat at the end, it’s a totally convincing prop. This is a film that is extraordinarily smart, exciting, funny and terrifying, especially compared to so much of the horror drivel that comes to our Cineplex’s each year. And it is brimming with memorable lines (“This was no boating accident!”), stunning photography, intense editing, and arguably, John Williams’ most impactful score he ever composed.
And Spielberg created a new vocabulary for fright when so many filmmakers were just imitating Alfred Hitchcock. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best, as they say, but Spielberg didn’t feel the need to trace the steps and employ the tropes that “The Master of Suspense” so often relied on, and others so blatantly ripped off. Spielberg avoided the Hitchcockian POV shots, head-on close-ups, and the director’s droll sense of timing. Instead, Spielberg’s directorial style was goofier, younger, even outrageously funny at times. He truly created a new style of tension and the subsequent release from that feeling of dread.
What he did was juxtapose huge scares right alongside big laughs, melding them perfectly into the fabric of his storytelling, and it is first evident in JAWS. The best example might be the scene where Sheriff Brody (Scheider) grumbles about having to shovel all that chum into the ocean to attract the shark while Hooper (Dreyfuss) gets to drive the boat. As he bitches, he doesn’t see that the Great White has popped his enormous head out of the ocean to get a bigger spoonful, almost putting Brody on the menu. It’s one of the movie’s most terrifying jolts. And then, a moment later, Brody realizes what has happened and stands upright, scared stiff. It’s one of the film’s biggest laughs. And to make that happen, immediately following such a huge scare, is truly something difficult to do in cinema. And Spielberg did it brilliantly. It quickly became a signature of his.
It’s evident in JURASSIC PARK during the first T-Rex attack. Spielberg juxtaposed the kids’ terror against cutaways to Jeff Goldblum’s droll lines and then shattered the tension with the huge laugh that comes with the lawyer’s darkly comic death on the toilet. It’s also there in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK when the Peter Lorre-esque Nazi pulls out a contraption to torture Marion (Karen Allen), and it turns out to merely be a collapsible coat hanger. It’s even there in his dramatic take on LINCOLN as the lobbyist Bilbo (James Spader) runs from a congressman about to shoot him, when the poor sap realizes he’s dropped his papers and must return to sheepishly retrieve them. No one mixes tension and humor with such spectacular, memorable results as Spielberg. And he started it all with his shark tale.
He also elevated the genre by not condescending to it like it was B-movie material. The director truly gave it his all, and a thorough A-list production effort is evident from start to finish. Spielberg hired incredible talents like veteran cinematographer Bill Butler, editor Verna Fields, and a cast that was full of tony actors like Scheider, Dreyfuss, Shaw, and stage and film veteran Murray Hamilton.
Spielberg also streamlined the story, ensuring that it was purer and more focused. Gone was the soap opera affair between Hooper and Brody’s wife that bogged down Peter Benchley’s source material novel. The director probably figured it was enough emasculation for Brody to be pushed around by Quint, the mayor, and the community, without having to add insult to injury by turning him into a cuckold as well.
His focus remained on the man vs. fish idea, but Spielberg also cleverly attached a strong secondary story of man vs. man. The movie is a modern take on “Moby Dick” with an Ahab-esque villain in Quint. (He may be the true monster of the piece.) Shaw’s take on the rugged old salt was truly frightening, with his steely gaze and irrational behavior. Granted, he was sympathetic and full of gravitas when he explained how his ship delivered the Hiroshima bomb during WWII but it doesn’t lessen the fact that during this mission, Quint continually places his pride and machismo above common sense. His arrogance and the endangerment of Brody and Hooper creates a dynamic on the ship as dangerous as what’s in the water.
In fact, all the men in this film are tremendously flawed enablers of the horrors who continually put the Amity population in peril. Brody doesn’t stand up to the mayor and the town council and when he allows the beaches to stay open, the subsequent blood is on his hands. (He more than deserved that vicious slap from Mrs. Kinter.) Hamilton’s mayor represents the epitome of sleaze in commerce-driven politicians, and it’s got to be one of the richest inside jokes of the film that he bears such a strong resemblance to Richard Nixon. Even Hooper risks his life to get dibs on that shark’s tooth from Ben Gardner’s boat and endangers the mission when he drops it. And he jumps at the chance to enter the water in his cage to prove he’s better than Quint at stopping a shark with his modern tranquilizer gun. Spielberg cheekily infused every scene with the conflict of ego and it gives the story a resonance far behind its primal scares.
Then there are those artistic touches that rarely show up in most films, let alone those in the horror genre. Butler’s revolutionary camera went underwater and back on top of the surface without cutting. John Williams’ other two musical themes in the film, besides the one everyone can hum, lent heroism and poignancy to the film. The casting of locals in supporting roles gave the film such an authentic East Coast feel. Spielberg even ensured that the film was filled with symbolism like having Brody lose his glasses right before he was the last man left on the boat. Suddenly, we saw that broken boxer’s nose of Scheider’s and he suddenly looked like a tough guy who could maybe best that beast.
With all that going for it, JAWS can easily lay claim to being one of the greatest films of all time, let alone the top horror movie. After you’ve seen it in the theaters again, go somewhere with your friends and ahem, chew it over. Just stay out of the water.