JAWS ***** USA 1975 Dir: Steven Spielberg. 124 mins
Streamlined from Peter Benchley’s tackier, bloodier novel, Spielberg’s trend-setting summer blockbuster is more monster movie than revenge-of-nature flick: this shark isn’t avenging anything; it’s just eating the cast because it’s a monster in a monster flick. Said shark is demonized by John Williams’ famously menacing chords and, despite the film’s modern traits, its late reveal of the “monster” (as a slightly clunky, over-sized creature thumping onto boats with all the grace of a pissed Godzilla) is a holdover from the 50’s sci-fi cycle in which plentiful teasing with shadows and footprints eventually led to a full-frontal glimpse of the creature in the final reel. The first hour offers the ultimate shark-based horror movie, as Bill Butler’s camera – bobbing above and beneath surface level voyeuristically observing bare flesh like the p.o.v. of a masked maniac in a slasher movie – exploits our primordial fear of the unseen to its zenith.
40 years on, the impact of the harrowing assault on a skinny-dipper in the very first scene and the recurring, iconic image of the shark fin slicing through the water, promising sudden violent death, have not been reduced. The most startling image, of a pre-pubescent boy swallowed in a geyser of water and blood as the hero impotently looks on, is still remarkably harsh for a PG-rated blockbuster. Truth is, this sequence would never make it into a major studio tent pole release in the 21st century, just as it’s hard to imagine such a movie devoting its second hour to a shark hunt in which the three male protagonists – two of them middle aged – have time at sea to share stories of bravado and terror, to drink and be merry, and, of course, to exchange scars. After the visceral July the 4th panic scenes, the chemistry and tensions between the vulnerable hero (Scheider), the cocky wiseass (Dreyfuss) and the scene-stealing sea dog (Shaw) are the stuff of unequalled movie magic. It never truly mattered that the shark looks fake (it always did), since the mechanical nature of its few full-body appearances reinforces the film’s need for a dead-eyed, inorganic killing machine as its monster. In any case, JAWS’ effortless combination of unforgettable characters, suspense, naturalistic humour and unflinching horror, remains the kind of achievement that today’s blockbusters can only dream of.
JAWS 2 **** USA 1978 Dir: Jeannot Szwarc. 116 mins
The tagline “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water” turned out to be the thing people remembered most about JAWS 2. Following a merchandise-spawning, culture-changing phenomenon, it takes the Safe / Lazy Sequel approach of delivering everything the audience loved about JAWS, rather than the obscure and uncommercial experimentation of, say, the previous year’s EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC. Here’s Chief Brody again trying to convince stubborn Capitalist Murray Hamilton of the shark menace, as if both had selective amnesia, and again finding his own sons in peril when a fresh shark menace strikes. Once again, Brody is forced to fight the shark virtually solo- this time destroying it with electric cables and a hokier kiss-off line (“Say aaaahhh!”) that’s closer to a Bond one-liner than the original would have allowed. John Williams’ theme returns, having already been much imitated and parodied, while BUG director Szwarc recreates the key shock effects of JAWS with slightly different pay-offs: the head in the boat jolt becomes a charred corpse popping out of the water, while the all-new (and facially scarred) shark displays its predecessor’s glee at emerging suddenly above surface during quiet moments. Reflecting Hollywood’s awareness of the changing key demographic, the adult protagonists of JAWS are replaced with a bunch of interchangeable, slasher-style teenagers, though the talented Keith Gordon gets to show some personality. Nonetheless, it’s a lot of fun, and there are intense, startling moments along the way, notably, a relentless attack on a female water-skiier (heavily featured in the publicity) and a genuinely nasty set piece in which Amity’s blonde Beauty Queen watches in horror as her boyfriend is stalked, dragged and pulled under by the shark. In the absence of Shaw and Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider’s magnetic presence adds a lot to the movie, even if his characterisation has defaulted to “reset” during an early script meeting. We’re firmly in “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” territory.
JAWS 3-D ** USA 1983 Dir: Joe Alves. 99 mins
JAWS mark three wisely severed its ties to Amity island – while keeping the grown up Brody kids for continuity -, acknowledged the influence of CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON on the franchise and, thanks to the marvel of 3-D (in the same year as 3-D versions of AMITYVILLE and FRIDAY THE 13TH) allowed patrons the chance to experience the thrill of JAWS again but with the bonus of feeling like they had a mid-stage brain tumour! If you saw this in the cinema, you may vaguely remember an array of fish-heads, severed arms and the exploding shark’s jaws floating toward your face, but you may recall disappointment at its failure to fulfill its concept of a pissed-off 35 foot Great White unleashed at Sea World, Florida. This premise suggests exciting scenes in which fat ugly tourists stubbornly take snap-shots while their kids and Shamu the Killer Whale are messily ripped limb from limb before the 2pm performing seal show. What we got instead was the unintentional hilarity of a clearly motionless shark inertly heading toward a pane of glass, initiating panic in the tunnels of The Undersea Kingdom as a dozen screaming extras flee from an unenthusiastic monster. Dennis Quaid plays the older Brody brother like a future star in need of an early job, harbouring the kind of anti-shark resentment that any kid of Roy Scheider is destined to possess, while younger Brody inherits Dad’s fear of the water. In a plot lick borrowed from GORGO, a stranded baby shark’s death in captivity prompts its Mommy to show up and chew on the guests. The characters are largely dull or clichéd – Simon MacCorkindale shows up as the essential Smarmy English Bastard – and only occasionally does the film come close to living up to its potential, with a sadistic p.o.v. shot from inside the shark’s mouth as it munches on a still-alive diver it has captured. In an interesting trivia note, both this and JAWS THE REVENGE were cut by the BBFC for a theatrical PG rating, despite the fact that the original, uncut, PG-rated JAWS was by far the most gruesome and frightening of all four films.
JAWS THE REVENGE * USA 1987 Dir: Joseph Sargent. 89 mins
The franchise’s last, unloved gasp earns kudos for sincerely fleshing out a scenario in which a random shark has such a passionate vendetta against the Brody family that, after killing the youngest son, it follows the rest of the family to the Bahamas despite the unlikely chance of its species surviving such a climate. Roy Scheider’s character has succumbed to a heart attack but he appears in monochrome flashbacks to a better cinematic time, while widowed matriarch Lorraine Gary has developed some kind of psychic connection to the Great White. We assume this shark saw the other JAWS movies, developing a grudge for the family that destroyed so many of its kind, though at least the daft concept resulted in the hilarious tagline “This time it’s personal” (“This time it’s really crap” had already been used) and portentous dialogue like “It waited all this time and it came for him!”. REVENGE delivers even less shark action than its immediate predecessor, though it does open with a festive shark variation on THE GODFATHER’s wedding/massacre montage with an attack scene intercut with a jolly choir singing The First Noel. A whole hour passes between this and the next shark-related fatality, with the chasm filled by fake dream scares, Michael Caine’s cheery Cockney love interest and Mario Van Peebles pretending to be Jamaican. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, Sargent sets up a horde of kids in peril on a banana boat… and doesn’t let any of them get eaten. An unconvincing Caine mumbles “Oh shit” as the shark eats his plane, while Van Peebles shows up miraculously alive despite being enthusiastically munched on by the shark minutes earlier, eerily foreshadowing the fate of LL Cool J in DEEP BLUE SEA a decade later. Adding insult to severe injury, the shark-destruction sequence consists mostly of footage from the first film’s finale, confirming the fact that we should be watching that instead.
Reviews by Steven West