Wow, it’s been a big month full of silly and scary monster movies revolving around animals gone bad, but now it’s Halloween, so it’s time to close the month with one of the most famous horror movies ever made. It should come as no surprise that I saved the 1975 classic “Jaws” for the last film. It’s so famous and it goes far beyond a popular monster movie, it truly is one of cinema’s most classic and beloved motion pictures. Actually, it’s thanks to “Jaws” that we have summer blockbusters, this is the one that started it all, and no one felt safe swimming in the open water again. Movies revolving around killer sharks may seem incredibly gimmicky and clichéd by today’s standards, but “Jaws” still holds up very well, and is much smarter then all those silly shark spoliation films. Now earlier this month, I commented that “Deep Blue Sea” is personally my favorite animal attack movie, and thus my favorite killer shark movie, which it still is, but that doesn’t mean its better. Obviously “Jaws” is far superior to “Deep Blue Sea”, and the greatest killer shark movie you can possibly ask for, but why is that, what is it about this simple monster movie that makes it so great. Well, let’s dive right in and find out.
The movie is based on the bestselling novel by good old Peter Benchley, making this the second movie I’ve reviewed this month to be adapted from one of his books. Now the plot itself isn’t that special, in fact it’s about as generic as monster stories get, the only difference is that it’s crafted so well. When a rouge great white shark settles in at a local beach, it starts making meals of the tourists, the first victim being this poor young teenage girl. This opening scene is probably the most famous animal attack scenes in movie history, as we never see the beast, and the young woman’s bloodcurdling screams that go unnoticed by a nearby group make this situation one of the most frightening of its kind and a great way to kick off the film. Once the body count starts to rise, three men decide to hit the seas in an effort to hunt the beast down and slay it. While the shark itself looks kind of fake, especially by today’s standards, this film dose at least capture the tension and dread that comes with a predator of this sort. Unlike the Creature from the Black Lagoon, killer sharks do exist, and it’s not uncommon for them to attack humans. There’s also select moments when the movie blends in stock footage of a real shark, which works great.
Let’s cut to the chase, the best aspect of the film really isn’t the shark at all, it’s actually the human characters that make this movie so appealing. We have excellent performances from Roy Scheider as the towns police chief named Officer Brody, Richard Dreyfuss playing a marine biologist named Hooper, and best of all is Robert Shaw as the tough as nails seafaring captain named Quint, and he steals the show with every scene he’s in. All three characters have their distinct personalities and charismatic qualities that allow the audience to relate and cheer for them on every step of the adventure. I love their banter, and their simple interactions make them feel like real people instead of actors reading off a script. My favorite scene is when they sit down for a couple drinks and share their scars and back stories with one another. This leads to Quint sharing an eerie tail in which he encountered a shark and barley survived, it’s one of cinemas most memorable and classic monologues ever. Then the sounds of whale songs get our hero’s to start singing, and then they suddenly get attacked by the shark ... all of that just in a phew minuets, it’s brilliant. Also, aside from the opening victim, the movie completely dispenses with any of those generic, cardboard cutout teenage stereotypes that plague these movies now days.
I also love the films 1970’s style and setting, because it allows the characters to do things that you just don’t see in movies today. For example, there’s a scene in which Brody researches shark attacks by looking through an old book on sharks. In movies today, you only see characters researching info on the internet, and I kind of miss that time when people would actually go to the library to find information. It may seem like a small and pointless thing to give so much attention to, but seeing Brody flip though the pages of this old Shark book, and seeing those cryptic illustrations of killer sharks really helps set the mood and builds our expectations for when we finally see the beast. Of course Steven Spielberg directed this movie, and he treats this film like an Oscar winning picture. While the story telling is basic, it’s still very well crafted, and there’s a sheer sense of terror that keeps things very exciting. It’s almost pointless to mention John William’s classic music score because it’s so well known, but it’s definitely one of the films strengths as it builds suspense, and allows you to feel the sharks presence without showing it on screen.
You could say that the movie is split into two distinct acts, the first half is when the shark terrorizes the beaches, and the second half is when our three hero’s go out hunting the shark. I personally prefer the first half, because I just love how ominous the buildup and atmosphere is as the looming danger of the shark comes into play. The second half has its highlights to be sure, especially the setting which isolates our hero’s in the middle of the ocean, but I find the tone of act two to be a little uneven. There’s a scene when they get the shark to drag a bunch of yellow barrels, and it’s all matched to this upbeat and cheery soundtrack, which spoils the mood a little and the scene itself goes on for way to long. Thankfully things get awesome again as we segue into the climax. It’s a thrilling roller coaster of a finally as the music builds, the shark sinks the ship, and our hero’s slay the beast in one of the greatest creature deaths of all time. Now Peter Benchley wasn’t too pleased with this ending as it was extremely over the top in comparison to the ending of his novel in which the shark was harpooned by a spear, instead of erupting in a bloody explosion. While I can appreciate his point of view on this resolution, it’s still one of my favorite creature deaths of all time and it’s so triumphant to see that big shark blown sky high.
Of course there were sequels, all of them completely inferior to the original, but not without some merits. “Jaws 2” really wasn’t terrible, but it certainly wasn’t good, as it took a more over the top approach and just came off as an unnecessary follow up. Then came “Jaws 3”, which was stupid, but it at least had an original and slightly inventive setting. It took place in a huge water themed park that the shark terrorizes from the inside, which was at least kind of creative. The series concluded with “Jaws: The Revenge”, which is easily one of the worst sequels in cinematic history. It hit all the low points with a boring pace, a brainless plot involving a shark bent on revenge, cheap effects and lots of really, really stupid scenes.
While the original “Jaws” is nothing more than a strait forward B monster movie, it’s at least pulled off with class, a brisk pace, it has terrific characters, and even though I personally never found this film to be that terrifying, it still succeeds in creating an eerie mood which accelerates into a thrilling finally. Today’s audiences may find it a little too tame, but it was still very influential for the time, and still proves to be one of the most competent and entertaining animal attack movies ever made.
I give “Jaws” 4 stars out of 5