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A Perfect Engine, An Eating Machine: The Jaws Series

  From the earliest age, everyone knows what a monster wants to do: it wants to eat you. Therefore the most primal horror movies tap into that fear that something menacing and powerful out there wants to make you its next meal, and few were as explicit in that threat as Jaws, the biggest blockbuster of 1975. The monster in question was a shark, a gigantic great white to be exact, which in one of the most celebrated opening scenes of any film takes a bite out of a skinny dipper just as night falls off the beach of an island called Amity. At first she's believed drowned, but when her remains - what's left of her - are found on the beach the local police chief, Brody (Roy Scheider) knows what he has to do: close the beach and catch the shark.

Such was the influence of Jaws that not only did it spawn three sequels, it also spawned many imitators; it was because director Steven Spielberg managed to corral what was by all accounts a most unruly production into the all-time box office champ (until Star Wars arrived two years later) that there are countless CGI sharks and other killer creatures cluttering up the DVD shelves and streaming services. Whether you blame him for that or not, there was no doubting that Jaws caught the imagination in a way that went beyond a simple get away from the monster yarn, as while fear was the motivation for what everyone does in the film, there was a variety of anxieties and terrors that informed each individual character.

Brody, for example, is scared of the water, and much is made of the irony of him living on an island, but he's also scared of losing his authority, with his family and with his community. Many have identified a crisis of masculinity in this, compare Brody to the shark hunter Quint, played with rough charm by Robert Shaw, a man entirely comfortable with his place as an unreconstructed male, but we are aware even he is going to be phased out in the modern world, or at least encouraged to reform his uncouth ways. Men like the shark expert Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) may be the next stage, but in that they are more vulnerable; we can tell that while Quint can and has slaughtered dangerous animals, Hooper wants to study them and that makes him their potential victim.

Murray Hamilton played the Mayor, and his fear is one the island shares: what if they don't have enough money to last the winter off season? Amity depends on the tourism of the summer, and if those holidaymakers are scared way, then the profits will dwindle to pretty much nothing, so he has to keep the beach open, even as Brody and Hooper tell him he is placing lives in danger (including Brody's kids). In that was Jaws was closest to the disaster movie craze as it took a socio-economic worry and made it flesh: losing your livelihood was equated with something that could literally kill you. Appropriately for a shark thriller, there was a lot going on beneath the surface here, including what happens when people are determined not to be told what to do.

Thanks to fantastic word of mouth coupled with an advertising campaign that emphasised John Williams' terrific, ominous score, Jaws was really the only ticket worth buying in the summer of 1975, and it infiltrated the culture completely. Saturday Night Live had their own running joke ("Candygram... candygram!"), there was a hit novelty record (Mr Jaws by Dickie Goodman, an early sampling proponent), Jabberjaw was a cartoon, games for the kids, a porn parody called Gums, and in Britain comics gave you Hookjaw in Action and a different Gums in Buster (a shark continually losing its false teeth), and Clive Dunn erroneously believed he was about to be the victim of a great white in Grandad... everywhere that Jaws music, or variants of it, could be used, it was used.

Obviously, Universal wanted a sequel, but Spielberg had moved onto a pet project, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so Jeannot Szwarc was the relative unknown recruited for Jaws 2, though wisely Williams was offered enough cash for his services to be retained on the soundtrack, thereby legitimately using that sinister melody. Scheider was the only one of the main stars to return, though Lorraine Gary was back as Brody's wife Ellen, as was Murray Hamilton as the Mayor, still sceptical that the same crisis could afflict the island once again. Calamity returns to Amity, said the ads, along with the more memorable, "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water..." one of the great taglines of the decade.

Peter Benchley had been the author of the original novel Jaws, a potboiler horror of the sort that littered the supermarket shelves back in the seventies, but since the rights were bought and Carl Gottlieb was brought on board to adapt it, among other hands (John Milius famously penned Quint's U.S.S. Indianapolis speech), and nobody could argue that the results were superlative. However, when Gottlieb was back on Jaws 2, few could argue that it was truer to the spirit of Benchley's trashier source, in fact the sequel had transformed a tale of epic themes of man against nature and his own spirit into a horror style that would become overwhelming to the genre in the following years: yes, the shark was now a slasher flick villain.

In fact, you could compare Jaws 2 to the major, instigating slasher of 1978, Halloween, in that the shark was basically Michael Myers, escaped from its original haunt (the wreck of the Orca, the boat Brody, Quint and Hooper sailed in) and began picking off teenagers in sadistically violent ways, as all the while the Dr Loomis equivalent was Brody himself, yammering about getting out of the water to a public and authorities who barely believe him. It was a variant on the more grown-up concerns of the Spielberg classic, one supposed, yet while Szwarc handled this with journeyman ability, it was never going to be anything more than a shocker stuffed with cheap tricks to make the kids jump in their seats, which if nothing else predicted the pattern of horror sequels for decades to come.

If the exchange, "Daddy, daddy, look at the fish! Look!" "Holy shit!" means anything to you, then you’ll probably have seen the third entry in the series, Jaws 3-D, which as the title suggested cashed in on the early eighties fad for 3-D movies by presenting this particular shark in the third dimension: "The third dimension is terror", claimed the advertising. In 1983, this was generally regarded as the nadir for the brand, not produced by Universal after Spielberg refused to turn it into a spoof titled Jaws 3, People 0, which would either have been up there with Airplane! or more likely, been down there with Disaster Movie. Nevertheless, this was a hit, proving the Jaws name remained something that would ring the box office tills around the world.

The elements were there, the shark of course, this time even bigger than before (reminiscent of the thinking behind the 2018 Jason Statham vehicle The Meg, i.e. bigger being better, theoretically), and the Brody family was involved, except Scheider, who had only starred in Jaws 2 under duress, had found a way to make his excuses and not show up, so we got his grown sons instead (Dennis Quaid and John Putch), and a Sea World resort was the setting for the beast to run (or swim) rampage. Williams' theme was also reused, only with variations from Alan Parker (not the director), but if you were hoping for a funked up version a la Lalo Schifrin's hit disco cover of 1976, you would be sorely disappointed, as it was the least distinguished soundtrack of the run thus far.

The 3-D meant an abundance of objects pointed at the camera to make the audience jump, or at least make them want to blink because it felt as if there was a jumping frog, shot harpoon, or rubber octopus tentacle about to scratch their eyeball. It also gave the effect for the grand finale of the shark (which is never called Jaws in any of its incarnations) smashing out of the cinema screen and into the auditorium, or it would have had the technology been up to it, but as it was, rather underwhelming, if unintentionally amusing. Taking an age to get going, even with bitten off limbs occasionally floating towards the camera, more water-skiing and two friendly dolphins did not a great film make, and the Sea World setting looks suspect in the wake of later documentary Blackfish.

The legendary Richard Matheson had been on scripting duties for Jaws 3-D, and grumbled about the meddling he suffered ever afterwards, but that third effort looked like a model of common sense compared to what arrived in 1987 with Jaws: The Revenge. This was the first without Gottlieb's writing input, Benchley have branched off into other sea-based thrillers and horrors in the meantime, but no matter how pulpy he could be, there was little quite as ridiculous in eighties shocker sequels than this. Its premise was enough to place it in a bad movie Hall of Fame, and it was all there in the title: this time it was personal, this time the shark wanted vengeance on Ellen Brody and her brood, so presumably this was effectively Son of Jaws.

What it was not was Son of Jaws 3-D, as that previous entry had been conveniently forgotten about so that Mike Brody (now Lance Guest) never worked at Sea World, and Sean, the younger brother, stayed on at Amity to work in the police department: Scheider again refused to appear, so is explained away by saying he was frightened to death by the shark, which gave him a heart attack (!). Gary was the wife of a boss at Universal, which was why she was now starring in a movie opposite Michael Caine, who was famously doing this strictly for the paycheque; he had made another Benchley-inspired effort back in 1980 with the pirates yarn The Island. Unsurprisingly, he also made that one solely for the money and, in both cases, a nice holiday destination.

Much has been written, and indeed spoken, on the absurdity of Jaws: The Revenge, not least the concept of a shark with a grudge so huge that it swims from one ocean to another (through the Panama Canal, one assumes) just to victimise the Brody family, though it nearly seems sensible compared to the dodgy, terrible on purpose garbage that it inspired decades later. Sean was eaten early, which compels Ellen to travel to the Bahamas where Mike is living with his wife (Karen Young), working with Mario Van Peebles trying out a Jamaican accent, and looking after his little daughter. She was played by Judith Barsi, whose presence kind of takes the fun out of the humour knowing she was murdered by her father the year after this was released.

But back in movieland, you had Caine spouting weird anecdotes, Young making a truly awful sculpture, Gary with a psychic link to the shark so she knows its moves, and the shark itself roaring and stood in for by stock footage from the original Jaws. An ignominious end for such a classic original, though some counted Bruno Mattei's Cruel Jaws (1995) as the actual last in the series, but it really isn't. Anyway, perhaps Jaws' lasting legacy is to make people scared of sitting on the toilet in case the shark leaps out of the bowl and eats them. Nah, not really, you had one superb example of populist cinema that seared itself into the memories of generations, and three other movies that went from inessential to superfluous to almost insulting. But that original changed cinema and ensured the blockbuster phenomenon would be alive for eras to come, keeping films alive as a mass entertainment medium for as long as they last.
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018