Jaws (…or Before there was Shark Week)

Imagine being this guy’s dentist.

Editor’s note: I’d planned to focus on some more old timey, golden classic films for now, but…I went on vacation. So here, in honor of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, is Jaws.–Rachel

There’s one film that will always mean summer to me. It will always mean suntan lotion (remember suntan lotion?), cans of Pepsi-Free (remember Pepsi-Free?) and sandwiches embedded with grains of sand.

It’s Jaws. My family’s Northern Michigan lake cottage more closely resembles On Golden Pond than the Atlantic Ocean, but that doesn’t stop a kid with an overactive imagination from making it that way. I make sure that I watch Jaws every year, and I’ve read it about a half-dozen times.

The film opens with a beachfire scene. There’s beer and this being the 70s, I imagine a decent amount of chemical and herbal stimulants might also be present, but I’m really just guessing here. A young couple make their way away from the crowd and down the beach on a skinny-dipping mission. Chrissie, the girl, strips and makes her way into the tranquil, moonlit waters while her partner, Mr. Excitement, passes out on the beach. Chrissie had apparently not received notice that she was a character in a horror movie. If she had, she might have known that the first thing that will get you killed in a horror movie is removing clothing, the second is being intoxicated. Poor Chrissie. Screwed on both counts.

So Poor Chrissie swims out under the gorgeous moon and then. Well. Something starts to nibble on her toes, and it ain’t Mr. Excitement. What follows is a violent and harrowing scene in which something attacks her from below. It’s no less scary with Barbie dolls, or maybe it’s more scary:

She scrambles for a buoy, and we think she’s almost going to make it out. And then. Then, she’s pulled down one final time, her bellowing silenced forever and Mr. Excitement is blissfully unconscious on the shore. The waters are again peaceful and tranquil. This scene in the film and the book are equally affecting. It’ll keep you out of the water forever, or at least a few hours.

In fact, my first exposure to it was finding a mildewed paperback version of the story that someone had left at the cottage. One night, I happened to read the opening passages. Then my mother called me for my bath. So Poor Chrissie and her terror were fresh on my mind as I approached the bathroom. Mom left to go do something else, trusting that I could wash myself, but there was no way I was getting into that tub. NO FREAKIN WAY. Sure, a shark probably wouldn’t get me, but with all those fluffy bubbles, I couldn’t see the bottom. Leaving the safety of the plush orange bathmat could result in the yellow fiberglass slipping away beneath me and falling into a shark-infested saltwater abyss. Instead, I did the sensible thing. I swished an arm into the warm water, wrapped myself in a towel and walked into the hall. My mother stopped me, seeking an explanation for my bone-dry skin. I replied that I’d bathed and dried off already. Unsurprisingly, mom smelled a rat. Somehow, she got me into that tub. I swam constantly, but in the deep recesses of my mind, I never took for granted that any body of water was shark-free. I even remember swimming alone in my high school pool after the team I coached had finished practicing. There were times when I imagined I’d seen a suspicious fin trailing me in the water, and made a hasty grab for my towel. Of course, as a teenage girl swimming alone at night, I was more likely to be killed by an ax murderer. But I digress…and that’s what makes this such an affecting story. It defies reason, and yet it is totally reasonable. No one’s been killed by Freddie Kruger, but people HAVE been killed by sharks. It’s just that the odds aren’t that high. Also, for some reason, watching it makes me crave fish and chips.

But back to our movie. The next morning, Poor Chrissie’s body is found by Amity’s finest, which includes the waterphobic Chief “You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat” Brody, played by Roy Scheider. Amity is the kind of quaint New England town that depends on tourist dollars for survival and that really comes alive on Fourth of July. People like to go there, probably eat some lobster and go swimming. But people won’t want to go some place just to eat lobster if they can’t swim without being eaten by a shark. The town PTB keep the shark attack quiet over the protests of wealthy fish scientist Matt “This Was No Boat Accident” Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and more attacks continue, most notably against a young boy and what I’ve read was Steven Spielberg’s black lab. That’s when the town decides to get serious about its shark infestation.

Panic ensues the way panic usually does. People do stupid things to try to catch the shark, like dangling a roast off their dock. More people get eaten and the all important summer season becomes less and less successful. So they eventually hire a guy named Quint, who’s sort of a drunken shark-hunting badass. So Bigger Boat, Boating Accident and Quint form an unlikely and uneasy team of shark-hunters to get this sucker who is eating their tourists and their director’s dog. In the end, our hunting party assembles on Quint’s boat (the one that’s not big enough) to try to lure the shark to them and kill it in some way. Because that’s the most logical way to deal with the situation.

You can talk a lot about Jaws without really even talking about the main characters. There’s not a ton of character development. We’re given snippets of the background of everyone and then we fill in the rest. The most telling exposition comes in the form of Robert Shaw’s famous monologue as Quint. The tale of the USS Indianapolis is bone-chilling and probably should have been made into a movie itself.  Here you go. The day after Quint’s famous speech is when the final battle goes down. Some people get eaten and the boat gets destroyed, and eventually the shark gets taken out by the clever use of an oxygen canister.

Jaws is a horror story, but you forget it’s a horror story. The culprit is not a genetic experiment gone wrong, not an escaped creature from a lab, not a vengeful supernatural creature. Part of the power of Jaws is that it won’t happen, but you’re not sure it couldn’t. There are some plot holes, but it’s worth it to set them aside. The science of Jaws is all wrong, and even the author Peter Benchley said he regretted painting the creatures in the extremely negative light that he did. It couldn’t happen, any rational person knows. But…yet people can and do get attacked by sharks, I’ve even written about it. You know it’s not going to happen…and yet…and that’s scary. I mean, Michigan’s freshwater lakes don’t have killer sharks (or do they?), although bull sharks can survive in freshwater. But what if a baby shark somehow got caught in say, the bilge tank of a ship and made its way up the St. Lawrence Seaway into the Great Lakes and then it got into the water supply and then it got into our little inland lake and then it ate me. It happened with zebra mussels…

The other most powerful aspect of Jaws as a film is in what you don’t see. We don’t actually glimpse the shark until more than halfway into the film. The original audiences knew they were going to see a shark movie, but really didn’t get a sense of the scale of the thing, as evidenced by the original trailer. This is what makes it so affecting. We don’t get all the goods, unlike horror movies today. We don’t KNOW how big this fish is. We don’t know how evil it is. For most of the movie, we can only guess. This aspect of the movie was an accident. The robotic shark that had been developed for the film didn’t work very well, so Spielberg had to find out how to make a shark movie mostly without a shark. If the shark had been visible, I don’t’ think Jaws would have become a thing. I think it would just be the kind of bland seventies movie that they show on Saturday afternoons on obscure cable channels with shoddy special effects. If we had to see a movie with a 1970s mechanical shark, it would look pretty silly in 2013 . But because there are so few special effects in Jaws, it holds up much better than it otherwise would. The best effects are the story, the music and the unknown.

So, Jaws. See it, but take your bath first.


3 thoughts on “Jaws (…or Before there was Shark Week)

  1. Eve

    I believe “Jaws” has had a longer lasting effect on me than any movie I’ve ever seen. It sent me into a fear of the ocean, which lasts to this day. On transatlantic flights, I’ve had moments of thinking that if the plane goes down, I’m going to be eaten by sharks. It’s a fear that has helped keep me off a cruise ship, too.

    Right after seeing the movie, I remember being panicky in the swimming pool at my dad’s apartment. Dad, who had taken 9-year-old me and my best friend to see the movie at the drive-in. Mom said I was too young but I begged to differ. Then I ended up convinced a great white could fit in the deep end of the pool and maybe no one had noticed it yet, but it would see me and that would be the end of me. I also ended up having moments of dread in the bathtub. It sounds weird, but my friend and I thought Chrissie was beautiful and used to play “Jaws” in the yard and fight over who got to be Chrissie (“I wanna drown!” “No, I’M gonna be her!”).

    I think it’s great that you are doing a movie from the 70’s. In some ways, it seems like it’s not really “old”, but “Jaws” came out 38 years ago. It began the concept of the summer blockbuster and it introduced the world to Steven Spielberg. I watched this movie again a year or two ago and appreciated it all over again. It has great pacing and, as you said, it doesn’t fully reveal the monster until well into the movie. There’s a reason this movie is an American classic.

    1. Rachel Webb Post author

      I’m glad that I wasn’t the only one who was afraid of the bathtub. I think that’s what makes it a great movie–you know, rationally, that you’re not going to be eaten by a shark in your bathbub, but that doesn’t matter. Yet for some reason, I was able to live next to the ocean in Florida and go swimming and snorkeling all the time and it never really crossed my mind that there are sharks in there. I guess it’s cognitive dissonance. I agree, the pacing is very well done.

  2. Pingback: Happy Birthday, Robert Shaw – 1927 to Forever « HORROR BOOM

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