Monday, September 10, 2012

Blood in the Water: My Personal Path To ‘Jaws’

On August 14th, Jaws made its debut on Blu-ray.  Its arrival has truly been a long time coming.  Included in the supplemental materials is a brand new documentary titled The Shark is Still Working: The Impact & Legacy of Jaws.  It chronicles the history of Jaws as a cultural phenomenon.  Though I have been affected by that phenomenon, I was a late comer to the party.  Jaws was released two years before I was born.  I wouldn’t “discover” the film until a good many years later.  However, once I finally did, I became a believer.  

In the summer of 1983, I was six years old.  Jaws had become a full blown franchise by that point, and Jaws 3-D marked my first acquaintance with the brand.  Despite that film’s pop cultural omnipresence at the time, I was much more taken with an even bigger phenomenon: Return of the Jedi.  My mother took me to see it twice at a theater that was also showing Jaws 3-D.  Though my imagination was enthralled by the Jedi, the visage of that great white shark had firmly taken root in my subconscious thanks to the film’s ad campaign.  

The poster for Jaws 3-D was yet another variation of Robert Kastel’s now classic painting of a voracious great white en route to devouring a nubile young swimmer.  To my young eyes, it might as well have been the dreaded skull and crossbones.  As a child, horror films represented a cinematic no man’s land for me.  Film’s that centered on the murderous tendencies of wild animals fell firmly into that category.  A radio spot for the film served to confirm my fears.  Aside from the ominous voice over by Percy Rodriguez, it featured eerie noises that I mistakenly thought were coming from the title creature.  

The film premiered on HBO the following summer.  Despite my overly timid nature, I don’t remember finding it all that scary.  Perhaps I was able to better compartmentalize it without the added background noise of the TV and radio spots.  The only image I can clearly remember is the one that occurs during the climax.  In a laughably obvious 3-D shot, the Jaws of the title creature pause in midair after said creature explodes.  

It’s important to note that I was at least somewhat familiar with the work of Steven Spielberg at this point, though I didn’t yet associate him with the Jaws brand.  If I had, I probably would have been even more apprehensive about it.  As I have already noted elsewhere on this blog, the films of Steven Spielberg traumatized me as a child.  They were designed as rip-roaring adventures designed to appeal to adults and children alike.  For me they played differently, as I always sensed something more sinister at work.  Much of my apprehension centered around the subject matter, as Spielberg’s earliest films centered on my deepest, darkest, childhood fears: killer animals, aliens, evil spirits, and the wrath of god.

By the summer of 1987, my aversion to the films of Spielberg had diminished considerably.  This was due in large part to my burgeoning obsession with action and sci-fi pictures, which had grown considerably more violent by the late 1980’s.  I began seeing TV ads for Jaws: The Revenge.  By that point, I saw Jaws as being no different than other horror franchises such as Friday the 13th.  

The poster was the final iteration of Robert Kastel’s razor toothed behemoth.  As with the posters for Jaws 2 and Jaws 3-D, the creature’s maw now appeared above water.  However, this time there was a key difference.  The tables had turned.  The shark was no longer predator, but prey.  In the right hand corner of the image, the bow of a boat was visible.  Atop the bow was a woman who held a spear at the ready.  Both the ship’s bow and the spearhead were aimed squarely at the underbelly of the shark.  This image was echoed in the trailer, which showed the shark leaping through the air like a trained dolphin, right in front of a boat that was heading straight for it.  The interesting thing here is that both the poster and the trailer telegraphed the film’s climax.

Though the ads for the film played up the action/adventure aspects, I still wasn’t compelled to see it.  As with the summer of 1983, my attention was focused elsewhere.  The summer of 1987 was the summer of Predator, Robocop, and Masters of the Universe, all which placed much higher on my ten year old priority list.  

I wouldn’t see the film until the following year, when it premiered on either Showtime or The Movie Channel during one of their free previews.  Though my phobia regarding horror films still lingered, I didn’t find it particularly scary.  Overall, I was ambivalent, to the point of not realizing just how silly the film’s plot was.  Apparently, the events of the first film set off an interspecies family feud that pits every great white shark in existence against the Brody clan.  The antagonist of this film is so consumed with revenge that it follows Ellen Brody from New England to the Bahamas.  

By the summer of 1990, I was 13.  My interest in movies had intensified yet again.  I had largely outgrown my intense fear of horror films, thanks to my infatuation with Freddy Kruger.  I’d even managed to overcome my intense fear of the early Spielberg classics.  Raiders of the Lost Ark had become a personal favorite.  I watched it regularly, especially the wonderful bar fight in Nepal.  Strangely, I still hadn’t found my way to the original Jaws.  That year, at a cousin’s house, I finally saw a portion of it during an airing on television.  

Robert Shaw as Quint.

I found the climax entertaining, particularly due to the antics of the character Quint (Robert Shaw).  The overall experience was enhanced by the reactions of my family members, who made jokes and puns throughout.  As much fun as the whole evening had been, the film still didn’t leave that much of an impression on me.  My tastes still ran towards the ultra-violent action films of Schwarzenegger and the like.  Jaws didn’t contain enough heavy artillery or bloodletting for my taste.  Even the four star review in the 1991 edition of Roger Ebert’s Home Movie Companion couldn’t convince me to give it a second glance.  

I graduated high school in the summer of 1995.  By then, my tastes in movies had become just a tad bit more sophsiticated.  Pulp Fiction had opened my mind to the possibilities of crime films and independent cinema.  It’s warm reception by the critics and press had made me more curious about some of the Oscar contenders that I had always dismissed as elitist tripe.  I began exploring the back catalogs of directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino, Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick, and Sam Peckinpah.  I even became more inquisitive about the directors who I was already a fan of.  Spielberg was included in that group.  

A week after my graduation, I got my first job at Bloomingdales in White Plains.  After cashing my first paycheck, I headed to Waldenbooks in the Galleria mall.  I purchased The Films of Steven Spielberg by Douglas Brode.  It was a self-described “pictorial study” of Spielberg’s oeuvre up until that point.  TBS decided to air Jaws around that same time.  Though I tuned in rather late, this particular viewing would go much different than the last one.  

The Films of Steven Spielberg by Douglas Brode

I tuned in during the the July 4th festivities in Amity.  That’s when the film’s famous “false alarm” takes place.  Two young boys take advantage of the paranoia surrounding the recent shark attacks by playing a practical joke with some scuba gear and a fake shark fin.  Their little stunt causes the beach goers to stampede.  Martin Brody and his officers pull the young offenders out of the water at gunpoint.  

The shot of the young pranksters staring down the barrel of a loaded rifle was striking, even in its “panned and scanned.”  It convinced me to watch the rest of the film.  This turned out to be a life-changing decision.  The Spielberg that I had come to know (and love) from the Indiana Jones films was present in every frame.  The central conflict of the third act was fascinating in its simplicity: Three guys in a boat trying to catch and kill a great white shark.  I just had to see this movie in full.  

A few days later, I made a long trek up Boston Post road, from New Rochelle to Mamaroneck.  I bought a “panned and scanned” copy of Jaws from Blockbuster video.  Upon bringing my prize home and removing the wrapping, I noticed something interesting on the back cover.  Just beneath the plot description was a warning.  It had nothing to do with bootlegging or copyright infringement.  It pertained to the violence contained in the film.  It wasn’t an explanation of the MPAA rating, which appeared elsewhere on the packaging.  In fact, it seemed to point out the insufficiency of that rating.  

The warning served as a vindication for me.  It confirmed my long held suspicions that Spielberg’s films were a bit rougher than many realized.  According to Jason Zinoman’s book Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, the PG rating given to Jaws in 1975 revealed a clear bias on the part of the MPAA.  Had the film been a low-budget exploitation picture made independently, it most certainly would have gotten an R.  

The MPAA would make more concessions to Spielberg over the next decade.  Raiders of the Lost Ark was initially given an R, until some visual alterations were made to its gruesome climax.  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in conjunction with the Spielberg production Gremlins, lead to the creation of the PG-13 rating.

Like Hitchcock before him, Spielberg was skilled at sneaking subversive themes and ideas into mass entertainments.  On the surface, Jaws is a simple adventure yarn with a few scary moments strewn throughout.  However, lurking just beneath this modern retelling of Moby Dick is an honest to god exploitation flick, albeit a slickly made one.  In some regards, it’s a forerunner to John Carpenter’s seminal slasher film Halloween.  Supplant the 25 foot great white shark with Michael Myers and the seaside town of Amity with the fictional suburb of Haddonfield, Illinois.   In that light, the analogy makes more sense.  Both antagonists are forces of nature, predatory and unclouded by conscience.  The childlike Myers is driven by a compulsion to kill.  It obviously serves some primal need.  Likewise, the great white shark kills to satiate its own incessant hunger.  

One of the more violent and memorable moments from Jaws.  Quint (Robert Shaw) meets his fate.

It should be noted that Jaws is more graphically violent than either Halloween or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  From the close-ups of severed limbs and decayed corpses to the sight of the shark chomping down on Quint, the film clearly went well beyond what a PG rating should’ve allowed back in 1975.  That is a testament to the abilities of Spielberg (as well as the aforementioned biases of the MPAA), who unlike his contemporaries (John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper) was able to help the material transcend its origins.  He made it palatable for the masses.  Hence, Jaws is beloved by many who normally wouldn’t set foot near a horror/exploitation film.  I am one such viewer.  I’ve never cared much for horror films as whole, but simply adore Jaws.  That love only seems to grow with time.  I now see that this film was part of my destiny as a movie buff.  It was only a matter of finding my way to it.


  1. Brilliant piece, Scott, and one of your best. I saw parts 2 through 4 in the theaters. Part 2 I barely remember in the theater as I was but three years old. '83 was a big year for movies. I saw SUPERMAN 3, RETURN OF THE JEDI, JAWS 3 with my mom, and KRULL with a school chum that year.