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Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water: Jaws and its offspring
In 1974, Universal Pictures assigned an adaptation of the Peter Benchley novel, Jaws, to a then up-and-coming director named Steven Spielberg. With a middling budget of $3.5 million and a shooting schedule of 55 days he started filming in Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts which stood in for the film’s fictional location - Amity Island. The production ended up going considerably over schedule and budget to cost in the region of $9 million (at that time quite a large sum) and wrapping over 100 days late, in part due to major challenges realising its elaborate special effects. One of the main issues was that the mechanical shark (nicknamed “Bruce” on set) kept breaking down. At the time Spielberg had heard (obviously unfounded) rumours that, due to the fact that the film had gone so far over schedule and budget, he would never be allowed to work in Hollywood again.
When it was released in the summer of 1975 Universal chose to adopt a then-novel marketing and distribution campaign similar to one that was used successfully by Columbia one month prior for the Charles Bronson vehicle Breakout. Firstly, there was a major TV advertising campaign in the run-up to its release; secondly, the release was “saturated” in 464 North American cinemas during its opening weekend. Jaws ended up making history with a worldwide box office take of around $400 million, which was at that moment the highest grossing film of all time.
The first Jaws film is widely regarded as one of the greatest horror-thrillers of all time, and with good reason. It has its flaws; the script is full of contrivances and inaccuracies - from the world’s most implausibly negligent mayor Larry Vaughan (played by Murray Hamilton) to the fact that Great White sharks, while known to attack humans, don’t actively hunt them for food. The mechanical rubber shark used in the film looks just like that; a mechanical rubber shark (though it’s only really noticeable during the film’s finale). Robert Shaw lays on the hammy “old Irish sea dog” act a little too heavily. However, all of these issues can be overlooked as few other films have mastered the twin arts of tension and terror quite as well as Spielberg has here; Jaws is regularly mentioned in the same breath as an elite group of films that includes Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alien and The Shining.
Each tense setpiece is marked by masterful camerawork. Some of this was a happy side-effect of the issues with Bruce; shots with the waterline bisecting the screen at the halfway point, featuring the shark either below or taking the viewpoint of the camera as its victims flail about helplessly. In another moment, the helplessness of Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) to stop the carnage is conveyed with devastating effectiveness when the shark attacks are seen largely in long-shot from his point of view as he waits on the beach. The later moments involving Brody, Quint (Robert Shaw) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) on a Moby Dick-style quest to hunt down the creature are a cinematic pressure cooker of claustrophobic settings, male macho rivalry and camaraderie interspersed with the constant threat of attack at any moment. Spielberg makes maximum capital out of the pokey fishing vessel, not only with the now-classic line “we’re gonna need a bigger boat” but also with the tight camerawork that places the three actors in a constant state of hair-raising proximity to physical danger, whether it’s a barrel suddenly flying, mere inches away, past Roy Scheider’s head, or Shaw standing precariously on the boat’s narrow prow as the shark inches ever-closer.
The uses of sound and editing are also masterful. Many of the “eye of the storm” lulls are markedly long and quiet, to the extent of allowing a false sense of security to set in on the audience before they, inevitably, end up being hit by a sudden shock. The memorably thudding John Williams score maximises the impact of the attacks, its repetitious two-note motif melding itself with the viewers’ heartbeat.
The film’s record-breaking success was something Universal wanted to repeat, so it’s understandable that they decided to attempt this in the most obvious way possible: by making a sequel. Jaws 2 was released in 1978, costing around $20 million and making in the ballpark of $200 million worldwide. While not as financially successful as the original it was still a huge hit by most other standards; it was the sixth highest grossing film of its year and at that time was the highest grossing sequel ever made. The company originally wanted to get Spielberg, Dreyfuss and Scheider back again, but the first two were locked into Close Encounters of the Third Kind when it ran over schedule. Scheider himself was reluctant to do this one but, having dropped out of the Deer Hunter, was contractually obliged to make another film for the studio. An up-and-coming director named John Hancock was brought in to replace Spielberg, but was fired amid various difficulties after 1 month of filming. Universal brought in Jeannot Szwarc, a director who had previously worked largely on television (though he also made the low budget creature feature Bug in 1975), to replace him.
Szwarc, aided and abetted by John Williams’s rousing score and Michael C. Butler’s excellent cinematography, does a solid job ensuring that the shark attack setpieces retain much of the excitement of the original. Nonetheless, this sequel feels a bit lazy and workaday at times. For one thing, the events of the original don’t seem to have had much impact on Amity Island or its people, with the exception of the jumpy Chief Brody. Everyone’s out enjoying the sun, sea and sand, the resort is thriving with a new Holiday Inn opened up via a grand party at the start of the film, and Mayor Larry Vaughan (a returning Murray Hamilton) is once again in denial as the water starts to run red. Seriously, why is this bozo still in office? Apparently John Hancock’s original vision depicted Amity Island as a blighted community littered with boarded-up shops as a result of the shark in the predecessor scaring everyone away. However, the people of Martha’s Vineyard refused to allow their properties to be boarded up during filming for fear of being perceived as having gone bankrupt for real, hence losing business as a result.
For another, there is a shortage of tension and build-up between the numerous shark attacks. Whereas in the original there was some degree of apprehension as to where and when the shark might strike next, here its deadly appearances come at entirely expected moments. In the original the second half concentrated on a trio of men on a fishing trawler whose backgrounds and relationships were well established to make us care about their fates. In this sequel the focus is on a group of underdeveloped, near-interchangeable adolescents on a sailing excursion. They simply scream “shark fodder” (and scream they do in the literal sense. A lot.) Even Chief Brody’s two sons Mike and Sean fail to stand out. The one thing that saves the between-shark scenes from lapsing into tedium is Scheider, who once again colours in his everyman-under-strain character with a sense affability and authority. It’s not as much fun however when he doesn’t have anyone comparable to Dreyfuss or Shaw to bounce off.
Another issue is that the obviously fake shark is seen a lot more often here than it was in its predecessor, albeit sporting a mutilated face for most of the running time having had it burnt during an early scene. Still, overall Jaws 2, while not great, passes the entertaining sequel test well enough.
The inevitable Jaws 3 (1983) was originally envisaged as a parody called “National Lampoon's Jaws 3, People 0” by the producers of the first 2 films (David Brown and Richard Zanuck). However Universal balked at the idea, and the duo eventually gave up on the franchise. The property was bought up by Alan Landsburg and ultimately, after numerous script rewrites, turned into an entry in the brief early 80s 3-D craze. Called “Jaws 3-D” on its theatrical release, it was shot partially on location in Sea World, Orlando, Florida. Joe Alves, who was the production designer on the first two films and assistant director on the second, was fully promoted into the director’s chair for this one. Roy Scheider’s attitude to playing Chief Brody one more time was apparently so hostile that he deliberately signed up for Blue Thunder so as to remain unavailable for this entry.
I remember seeing Jaws 3 on TV at one point during my childhood, and being disappointed even in those days of low critical faculties. Indeed, when viewed again now, the results clearly aren’t a patch on Jaws 2 let alone the original. The film features the return of the brothers Mike and Sean Brody (who were played by different actors through all 4 films: in this case by Dennis Quaid and John Putch) now working as Sea World employees preparing for the opening of a new section called “Undersea Kingdom”, a sort of underwater funhouse cum aquarium. A Great White shark manages to break into the complex and start stalking and devouring various hapless folk who go into the water at the wrong time. When Mike and his girlfriend Kathryn (played by Bess Armstrong) discover a shark swimming around in a fake shipwreck installation, stiff upper lip English game hunter Philip FitzRoyce (played by Simon MacCorkindale) subdues it with a drugged harpoon, and the park’s director Calvin Bouchard (Louis Gossett Jr) puts it on display for the crowds. Little do they know however that the shark’s mother is also in the vicinity, and boy is she pissed.
One of the most fundamental of Jaws 3’s many problems is that there’s precious little actual shark action until the last half hour. Instead we get lots of scenes involving various objects (ranging from aquatic life to gruesome severed body parts) being shoved towards the camera so as to show off the 3-D effect, copious footage of performing dolphins and waterskiing acrobatics, Mike and Sean’s romantic trysts with their respective girlfriends, Bouchard reprimanding his way through about half of the park’s employees and so on. Even when the shark attack scenes do occur they fall flat because, for the most part, it’s hard to tell what’s going on. It doesn’t help that the majority take place entirely in the murky depths with a bunch of characters dressed head-to-toe in identical wetsuits. This issue is compounded by a lack of spatial contextual awareness in the way the scenes are put together. When seen without the stereoscopic 3-D effect the film’s visuals are also rather poor; the cinematography is somewhat fuzzy and indistinct while the matte effects are often downright inept.
On a minor plus side, there is one scene involving the POV of a character who has just been swallowed up by a shark that does at least provide a brief moment of grim amusement. Indeed in its uncut form Jaws 3 is arguably the goriest of the series. Both Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr turn in better performances than the film deserves, though the former retains the noticeable Texan twang in his accent despite the fact that the character he plays hails from Massachusetts. Both would again work together 2 years later in Enemy Mine - a film that, while not great, was at least a step or two up from this dud.
Jaw 3 performed markedly less well than either of its predecessors but was still a decent-sized success, taking over $87 million on a $20 million budget and becoming, at that moment, the highest grossing 3-D film of all time. Hence, yet another sequel was made: Jaws: The Revenge (1987). There was yet another change of director (Joseph Sargent) and yet again Mike and Sean Brody are played by different actors (Lance Guest and Mitchell Anderson respectively). This one ignored the events of the previous film where the two brothers were employed in Sea World; this time Sean is still on Amity Island working as a deputy sheriff and living with his mother Ellen (Lorraine Gary - the only returning cast member from previous films), while Mike is living in the Bahamas working as a diver looking for valuable seashells. Once again Roy Scheider was adamant in his refusal to participate, so the script had written in that their father had passed away due to a heart attack (caused, according to Ellen, by fear of the shark that attacked him).
It starts off on Amity Island during the Christmas festivities, and has Sean bumped off within the next few minutes by… guess what? Ellen, in one of many bits of ridiculous scripting, is convinced that the original shark from Jaws survived, then waited all these years and hunted Sean down as an act of revenge. When Mike arrives back home for the funeral she tells him that neither he nor anyone else in the Brody family should go anywhere near the water again. However Mike doesn’t want to give up his job, so he tries to reassure her by taking her along with him to the Bahamas for Christmas. While she spends quality time with her remaining son, his wife Carla (Karen Young) and their daughter Thea (Judith Barsi), as well as becoming romantically involved with English pilot Hoagie (Michael Caine), she starts to sense that the shark has followed them all the way there (she has an implied psychic link with the shark - seriously!) Sure enough it attacks Mike’s boat. However, rather than do the sensible thing and stay out of its way, Mike is persuaded by his colleague Jake (Mario Van Peebles) to help him in studying it.
Jaws: The Revenge is widely considered to be one of the worst sequels of all time, and understandably so. While Jaws 3 was pretty awful it at least tried to do something a little different with the franchise (albeit the attempt failed miserably). This one merely goes through the motions with just about everyone concerned seemingly more interested in a paid vacation to Hawaii (standing in for The Bahamas) than in bothering to make anything good. Lorraine Gary is the exception; she tries hard to make her continuing role as the Brody mother believable while swimming against a tide of drivel, but it’s a losing battle. Nobody else seems to display any emotion or concern in the face of either losing a beloved family member or being subjected to repeated threats to be next. If they don’t care why should we, the audience?
The direction by Joseph Sargent is dull. While generally considered a journeyman director who regularly flitted between TV and big screen work, he did make The Taking of Pelham 123, a bona fide 1970s classic - so there’s no excuse for his flat approach here. As with Jaws 3 the shark isn’t in it very much until the last half hour, and when it does appear its attacks lack tension and excitement. However there is some accidental fun to be had here mainly due to the stupidities of the script and some real howlers in the dialogue department. At one point Thea tells her mother “Uncle Sean is dead you know, will he ever come back?” Surely most young children can grasp the concept of death. Maybe she has been watching too many zombie movies? Things get especially stupid towards the finale, with Ellen stealing a boat and going out on a singlehanded suicide mission to take down the shark (despite no prior evidence of sailing skills let alone shark hunting prowess), a couple of characters escaping alive from situations that would realistically have killed them, the shark roaring (despite the fact that sharks don’t have vocal chords) and then, finally, exploding for no clear reason.
For much of his career Michael Caine was notorious for taking work in obviously rubbish projects despite his considerable talent, and such was the case with Jaws: The Revenge. In a wonderfully illustrative piece of irony, not only did he win a Razzie for his phoned-in performance here, but its filming schedule clashed with the 1987 Oscars ceremony - meaning that he couldn’t attend to receive his golden statuette for Best Supporting Actor for Hannah and Her Sisters. He also famously said of his work here: “I have never seen it. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”
In a more tragic piece of trivia, the following year Judith Barsi was shot dead, along with her mother, by her abusive father Joszef.
Jaws: The Revenge ended up being the last film in the series to date. Not necessarily because of its negative critical reception (after all, the same could be said of Jaws 3), but because it continued the trend of diminishing returns at the box office. It took just over $51 million worldwide on a budget of $23 million. While Hollywood studios are notoriously opaque about their movies’ profits and losses (in particular when trying to wiggle free of payouts on backend percentage point deals), it is generally considered that, as a rule of thumb, most need to make around 2-3 times their budget to break even once marketing and distribution costs are taken into account. Hence, it is likely that, at best, Jaws: The Revenge only barely made a profit. Fast forward to today and there is a rumoured remake in the works at Universal Studios, though sadly Mr. Spielberg has ruled out his participation. Given the recent track record of remakes (where quantity has far exceeded quality) it’s hard to hold out much hope, though surely it wouldn’t be hard to improve on the last two.
Jaws 2: ☆☆☆
Jaws 3: ☆1/2
Jaws: The Revenge: ☆
It’s hard to overestimate the impact Jaws had on the cinematic landscape, both good and bad.
Firstly, it kicked off the “summer blockbuster’ trend, making the summer holiday season the time when Hollywood studios now rake in the lion’s share of their revenue. It’s a trend that’s still going strong today as cinemas are littered with expensive, FX-driven spectaculars - the current favourites being the proliferation of superhero movies and reboots. Some of these are admittedly genuinely good movies, but too many are not.
It was also significant at the time as it was one of a number of huge hits made during the 1970s (including the likes of The Exorcist and Star Wars) that moved away from requiring bankable star names in the cast. Spielberg reportedly turned down the prospect of being able to cast Charlton Heston in Jaws due to the fact that he didn’t want someone so big that the audience would be convinced that they would win the day. Hence, he cast Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss - all of whom, while not unknowns, were definitely second division actors as far as Hollywood was concerned.
Following Jaws two other Peter Benchley novels were adapted for the big screen. The Deep (1977) - a critical flop but a commercial success - featured the likes of Jacqueline Bisset, Nick Nolte, Robert Shaw (from the original Jaws) and Louis Gossett Jr. (who would later appear in Jaws 3). The plot revolves around a scuba-diving couple who retrieve a number of valuable artefacts from a shipwreck amongst which is a phial morphine. This attracts the attention of a local drug dealer who wants the morphine for himself. The Island (1980) fared well neither with critics nor audiences. It features Michael Caine (who of course became another Jaws series alumni) as a journalist investigating why so many ships disappear in the Bermuda triangle. It turns out that a band of modern-day pirates (led by Nau, played by David Warner) are attacking and ransacking the vessels. It’s a very silly (how come these pirates remain undetected in these modern times?) and overly violent film with a climax involving the villanous pirates being wiped out with ridiculous ease.
In later life, Benchley was apologetic about his erstwhile sensationalist depiction of sharks, and switched to factual books such as Shark Trouble (2001) which focussed on conservation work. In fact, out of 470 recorded species of shark, only 4 have been known to attack humans. The Great White is amongst them, but unlike the monstrous version depicted in the book and films it doesn’t actively hunt down humans, preferring smaller sharks, dolphins, whales, seals, sea-lions, sea-turtles and other aquatic creatures. It is generally regarded that the majority of attacks on humans were exploratory bites carried out in conditions of poor visibility rather than deliberate attempts to dine on human flesh.
The “nature run amok” subgenre:
Jaws was far from being the first “nature run amok” subgenre entry in the history of cinema, which had been around in various forms at least as far back as the first adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound Of The Baskervilles in 1921. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds was another pre-Jaws genre highpoint. However, it can be said that Jaws was highly instrumental in kicking off its own cycle of “nature run amok” films from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. Some of these were at the big-budget end of the scale; the Dino De Laurentiis production Orca: The Killer Whale (1977) and the Irwin Allen killer bee flick The Swarm (1978), both of which are considered major turkeys.
However, the majority were low budget efforts as various cheapskate filmmakers learnt how to shoot around animal stock footage. William Girdler was one of the first to get in on the act with 1976’s Grizzly, featuring a killer bear attacking people in a U.S. national park. It took $39 million on a budget of just $750,000, so he followed it up with Day of the Animals which (as the name implies) featured a whole slew of different animals on the offensive. Unfortunately it was nowhere near as successful. Producer Roger Corman had a modest hit with the Joe Dante-directed Piranha (1978), a film which was regarded by Spielberg himself as the best of the Jaws coattail-riders. It was followed by the inane Piranha II: The Spawning (1981), a sequel where the titular fish had managed to mutate and gain the power of flight. It was nominally the directorial debut of James Cameron, although it is common knowledge that he was fired from the set by producer Ovidio Assonitis (who directed the rest of the film himself) after a couple of weeks of shooting. Assonitis incidentally had previously directed Tentacles (1977), which featured a giant octopus and various slumming Hollywood stars including Henry Fonda, John Huston, Shelley Winters and Bo Hopkins. Director Lewis Teague and writer John Sayles unleashed Alligator (1980) on the world, and, like Piranha, was one of the few post-Jaws movies to be well received by critics. Teague went on to direct the 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Cujo, which featured a rabid St. Bernard dog.
Italian schlock filmmakers, who by this time were largely copying whatever formulae were doing well at the box office, made several of their own entries in the cycle. The Antonio Margheriti film Killer Fish (1979) features a gang of crooks who rather ill-advisedly decide to stash some stolen emeralds at the bottom of a piranha-filled reservoir in Brazil. Funded by ITC and starring Lee Majors, it had a relatively decent budget. Enzo G. Castellari made Great White (aka The Last Shark) in 1981, one of the more blatant Jaws imitations as it featured a shark attacking a similar seaside community, and a grizzled old shark hunter a la Quint played by Vic Morrow. It was even released in Spain as an unofficial second sequel in the series. It took a decent amount of money ($18 million) at the U.S. box office before Universal filed an injunction to get it pulled from theatres. Incidentally, while not exactly a great film it is at least better than the last two official Jaws films. Mexican filmmaker Rene Cardona Jr. also got in on the act with a couple of killer shark movies: Tintorera (1977) featuring British sex symbol Susan George, and Cyclone (1978) featuring Hollywood has-beens Arthur Kennedy, Carroll Baker and Lionel Stander.
A couple of oddities/tangents in the cycle are Roar (1981) and White Dog (1982). The former was directed by The Birds actress Tippi Hedren’s then-husband Noel Marshall, playing a wildlife keeper whose family (including Hedren herself plus other real-life family members Melanie Griffith, John and Jerry Marshall) are terrorised by a pride of lions. It’s a rather odd mix of both Born Free-style affection for, and Jaws-style fear of, the creatures. It is notorious for its exceedingly dangerous production as 70 cast and crew members were mauled by the animals (including all starring members of the Marshall-Hedren family and cinematographer Jan De Bont) plus the fact that it was set back when the set was flooded, killing three lions. The attacks and blood seen on screen are, by and large, for real. Samuel Fuller’s adaptation of the Romain Gary novel White Dog is an anti-racist parable featuring, as the title suggests, a “white dog” - not only for the colour of its fur but for the fact that it has been trained to attack black people. However, its release was curtailed due to pressure by the NAACP. In time, it won a cult following. While not perfect I do recommend the film, and wrote a complementary review of it here: http://thoughtsfromcinemasfringes.tumblr.com/post/125705319916/white-dog-1982.
After the early 1980s the post-Jaws “nature run amok” cycle died down, however the sub-genre (rather like the shark in Jaws) resurfaced from time to time. More recently Piranha got a remake in the form of Piranha 3D (2010) directed by Alexandre Aja and featuring the homage casting of Richard Dreyfuss. It was itself followed by Piranha 3DD (2012). The Shallows (2016) features a surfer played by Blake Lively being terrorised by a shark.
As well as being ripped off plenty of times Jaws has become one of the most homaged and parodied films in history. Two Roger Moore Bond films (The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977 and Moonraker in 1979) featured a steel-toothed heavy named Jaws played by Richard Kiel, while the former referenced the waterline POV shot as the film’s submersible Lotus Esprit surfaces near a beach packed with bemused tourists. Spielberg spoofed it himself in his disappointing 1979 WWII parody 1941, as the opening sequence featured a young couple going for a nighttime swim only to be disturbed by a surfacing Japanese submarine.