Summer Movies We Love: Jaws

A man eating, woman mauling, child munching Great White shark terrorizes beach goers off the coastline of a quaint little beach front town called Amity. It would seem a no brainer the town and tourists would be warned to stay out of the water but there’s money at stake. The shark looming out in the waters of this coastal town threatens not only swimmers, but the profitable July fourth holiday.

Chief of Police, Martin Brody, Roy Scheider, is more than a little concerned when he sees the remains of the shark’s first known victim washed ashore after the first attack. But the Mayor, Murray Hamilton, doesn’t want to hear it. Too much money will be lost from tourism if the public is made aware of the man eater hunting off of Amity’s coast. A marine biologist, Richard Dreyfuss hears about the Great White and comes to warn the town of the danger they face. He’s also more than a little curious to see the giant man-eater that’s on the loose.

It’s a danger that grows worse as the body count rises, even as the Mayor keeps his head buried firmly in the sand. He finally realizes the enormity of the problem and now has to figure out what to do about it. Enter, Quint, Robert Shaw, not merely a fisherman, but a hunter of man eaters of the deep, this grizzled Great White hunter wants to take on the beast. The shark is of course vanquished and we end with a Casablanca “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship moment” as Brody and Hooper paddle back to shore on the remnants of Quint’s boat, the Orca.

Why We Love It

The shark is rarely seen. In this day and age of CGI, Anthony Serkis might have been hired to slither around a sound stage, been motion captured and turned into a Great White shark on the prowl. But back in the day, when all Spielberg had was a mechanical shark named Bruce, he had to keep us guessing. He had to offer only glimpses of the shark with its own theme music which pretty much anyone can still identify. Of course Spielberg might have handled it the same way in the CGI era, but Jaws is a great example of less is more, way more. People disappear, swallowed up, devoured by the beast and of course hysteria ensues.

But it’s what we don’t see that scares us far more than what we do see. Our imaginations are powerful and Jaws makes us use them. There’s just enough horror element to keep an audience on edge, but it comes as shocks, not streams. The shocks come from a creature that is a natural predator of the deep, coming close to shore to feed on swimmers. It’s not an Alien or a killer robot from the future. It’s something we can all recognize from books and television.

We all know when the dog chases the stick into the water what’s about to happen. We don’t know exactly when. The image of a chewed, deflated, blood stained raft washing up on shore as a mother frantically looks for her son is unforgettable. The child who begged to go in the water one more time isn’t coming back.

Scheider, Shaw, and Dreyfuss are all well cast. Shaw’s grizzled Quint, confident he’ll get the shark, Dreyfuss’ Matt Hooper, the guy who thinks he can kill the shark from the “safety” of a shark cage, Scheider, the police chief trying to keep his cool when the sleepy island he’s responsible for is hit with far more than just a wave of beachgoers.

Moment We Fell In Love

In its opening scene Jaws puts the audience in the water with a very vulnerable swimmer who could never imagine her horrible fate. In a scene directly from Peter Benchley’s novel we are witness to the terrifying death of a young woman tossed around the calm sea like a puppet until finally she’s pulled under the water. All while her male companion is passed out on the beach oblivious to her screams.

Something is amiss in Amity and very soon everyone will be afraid to go into the water, though not soon enough to prevent more shark attacks. The tension rises. The shark often only seen as a fin in the water glides effortlessly picking off victim after victim. When two young boys pretend to be the shark using a wooden fin, swimmers panic, while in the peaceful bay the real shark is preparing to take another victim.

I wonder how audiences in 2011 would react to Jaws on the big screen. Movies have become far more explicit in the horrible visuals they throw at audiences. Explicit gore is the norm. But, the judicious use of gore in Jaws is far more effective, in my opinion. We feel Hooper’s terror when the head of one of the shark’s victims pops out at us and him. It’s a jump worthy moment because it’s so sparingly used. When the horror hits, it hits hard.

Final Thoughts

Many films have come at us with Aliens, Predators, guys with hockey masks and chain saws. Most try to terrify us by showing the terrible fate of the victims in every slice and dice detail. But Spielberg’s restraint when he made Jaws is one of the things that make it one of the movies I love. He knew how to scare an audience with a rarely seen Great White shark stand in named Bruce. In the summer of 1975, Jaws kept a lot of people out of the water.

Go skinny-dipping with more Movies We Love

Robin Ruinsky has been a writer since penning her autobiography in fourth grade. Along the way she's studied theater at Syracuse University, worked with Woody Allen starring most of the time on the cutting room floor. A segue into the punk rock scene followed but writing was always the main focus. She writes for various crafty, artsy magazines about people who make craftsy, artsy collectible things. But her first love is writing fiction and film criticism which some people think are the same thing.

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