Friday, March 8, 2013

The Source of All Fear

In the annuls of horror movie history, there is only ONE movie that has had any kind of lasting impact on my psyche and I should have covered this AGES ago because THIS is the reason I won't go into water higher than my ankles unless it's clear as crystal.

Jaws is a kind of mish-mash of suspense/thriller/nature-hates-you genres that, ultimately, ends up being one of the most terrifying screen experiences ever filmed and it most definitely earned its place as horror movie royalty.  It is a movie that people STILL talk about today and, frankly, I try and watch it a couple of times a year because it's that awesome (and maybe to remind myself that it's only a movie and that I actually can enjoy snorkeling without paranoia).

It kills me that anyone would be unfamiliar with this movie but here's a quick rundown.

A summer resort town finds itself the collective victim of a man-eating Great White shark that comes with its own ominous, John Williams musical score.  It starts with an idiot teenager skinny-dipping at dusk.  Because idiot teenagers forget that dusk and dawn is when sharks hunt.  She gets dragged around and under by an unseen force (we'll touch on that in a bit).

Sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) discovers the body the next day and the medical examiner informs him that she was a victim of a shark attack.  Brody wants to shut the beaches down, because that's the smart thing to do, but due to political pressure from Mayor Vaughn (who is possibly the most idiotic mayor in the history of film except for that asshole from The Bay) the medical examiner rules the death a boating accident, Brody, like an asshole sheep, goes along with it and the beaches remain open.  Enter the screaming, panicking populous, a dead kid, a mother in rightful anguish, a bounty-fueled amateur shark hunt that pulls up the wrong shark, a tiny, bearded marine biologist and Quint.  The Fourth of July kicks Brody's ass into action when HIS kid is almost a victim.

This woman should have won an Oscar.  Chilling.

Brody hooks up with Quint and Hooper (the aforementioned tiny, bearded marine biologist) to hunt down the monster and, following a night of drinking, male bonding and the maudlin, creepy story of the USS Indianapolis, the shark rears its ugly head.  Manly things happen and the shark is destroyed.  HOORAY!  


This movie is not only one of the most iconic films ever made but it's also got one of the most interesting "making of" stories ever told.

The film was originally offered to Dick Richards (The Cullpepper Cattle Co.) but since he didn't understand the difference between "shark" and "whale" he was scrapped in favor of Steven Spielberg who actually wanted the job... at first.  He tried to drop the project so he wouldn't be "the truck and shark guy" but Universal called in his contract.

ANYWAY, then they called in Peter Benchley, the author of the original novel, to write the first draft of the script.  He wrote three drafts in all, keeping the meat of the plot but dropping a bunch of sub-plots (like the affair between Hooper and Brody's wife) but Spielberg still felt the characters were assholes so there were a few more uncredited rewrites before basically giving Carl Gottleib the "head writer" chair so that the bleak was tempered with appropriate comedy.  All in all, there are 27 scenes that do not appear in the book.

It's been a while, but I'm pretty sure this is one of them.

Let's not talk about casting.  There was obvious tension between Dreyfuss and Shaw and it showed on camera.  It probably didn't help that Shaw was a tax-dodging, rum-soaked asshole.

The BEST part of the backstory, though, is "Bruce", the three prop sharks that were notorious for not working.  Because Spielberg is a fuckin' genius, though, he decided not to show the shark more than he had to.  The forced restraint made the film a paranoid fantasy.  This "eyes of the killer" approach made the movie the scarefest that it is today.  Yes, the shark is freaky-lookin' when we DO see it interact with the actors but it still scares us out of our fuckin' pants.  Popcorn and drinks-a-flyin'.

Bigger boat, indeed.

Much like Creepshow and Gremlins, this is a classic that should (and will) be left to our kids, and their kids, and their kids, etc.  The Oscar™-winning score is iconic and pervasive (and was used as a punishment in my house because my mother would play it and I would leave quietly so I didn't have to listen to it), the acting is superb, the creepiness is still evident to this day and the movie is eminently quotable.  My only regret is that it did not win the Best Picture award.  (Granted, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is probably more deserving but it would have been neat.)  Just consider the fact that beach attendance went down sharply while shark sightings went up in 1975 due, specifically, to Jaws.  Alien was pitched as "Jaws in Space".  After Jaws, the Man-Eating Animal genre exploded with Piranha being touted as the best of the Jaws ripoffs.

Jaws is, in all actuality, my Moby Dick.  I will continue watching it until I no longer feel the effects of its instilled paranoia.

In the meantime, sharks still fascinate and terrify me.  As they should.

Because they're fuckin' sharks.

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