It’s a truism that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws birthed the Hollywood Summer Blockbuster, that soul-sucking monstrosity that lumbers into theaters earlier each year to exploit the impaired sensibilities of a heat-exhausted audience and fill our brains with hours of loud, explosion-packed cinematic junk food. But this isn’t an entirely fair judgment of the Hollywood Summer Blockbuster — for every Michael Bay, there’s…well…a Steven Spielberg — and it’s not a fair judgment of Jaws.
To be sure, Jaws is no scrappy little indie. It’s a big, expensive production and (in its second hour) a rollicking adventure story, a crowd-pleasing voyage into escapism, a latter-day version of the men’s action pulps that promised such tales as the infamous “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” and…um…“Hooked to a Killer Shark” (see below). And yet —
And yet Jaws isn’t just escapist. This isn’t the harsh verisimilitude of Deliverance (1972) or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), of course — far from it. The world of Jaws (minus the shark) is a comfortable one, even cozy. The New England island community of Amity is quaint, but it’s the people who make us feel at home. Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is a liberal dream of a Cop Who Cares, a tough guy who isn’t too tough to ask his little boy for a kiss after a terrible day (“‘Cause I need it”). Oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is a gregarious, likable hippie nerd. Grizzled shark-hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) comes off gruff, but he’s not so bad once you get to know him. The closest thing Jaws has to a human villain is sleazy Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), but even he turns out to be a concerned dad underneath his con-man exterior. (Keen observers may notice an Amity storefront labeled VAUGHN REALTY, providing a hint at how the mayor made his fortune…and a chilling parallel, perhaps, to unfortunate current events.) This may all sound kind of idealized, and indeed Spielberg is often painted as a sentimentalist, not without cause. But it isn’t that simple. There is more happening here. Something, as it were, deeper.
Brody tells Hooper that he left New York and came to Amity because here “one man can make a difference.” The words ring hollow — if Brody has any typical duty more momentous than dealing with a drunk college kid, we don’t see it — but the underlying idea, or something like it, was widely shared among Brody’s real-life peers. As journalist Ray Suarez writes in The Old Neighborhood: What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration, 1966-1999 (1999), “New York City lost more than eight hundred thousand people in the 1970s. Think of it: a loss larger than the entire city of Phoenix at that time.” And it wasn’t only New York. Citing 2010 US Census data, Becky M. Nicolaides and Andrew Weise report in The Suburb Reader (2016) that “[i]n 1970, 37 percent of Americans lived in suburbs; by 2010, the proportion was 51 percent.” America in 1975 was evolving into a nation where the majority would leave metropolitan areas behind in search of a “better” life — whatever that might mean.
Spielberg would become a chronicler of the suburbs in earnest with his own E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and with films he produced, such as Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) and Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984). There’s a satirical edge to each — even E.T.! — and some edges draw blood (the lily-white community where Poltergeist takes place, it turns out, was built on top of a Native American burial ground). But the love for suburban America permeates every frame. Spielberg may have meant to hold a critical mirror to this world, but it was never all that critical, and he found much there to admire. Modern nostalgists like J.J. Abrams (Super 8, 2011) and the Duffer Brothers (“Stranger Things,” 2016-present) have set their own stories in Spielberg’s backyard, to great success. Yet these visions of suburban America in the 1980s seem less interested in capturing the reality of that milieu than in reimagining that era’s Spielberg movies: fantasies on top of fantasies.
The Spielberg of Jaws was a younger, hungrier filmmaker, and Jaws is a film of its moment. Spielberg witnesses a generation retreating to the safety of the outskirts of town, and his heart goes with them; hearth and home are treasures, pearls beyond price. If his outlook is uncynical and wide-eyed, though, it also sees the bigger picture. It is no wonder — after a decade-plus of national upheaval — that those who had the means would seek a safe place for themselves and their children. The real danger of Jaws is not to any one individual, not to any one luckless soul sucked under and ground up in the razor teeth of the animal, but to an entire way of life built upon the premise of safety. The truth of Jaws is that there is no safe place. Safety is always temporary, and perhaps always a lie. What is sacred must be fought for and won, again and again.
Horror in 1975
Jaws aside, the best-loved horror film of 1975 is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a movie that’s in a sense unreviewable, because the movie isn’t really the point of the Rocky Horror experience. Soon after an initial theatrical run that, as Roger Ebert put it, “was ignored by pretty much everyone,” Rocky Horror got a second life as a midnight movie — and it isn’t dead yet. Apparently organically, a ritualistic stage show took shape around it. Audience members shout lines at the screen. Others show up cosplaying characters from the film, and act out scenes in time with the story. During a wedding scene, the audience throws rice. Real rice. Lots of rice. Working at a theater that screens Rocky Horror is, one imagines, an experience unto itself.
Rocky Horror is, as a movie, divorced from its phenomenon…interesting. It’s a musical, for one thing; so much of its runtime is devoted to song that it’s nearly an opera. This is just as well, since the music is the best part of the production. One dark and stormy night, newly engaged Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon) break down in the middle of nowhere and look for help at a nearby castle (!), where they find a cross-dressing mad scientist (Tim Curry) on the verge of animating his own Frankenstein Monster: an almost mindless bodybuilder he christens Rocky (Peter Hinwood). (Rocky can’t talk, but he can sing.) Wild nonsense ensues, from the rampage of a short-lived biker (Meat Loaf) to something about an alien invasion that’s never explained all that well, but none of it really matters: Rocky Horror is at heart a story of personal liberation, mostly sexual liberation (which is why theater kids and other weirdos love it), and it doesn’t stop shy of asking what happens next. Brad and Janet are left shattered by their experiences, all torn fishnets and smeared makeup, crawling through the wreckage. It’s a surprisingly poignant, sobering image, one that must have resonated with some among the film’s original, disco-days audience.
1975 also brings us to the feature film debut of David Cronenberg, one of the major figures of horror film going forward. Although Shivers (AKA The Parasite Murders, AKA They Came from Within) would be eclipsed by Cronenberg’s subsequent films, it’s remarkable how distinctly his own the auteur’s voice is here, right from the start. A fashionable high-rise apartment complex is infested with leech-like parasites that travel from host to host via venereal contact. These are the brainchildren of yet another coitus-obsessed mad scientist, this one a man convinced that humankind is too estranged from its animal lusts. Once infected, the victim becomes violently sex-crazed. This may sound pornographic, ridiculous, or pornographic and ridiculous, but Cronenberg approaches the subject with a signature clinical detachment that forces the viewer to consider, as an intellectual prospect, the symbiotic thirst-slug and its social ramifications.
Director Dario Argento had debuted with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), a Hitchcockian thriller that attracted rave reviews, but it was with 1975’s Deep Red (AKA Profondo Rosso) that he came into his own. All the elements of the ideal Argento film combine for the first time: the lurid color pallette, the entrancing synthesizer score by Goblin, the storyline that blurs the boundaries between the giallo and the tale of supernatural horror. A psychic (Macha Meril) giving a public demonstration of her power is shocked to contact the mind of a killer; that night, pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) is walking past the psychic’s home when he sees her being murdered in the window. Daly is drawn into an amateur investigation, uncovering a decades-old crime and endangering those who unwittingly hold clues to the killer’s identity. The mystery of Deep Red is a clever labyrinth, but the film’s small cast means the solution is pretty easy to intuit regardless. That’s not a dealbreaker — suspense and atmosphere are everything in Argento, and those Deep Red has in abundance.
Two not-quite horror films focus on the ghoulish excesses of the Axis during World War II: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, an extremely difficult work with a high-art pedigree that forces critics to take it seriously, and Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, a movie no one takes seriously, but maybe they should, at least a little. Salò moves the Marquis de Sade’s notorious 1785 novel to Italy in the early 1940s, where fascists enslave and graphically rape, torture and slaughter a group of teenagers. This is even less fun to watch than it sounds. Ilsa is a straight-up exploitation movie about a sadistic concentration camp warden and “scientist” (Dyanne Thorne) who subjects the women in her charge to hideous experiments, and enlists the men into her personal sexual service. Anyone who can’t bring Ilsa to orgasm suffers a fate worse than death, and Ilsa — despite her voracious appetites — is very hard to satisfy. Salò and Ilsa spin weird fantasy out of real-life atrocity so vast as to dwarf imagination; they exist at the event horizon of bad taste. Ironically, Ilsa’s lack of pretense shields it from the withering critiques one might level at Salò — take it or leave it, Ilsa is what it is.
Numerous 1975 horror films concerned themselves with women’s issues, though they were generally made by men. Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock explores the unexplained disappearance of a group of schoolgirls (circa 1900) and its aftermath; those who remain are placed under such ugly social pressures that the vanished ones seem lucky. The Stepford Wives, a dark comedy based on a novel by Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby), follows a group of modern women who, one by one, are replaced by automatons who think only of pleasing their husbands. The anthology film Trilogy of Terror casts Karen Black in multiple leading roles, allowing her to show her range in a way often denied to Hollywood actresses, then and now.
Horror is frequently characterized as misogynist, and certainly there are plenty of misogynistic horror films. We’ve talked about a few of them already, in past installments. There are more to come. But if horror wasn’t yet a women’s genre, it was about to turn into one.
Our Feature Presentation
In the unlikely event you’ve never seen Jaws, this article shall endeavor not to ruin the film’s best jump scare — indeed one of film’s best jump scares — although it’s hard to spoil. Even if you know it’s coming, it still never quite happens when you’re expecting it (it’s about fifty minutes in). The film cheats by layering a scream into the soundtrack when it happens…but most viewers probably don’t even hear it, because they’re screaming, too.
Why is this moment so effective? A lot of it boils down to timing. Editor Verna Fields won an Oscar for the film, and her artistry makes Jaws a sleek fear machine. “By God, I saved the picture,” Fields would later say; Carl Gottlieb, one of the film’s writers, would take exception to the idea that Jaws needed saving, but not without acknowledging Fields’ “enormous contribution” to a “fruitful and happy collaboration” in which ultimately “Steven Spielberg [was] the true auteur [of Jaws].” Either way, it’s hard to envision a cut of Jaws superior to the one Fields assembled, and easy to imagine a cut that doesn’t fly at all…because Fields, and everyone else involved, had to work around one serious problem:
Their shark movie was missing a shark.
It seems inconceivable in today’s filmmaking world (where the shark would simply be CGI), but a mechanical shark was planned to feature prominently in Jaws. This shark does appear in the final film, though less often than originally intended, for reasons expounded upon in many sources (this is a good one). Short version: the shark didn’t work, at least not reliably. Behind-the-scenes stories of how Jaws was made are legendary and legion — interested readers are pointed toward Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (1999) and Gottlieb’s own The Jaws Log (1975, revised 2012) — and may be more entertaining than Jaws itself. Most involve the shark, and the great misery it visited upon the cast and crew. The modern viewer, armed with a Jaws Blu-ray equipped with documentary features that detail all the angst that fueled the film’s creation, cannot help but approach the work with its origins in mind. When you know the obstacles Spielberg had to overcome, you appreciate the magic trick unfolding before your eyes for what it is — a trick.
But here, as they say, is the thing: audiences in 1975 weren’t thinking about any of that. Jaws, to them, was not a shark movie (almost) without a shark. It was a shark movie. And it was scary as hell.
A lesser film would merely compensate for the near-absence of its monster. Jaws, all but miraculously, exploits it — and so effectively one would never guess that hadn’t been the plan all along.
The film sets us in the shark’s viewpoint for a brief but crucial main titles sequence. Seeing the world as the shark does gives us a thrilling sense of its power. The creature moves with fantastic speed, diving and ascending with deadly grace. Nothing under the waves can block its path. But it’s John Williams’ now-familiar theme music that grants the beast majesty, gravitas, immensity. Later on, when some money-hungry fishermen try to pass off a sad little tiger shark they’ve caught as our shark, we’ll laugh. There’s just no way. This thing is a dynamo. A leviathan.
The credits keep rolling as we transition to a late-night beach party that’s as rowdy as anything ever will be in the Spielberg oeuvre: twenty-somethings sit around a bonfire, drinking, doing pot, strumming guitars, making out. Through a haze of smoke, we spy a woman (Susan Backlinie) sitting off to the side, alone. She smiles. A moment later, she’s running for the ocean, all joy, stripping off her clothes as she shouts back to a pursuer who doesn’t know her name (it’s Chrissie). Chrissie wants to swim, but her paramour is too trashed to follow. Chrissie dives in, unaware that the man behind her has collapsed, moaning, to the sand. She swims out a hundred feet, looks to shore —
And we return to the underwater POV of the opening. We’re beneath Chrissie now, drawing close to her nude form as she stirs her feet to stay in place. The film cuts to Chrissie’s face as…something happens. Chrissie screams, then is dragged as if by some invisible aggressor through the water, then is pulled under. An instant of stillness, and then Chrissie bursts to the surface, howling for God or anyone to help her, and then she’s gone again. Forever.
This scene is terrifying. But it’s fair to ask why, since we haven’t explicitly seen anything all that terrifying transpire. Let’s pretend. Suppose we’d been looking down the length of Chrissie’s body as the shark zoomed up through the murk, into view, its mouth opening wide. Massive jaws slam shut on a slender foot, bisecting it. Blood roses bloom. The shark loves the taste, opens up for more without even swallowing; a scatter of severed, twitching toes spills from its maw as it takes the leg to the knee, and drags a howling Chrissie down. Her eyes go huge as she plunges under the waves and sees —
Nasty, right? But kind of a relief, too. Any scenario we invent — no matter how gruesome — negates every other possible explanation of what’s being done to poor Chrissie just below the surface. When the details are left purely to the imagination, the potential scope of horror is as wide as imagination itself. But when we’re given a few clues, that’s somehow worst of all.
Jaws understands this, and parcels out its clues accordingly. In the cold light of day, Brody gets a look at what’s left of Chrissie. Pieces of her have washed up on the beach, a feast for scurrying crabs. Hooper autopsies what the cops can salvage. He narrates his findings into a tape recorder: torso severed, one arm severed, all major organs missing. Now we have a clear picture of Chrissie’s fate, but never mind that — what the hell manner of animal are we dealing with here? Hooper is breathless, astonished by the injuries and their implications. We may not understand half the jargon, but we sure know what it means when he says the shark must be “considerably larger” than any one normally found in these waters…or do we? How big is a “normal” shark? How big must any shark be that can do that to a person?
The autopsy is soon followed by a vignette about a pair of aspiring shark-hunters with a bad idea: when night falls, they creep out onto the beach and dangle a pork roast — with a hook stuck through it — off the edge of a pier. Brody is at home, poring over books about sharks. As the hunters get a tug on their line, the film intercuts their dilemma with full-screen shots of the photographs that Brody is rifling through: men standing inside the mouth of a skeletal shark, vicious bite wounds in vibrant color, a great white with an oxygen tank in its teeth. Jaws still hasn’t shown us our shark, but there’s no need — the viewer completes the circuit, draws an arrow from what’s in the books to what’s on the end of that hook. The hunters have chained their line to the pier itself, a gambit that backfires when the shark pulls most of the pier into the water and torpedoes away with it. One hunter is stranded on the section that’s being hauled out to sea; he leaps off and swims for safety, and is about to succeed when the pier turns tail and comes barrelling back in his direction. Just as it reaches him, the pier is cut loose, released as the shark slips the lure. The plank of wood drifts harmlessly to shore.
Of course, there never was anything there but a plank of wood…not really. It’s Chrissie’s death-by-phantasm all over again. Yet, if anything, this scene is scarier. When we think of films that create a monster in our minds rather than put one on stage, we may consider Cat People (1942), The Haunting (1963), or The Blair Witch Project (1999) — popular films, but polarizing. To many viewers, a horror film that trades on suggestion delivers diminishing returns as it goes on, until the whole thing starts to feel like a waste of time. Jaws avoids that trap by escalating the threat whenever the shark appears — next it will strike at a crowd of beachgoers, including Brody’s son — and letting us see more with every attack. The momentary emergence of the shark’s tail; from a distance, a child borne aloft on a geyser of blood; a gory close-up of a detached leg sinking to the ocean floor. Because Jaws keeps revealing more and more, we never doubt it. The film makes us such believers that we may not realize we haven’t seen the shark —
Until we do.
The big reveal comes when we least expect it — not at the height of an attack, but as Brody is shoveling fish guts off the side of Quint’s boat, the Orca, in an effort to get the shark’s attention. Brody is looking off-camera, snarling a remark, when in the background a shark the size of a megalodon rises from the waves to gulp down the chum. Brody turns his head just in time to see the shark descend; he backs away from the railing, looking like he’s about to have a stroke. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” he tells Quint in the film’s most famous line, and he’s right. They don’t get one.
That’s almost an hour and a half into a two-hour show, but even afterward the shark is used sparingly until the last reel. A mix of animatronic action and real wildlife footage finally makes the shark a full-fledged character, and if the second is more convincing than the first, it helps that we don’t know (most of us) what a shark eating a boat — and its captain — should look like. But what makes the climax of Jaws so strong isn’t technical wizardry. Quint’s earlier monologue about the demise of the U.S.S. Indianapolis weaves a spell with words, with Robert Shaw’s entrancing drawl, with the sounds of the Orca’s creaking timbers and a whale’s moaning song, and it drives home how small and vulnerable our heroes are at sea…a notion that lingers. When the Orca begins to capsize and descend, when the shark writhes its way up the deck, we understand the mortal terror in our bones. Quint’s long slide into the shark’s mouth is an impressive visual, but it’s Quint we care about: stabbing the beast out of sheer spite, crying out in pain as it bites down on him. And as spectacular as the shark’s bloody end is, what sticks with us is Brody’s reaction, that look not just of triumph, but of childlike wonder.
There’s a deep irony here. Jaws may have inspired Hollywood to spend vast sums of money in pursuit of bigger and bigger box-office smashes, but its creativity and characterization make the movie what it is. It’s a lesson often lost on filmmakers, in any genre.
Next Time: We go back to school with Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie.
(All images appearing in this article are intended for editorial use only.)