Today’s review is by me. My favorite horror film is Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster, Jaws.
Jaws hits close to home. I grew up in a small Massachusetts seaside town and the beach was always right there. I learned how to swim at a young age and am comfortable in the water, but Jaws plays on the natural fear of what you can’t see. In fact, because the mechanical shark the filmmakers used was so problematic, Spielberg had to work around that problem and imply the unseen danger beneath the waters, which serves to let the audience’s imaginations make the giant shark even more terrifying. But we all know it’s scary. Why is it my favorite?
Jaws was the first true blockbuster. It was a massive hit. Because of that mainstream acceptance, it can be easy to forget that it’s also a very well made film. The structure is rock-solid and there are no wasted scenes. The characters have clear arcs. Police Chief Brody is afraid of the water. So what else could the film be but the Chief dealing with a shark who is attacking his island’s people during the profitable summer tourist season? The shark pushes Brody past the threshold and the stakes only escalate as the film goes on. More people are endangered including his family and he has no choice but to help hunt it down.
I saw Jaws at a young enough age that I still can’t help but get nervous when I swim out in the ocean for an extended period. The clearer the water, the more fun I can have. The shark in Jaws may be extreme (20 to 25 feet) but it’s well within the realm of possibility. In fact, the killer great white was based on two real life stories: the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Jersey Shore attacks of 1916. In 1916, the general public didn’t know to be careful around sharks and going to the beach was reaching an all-time high in terms of popularity. Several attacks occurred along the shore, which was probably the same shark. It was also likely starving or injured and not thinking clearly because shark attacks are actually quite rare. But the shark ended up swimming up a stream and temporarily trapping itself in a pond. It attacked and killed several children and the town went to find their bodies and make sense of the story told by a surviving child. Ultimately, the shark ended up escaping back out the stream to the ocean.
The USS Indianapolis story makes its way into the film as part of the backstory of fisherman Quint, giving a reason to his Ahab-like drive to kill the shark. The Indianapolis was the ship that delivered the bomb that ended WWII. Because it was on a secret mission, not many people were aware of its location. On the way home, a Japanese sub sank the ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It took four days until the survivors were found by a U.S. military plane and rescued. The ship had a crew of 1,196. About 300 went down with the ship and the rest of the 900 fought off dehydration and shark attacks until the rescue. Only 317 survived.
Jaws’ author Peter Benchley would later say he regretted making a shark such a monster, but even if it is a rare event, it’s certainly a plausible one. When we step into the ocean, we step out of our natural environment. Being scared helps keep us alive. Jaws works best as many horror films do: a cautionary tale playing on our fears of the unknown.