A Crash Course in Horror is a monthly column by our self-proclaimed horror movie noob, Noémi Pomerleau. She reviews a classic (or even “new classic”) horror movie from the viewpoint of someone who has never seen it (because, well, she hasn’t).
Jaws is also a horror movie, although when I describe it that way a lot of people give me a weird look and insist that it’s not. I suppose that’s because it doesn’t fit the typical monster movie mold, but — I don’t think Jaws is a monster movie. This is the tale of a serial killer. A serial killer that just happens to be an enormous shark.
Like all good serial killer movies, the film opens with the murder of the first innocent victim. The scenes are shot underwater, from the point of view of the shark, with the all-too-familiar theme song slowly building up to a fever pitch as she’s attacked.
Cut to the next morning, when we meet our leading man, Police Chief Brody (Roy Schneider). Brody and his deputies soon come across the woman’s corpse, so mangled that they all react in horror. Like any good police officer, Brody immediately orders the beaches closed. He takes off to the hardware store to buy the wood to make up a few good signs to warn people away.
The local business association doesn’t care for this, and neither does Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), who I affectionately referred to as “Buddy Garrity” for the rest of the movie. I say affectionately mostly out of affection for Friday Night Lights, because Mayor Vaughn is A TERRIBLE HUMAN BEING. Mayor Vaughn does not want to embarrass the town and lose out on a bit of money all because of one human body that’s been chewed into pieces. He figures that risking a second victim is worth retaining the town’s economic viability as a hot spot for summer beach-goers, and orders Brody to keep the beaches open.
Alright, maybe in the real world Mayor Vaughn’s reaction is completely reasonable, considering shark attacks are few and far between. But I know how this is going to turn out, so he is the worst.
Predictably, Mayor Vaughn is completely incorrect. The shark is trolling the shore, looking for his next victim. Most of the next 10 minutes is a series of long, agonizing scenes filled with happy swimmers and children playing at the beach. We get to see a few of the villagers who will play crucial roles in the upcoming scenes, and learn that Brody is scared of the water, and refuses to go anywhere near it.
Jaws is a film that isn’t scared to go full-throttle with its irony.
Everything goes to hell after the shark’s inevitable return. People argue about what should be done, there’s a mad rush to catch it, and eventually Brody just decides he’ll have to handle it himself. Well, actually, he decides the crazy old fisherman named Quint (Robert Shaw), who has killed hundreds of sharks, is probably the right person for the job. He just happens to hop on the boat with him. Why would he do that, considering the fact that he’s terrified of water and is probably a miserable seaman? For honor, I guess? Somebody should tell him how that ended for Ned Stark.
Oh, and I can’t forget sassy proto-hipster/oceanographer Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), who was brought in as the wise expert on sharks but quickly lost my respect when he went for a swim in the middle of the night. He knew perfectly well there was a murder shark on the loose. I spent my time waiting for his own hypocrisy to catch up to him.
While this wasn’t Steven Spielberg’s first movie, it’s undoubtedly the film that catapulted him to fame. Compared to his later films it feels remarkably unpolished, although his film-making style is already obvious. It was also the first collaboration of Spielberg and John Williams, and while the main theme of Jaws is one of the most recognizable pieces of music of all time, I think Williams’ contribution to this film is actually its biggest detriment.
If there’s any reason that people doubt Jaws‘ categorization as a horror movie, it’s Williams’ score. Although Spielberg undoubtedly approved of (maybe even requested) the music in the film, the tone that it sets varies enormously. Most of the film is a tense, anxiety-ridden wait for the shark’s next attack, and if the movie decided to stick with this atmosphere, it would be flawless. Spielberg chooses instead to go straight from a shark attack scene to a scene of the boat sailing triumphantly on the ocean. With the right music, even the beautiful sunny day could seem threatening. Instead, trumpets and strings pipe up excitedly, as if this is a scene from a wacky kids’ adventure movie, and it all just feels INCREDIBLY INAPPROPRIATE. Our heroes might die at any moment, John Williams, take it seriously.
Mind you, the characters in Jaws feel more like caricatures than real humans. You can feel the affectations of the writer’s room in every word they speak, so it’s not surprising when they go slightly off-tone. Yet this is such a hyper-stylized film, it gets away with the stilted interactions. The dialogue is witty and fun, and paired with a really great concept which was arguably too effective, considering what it did to the public perception of sharks.
There is one big problem with this screenplay, though, and it’s one that Steven Spielberg could have (and should have) fixed, as the film’s director. This movie is LONG. Two hours long, which may not sound all that extreme. However, they get on the boat about 60 minutes in, and spend 10 minutes in the other half of the film having a long, drunk, pointless conversation. While most of the film is very engaging, there were a couple of moments in the second half where I checked my watch, wondering when they would get to the fireworks factory.
What Jaws does get right, though, it gets INCREDIBLY right. A combination of practical effects and real-world footage are used to create the image of a truly terrifying shark. Producing an animatronic shark of that size and shape that both works in the water and looks adequately realistic must have been a herculean task. Real-life footage of a shark thrashing angrily is also used at the perfect moment, and is shocking (and real!) enough to make you gasp in fear.
The shark wouldn’t be nearly so effective if it weren’t for the tense moments on the beach or the boat where it feels like an attack could come at any moment. It’s these moments that make the film truly shine, and it’s these moments that most viewers seem to remember.
It’s a shame that Steven Spielberg didn’t commit to making a horror movie, rather than a shark-hunting adventure movie. I guess it’s a testament to his skill that he made some of the best horror out there, despite all of its flaws.Buy Jaws here!
A Crash Course in Horror updates on every third Saturday of the month. The next update is due on October 15th! If you want to help pick the horror classic I review, just leave a comment below with your suggestion or find me on Twitter (@NoemiPOM)!
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