Dipping Into the Water(shed): Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)

While I was growing up, my parents mentioned two films that scared them to the point of panic; Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. In the latter case, both still remember hearing John Williams’ haunting score, seeing the silver outline of horror incarnate shimmering under the surface, and gasping at the bloody scenes of shark carnage bubbling from below. The sum of these parts produced (and still does) an unfounded experience at the movies. Jaws was a shocker at theaters around the world and a watershed moment in film history, raking in the dough for Universal and making Spielberg a house-hold name. But the film’s success can not only be attributed to its entertaining execution. Jaws taps into something inherently scary, mixing wry humor and terrorizing imagery to produce a glance into the depths of an unimaginable evil; an overpowering force of nature humans cannot control or understand. Robert Shaw’s Quint and Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper (both experts on sharks) marvel at their adversary’s girth and intelligence, moments which smack of awe more than panic. Hooper even comedically attempts to take a picture of the beast, asking Roy Schieder’s Chief Brody to stand in frame so that other scientists will believe the shark’s huge scale. This mixture of unease and fascination translates over to the audience, causing an unmatched and authentic desperation on both sides of the screen. Jaws masterfully illustrates the resonance of a post-modern mesh of genres, leaving the viewer room to identify Spielberg’s intentions with character and plot while still feeling insanely frightened. As a director, Spielberg has never shied away from happy endings (many critics have consistently called him to task for this) but Jaws has never felt complete in the safest sense of the word. After Brody fires one last lucky shot and the shark’s bloody body drifts to the bottom of the sea, it feels as if a part of the rogue will break away, start anew, and begin feeding again. Of course the impending sequels ruined that notion, but Spielberg’s original still holds water in the horror department no matter how many rip-offs have come since. Not knowing what lies beneath will always be scary, and in this sense, the shark is still working hard to sneak up and remind us who’s boss.

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