JAWS. No other name in Horror inspires more fear. Over thirty years later, JAWS has proven to be one of the most terrifying film-going experiences of all-time, leaving behind a profound social impact and a permanent imprint on pop culture. It has become cliche for film fans to claim JAWS as being the scariest movie they have ever seen, but few other entries have ever come close to generating the same levels of tension, gut-wrenching horror, and suspense. JAWS is a masterpiece in the cinematic medium that reshaped the Horror genre for decades to follow.
"You yell 'Barracuda,' everyone says 'Huh? What?' You yell shark... we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July." -Mayor Larry Vaugh
JAWS taps into a raw, primordial fear of the unknown. The endless depths of the ocean hidden under its glassy surface could conceal any number of unseen horrors. Unlike in THE WOLF MAN or DRACULA, where victims came face to face with the monsters in some far away village set apart from reality by time and space, JAWS brings terror to the surface in our daily lives. As we find out in two of the earliest sequences, a trip to the beach can turn into a nightmare in seconds, as nature's apex predator strikes without warning or provocation. The viewers, much like Amity's beach-going vacationers, are given no hints as to the horrors they are about to experience, but for an arrangement of strings that are enough to send anyone's heart racing.
"Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies. Farewell and adieu you ladies of Spain." -Quint
If any single example had to be chosen to prove the importance of a musical score on the overall effectiveness of a film, it is John Williams' award-winning work in JAWS. No other film score has resonated so powerfully with audiences. From the exhilarating "One Barrel Chase" during the high-seas game of cat-and-mouse, to the ominous strings of the title theme, the music in JAWS accounts for half of the film's success, driving an emotional response from the audience in each of the most vital sequences.
"You know those eight guys in the fantail launch out there? Well, none of 'em are gonna make it out of the harbor alive." -Hooper
Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, and Roy Scheider provide the defining performances of their collective careers, while establishing three of the most iconic film heroes in the genre. They are honest portrayals of rounded and fundamentally human characters, complete with a wide range of emotions and flaws. Even the noble and selfless Chief Brody suffers from his personal struggle with alcohol throughout the film, while Quint's crass conduct has kept him ostracized from the people of Amity. The supporting characters and nameless beach-goers each contribute infinitely to the film's impact as well, adding small but memorable movie moments attributable to individuals that don't even share a line of dialog. What dialog and exchanges that do carry through from the script are simply brilliant, leaving behind an endless supply of quotable lines that have had a lasting effect on pop culture to this very day.
"You're gonna need a bigger boat." -Chief Brody
JAWS moves far beyond the boundaries of any one genre, combining elements of action, adventure, drama, and horror, with light touches of humor to offset the otherwise frightening mood. It is not a proven classic because of a few scary scenes with a man-eating shark, but for the exceptional acting and filmmaking that went in to the production. Commenting on the physical direction and cinematography of the picture would literally require a master's thesis to fully examine the work that went in to making this film a success.
Spielberg is not unlike a magician with the camera, a master illusionist who frequently uses misdirection to set up each of the most terrifying moments. What sets him apart from so many other directors is his close attention to detail and the subtle nuances he instills in his films. A key example of this can be found in a brief but highly effective shot taken in the police station, where Chief Brody is filling out the Death Certificate for Christine Watkins. Spielberg cuts close, focusing on the typewriter, as Brody hammers in the the death tolls that spell out "Shark Attack" under the cause of death.
"This shark, swallow you whole." -Quint
Through creative framing and dialog, Spielberg drops many hints as to the final outcome of the film. As Quint, Hooper, and Brody depart on their gallant quest, the camera trails the Orca through a set of shark jaws Quint has hanging in an upstairs window of his workshop. This clearly signifies that our heroes are venturing out into the jaws of the beast, and foreshadows what is to come. Watching closely, a meteor shower can also be seen aboard the Orca in one of the night scenes, a wonderful touch that also proves that this is a fateful journey. For Quint, fate may not have worked in his favor, but it is only fitting that he should be taken in the same manner as his fallen friends and fellow soldiers aboard the USS Indianapolis.
"Cage goes in the water, you go in the water. Shark's in the water. Our shark." -Quint
What would JAWS be without a 25-foot Great White shark hungrily prowling the beaches of Amity Isle? The shark (aptly named 'Bruce' after Spielberg's lawyer) actually plays a comparatively small (though pivotal) role in the overall scope of the picture, as its presence remains implied for the majority of the run time. And yet, the shark tends to be the one thing for which the film is most fondly remembered. This isn't hard to imagine, as the shark's jarring arrival late in the film has shocked new viewers since its original theatrical release. Its stiff, rubbery appearance is completely forgotten due to the effectiveness in which the giant puppet is used. Though the shark may not resemble the exact features of a Great White, its stylized design, prominent dorsal fin, and gaping jaws are what most people think of when they hear "Shark!"
"Smile you son of a bitch!" -Chief Brody
JAWS is a study in film and storytelling, of character archetypes, of modern myth. It is a triumphant achievement that will be looked upon for centuries to come by creating fear in its purest form through the lens of the camera. Its influences on Horror cinema in the decades that followed are unmistakable, spawning countless imitations and sequels. One thing is for sure: JAWS kept people out of the water.
If you liked JAWS, check out:
GREAT WHITE, ORCA, PIRANHA.