If only modern directors would learn from Steven Spielberg and his work on “Jaws” (1975).
I have not seen a genuinely scary movie made in the past 10-15 years. Most horror movies aren’t really horrifying anymore. They contain gratuitous amounts of blood and guts along with some brief jolts of adrenaline in the form of monsters jumping out from corners. As an episode of “South Park” pointed out a while back, scary movies these days are more startling than scary.
“Jaws” is scary. Watching it again this past week, I found myself getting nervous even though I knew the events of the movie front-to-back. I knew exactly who died and when, but there were still genuinely tense and terrifying moments. How did Spielberg manage to accomplish this in a movie that’s now more than 30 years old?
It’s actually very simple: you rarely see the shark itself. The fear of the unknown and the invisible is one of the strongest fears people have. The shark in “Jaws” is a terrifying, seemingly invincible force of nature, but you never know where he is or where he’s going to strike. As such, he makes for a terrifying villain.
There are several other elements of “Jaws” that help to make it one of the best scary movies of all time. Aside from keeping the shark hidden, Spielberg employs several simple camera tricks to heighten the suspense as the movie progresses. By using extremely tight shots for almost every scene on the water along with quick cuts, the pace of the movie never lets up and the ocean appears more intimidating as it seems to fill the screen. Where is the shark lurking under that serene surface?
The audience gets to see where it lurks through a few key shark point-of-view shots. When the shark is about to devour his first hapless victim just after the movie’s opening, the camera is pointed up from the ocean floor at the swimmer as she treads water, blissfully unaware of her imminent demise. The camera moves in closer, closer, closer… and then we see her being pulled under.
Another large part of the suspenseful atmosphere is the John Williams score. Everyone knows the infamous “Jaws” theme even if they’ve never seen the movie. Like the shark, the music lurks ominously in the background, setting the scene for the next attack.
But, technical proficiency can be undone by poorly developed characters; after all, who cares if a character dies when the audience has no vested interest in them? Luckily, the core characters of “Jaws” are well developed and we do care if they live or die.
Roy Scheider as Police Chief Martin Brody has the most screen time as the everyman caught up in the struggle against nature. Scheider makes an effective surrogate for everyone in the audience: he has a family, a strong interest in protecting his community and a fear of what lies in the ocean’s depths. The viewer shares his fear when the shark appears right next to his oldest son during a trip to the beach.
The other main characters are Richard Dreyfuss as the scientist Matt Hooper and Robert Shaw as the professional shark hunter, Quint. Scheider, Dreyfuss and Shaw are all given the opportunity to expand their characters beyond standard caricatures and clichés. The best of these scenes is during the latter portion of the film when the three hunters are on Quint’s boat swapping stories about their scars.
While Spielberg would move on to bigger, better projects following the success of “Jaws,” it would be one of his most influential films. “Jaws” was the first real summer blockbuster, crushing everything in its path at the box office in 1975. For better or worse, the blockbuster trend has been a part of the Hollywood release schedule every since.
Contact CU Independent Entertainment Editor Rob Ryan at email@example.com.