by John S
Common cinematic wisdom has it that, in 1978, Halloween cemented the Slasher Movie trope which dictates that if you are young and horny and you give in to your horniness, you will die a horrible, horrible death. However, we submit that Jaws actually first trotted out that particular nugget three years earlier in 1975. Substitute a Great White shark the size of a station wagon for Michael Myers, and you still have the same result: lots of screaming and flailing and dying. Our story starts with Chrissie (Susan Backlinie) sitting on a beach on Amity Island, MA, making googley eyes at Cassidy (Jonathan Filley) over a bonfire. Oh, yes, this beach vacation will end so very, very badly.
Before you know it, Chrissie is running down to the water, stripping off her clothes with Cassidy in pursuit. Unfortunately, he’s more drunk than horny and loses consciousness before he can even doff his boxers. Meanwhile, Chrissie dives into the water as naked as the day she arrived on this Earth. Little does she know she will leave it in the same fashion. Like, very soon. Sure enough, with Cassidy passed out on the beach like a chump, our aquatic Michael Myers shows up and gives Chrissie the bloody what-for. Bye-bye, Chrissie.
Eventually, Cassidy wakes up with presumably a lethal combo of a hangover and a case of blue balls-and no Chrissie to be seen. He reports everything to Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), Amity’s sheriff, who has a deep tan the same color as the beat-up leather jacket I bought at Goodwill years ago. Only Chief Brody looks even more leathery. Anyway, a beach search soon yields what’s left of Chrissie: not much. Still, it’s enough to make Chief Brody’s number two, Deputy Hendricks (Jeffrey Kramer), puke his guts out. Ha ha.
Chief Brody’s initial instinct is to close the beaches and put up NO SWIMMING signs everywhere. Unfortunately, the island’s top public servant, Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), strong-arms the Chief into keeping the beaches open. Yes, this will end badly, too. Sure enough, the next victim of our Swimming Slasher is a little boy named Alex Kitner (Jeffrey Voorhees). Later, when his mom (Lee Fierro) not only learns about Chrissie’s similar death a few days earlier, but also finds out Chief Brody kept the beaches open anyway, she basically sucker punches our poor sheriff. Um, Mrs. Kitner? You should actually go after that asshole Vaughn, instead. Just keeping it real.
There’s no denying now that a big-ass shark has apparently camped out off Amity Island like some house guest that refuses to leave because of the scent of pot roast wafting from the kitchen. In this case, the pot roast is the citizens of Amity Island. Mayor Vaughn, in a move he should’ve made much sooner, offers $3,000 to anyone who can kill the shark. As you can imagine, this brings out everyone from the Eastern seaboard wanting to make an easy buck. I guess that’s one way to drum up business on Amity Island. Maybe Mayor Vaughn isn’t as moronic as he seems.
At any rate, like the Salem Witch Trials, all this aggressive shark hunting can’t help but eventually net a shark. It’s a Tiger and everyone believes it’s the one that killed Chrissie and Alex. Unfortunately, blue-blood marine biologist Dr. Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) states that the bite marks on Chrissie’s remains don’t indicate a Tiger shark’s bite pattern. Meaning, Amity Island still has major problems—and also bad karma now for killing a completely innocent Tiger Shark. Assholes. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait long for the Universe to even things out: Michael Myers AKA the Big Bad Great White disrupts the 4th of July celebration by crashing the festivities and chomping someone else.
Now, it’s up to Chief Brody, Dr. Hooper, and fisherman/shark hunter/whackjob Quint (Robert Shaw) to meet our oceanic killer on his own turf: the open sea. Will they succeed? Or will they end up as so much shark poop like Chrissie? Will the Great White outwit them? Or will they figure out a way to best it? What member of this Sausage Party Cruise will make it back to Amity Island to tell the tale? Who?
Unless something very heavy fell on you in the early 1970s and you’ve been trapped under it ever since, you know how this all turns out. What’s interesting about Jaws is that—even after multiple viewings and the passing of over 40 years—it still holds up as a perfect thriller: a flawless blend of character, action, plot, suspense, and atmosphere. Like someone who looks ageless because of classic bone structure, this movie stands the test of time because of its timeless technique. It remains as awesome and exhilarating as when I first saw it as a kid. It has aged very, very well, indeed. Add a few smart phones in the characters’ hands and a reference to Amity Island’s Facebook page, and it could easily translate to 2016.
They say Jaws was the very first “Summer Event Movie” that paved the way for the rollercoaster popcorn fare that fills our multiplexes between Memorial Day and Labor Day. However, while that may be true to a certain extent, Jaws is downright Shakespearean compared to the crap that is often forced down our throats during the height of summer these days. Most present would-be summer blockbusters have no idea what classic storytelling is about and focus much more on brainless spectacle and illogical plotting. If Jaws were made today, it would be insulting to release it next to all the Suicide Squads, Batman vs Supermans, and Fantastic Fours that often clog theaters when temperatures soar.
Director Steven Spielberg’s gracefully masterful direction gives Jaws both a maturity and playfulness that you don’t see much in current and recent blockbusters, made even more remarkable by the fact that he was only 26 when he made it. His great cast gives us real people with genuine humanity, not the shallow, glib caricatures that are commonplace with modern summer movies. Looking at it now and evaluating it with 2016 sensibilities, Jaws feels less like a summer flick and more like a film that today would be released in the winter, when more “intelligent” fare usually has center stage. Unlike the summer event films of now, it feels richer and much more satisfying, like comparing a nine-course meal to a rushed snack. In short, an emotionally-fuller experience. What does that say about how much storytelling has changed between 1975 and today? Nothing good, that’s for sure.
What is good is that we will always have classic summer flicks like Jaws to circle back to, no matter how many modern wannabe-blockbuster duds we have to endure. Or not endure, as the case may be. It is a free country, after all: if a summer movie looks, feels, and sounds stupid, stay home and don’t buy a ticket until you have a strong reason do otherwise. Remember, only you can stop forest fires and movies like Suicide Squad. Maybe then Hollywood will remember how to tell a good story.
John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Dario Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Peanut M&Ms with popcorn, Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN, Theo James in anything, HALLOWEEN (movie and holiday), Scarecrow Video, Russell Crowe as a villain, strawberry soda, and Karaoke – not necessarily in that order. He also thinks he was a Bond Girl in another life, maybe a cross between Dr. Christmas Jones and Dr. Holly Goodhead.