This review was originally published on Horror Buffs – James’ genre review website, on October 31, 2013.
Every once in a while a film is so well received and becomes so iconic that it comes to define its own genre. At the time of its release, there was simply no precedence for what Jaws  was setting out to accomplish. Its success spawned not only 3 sequels but also paved the way for other Predatory Horror films as Lake Placid , Anaconda  and Deep Blue Sea . The film popularized a subgenre of Horror filmmaking which harkens back to a time in human evolution when there was no need for humanity to fear aliens or fantastic creatures of indescribable natures. Jaws is a reminder that the primordial soup which gave birth to reality as we know it is more than capable of producing creatures just as terrifying as our imaginations.
Yesterday I saw a fox run across the road while I was waiting at a set of traffic lights after exiting the highway (that’s freeway for our American counterparts). It reminded me that while I was in the heart of one of the largest cities in the world, nature and wildlife often find ways to creep into what the callous declare to be civilized or developed spaces. The irony and symbolism of the fox as a cunning creature, emblematic of nature’s ingenuity was not lost upon me. It made me think to other instances in which nature and civilization have met to far more horrific outcomes. The recent incident of Charla Nash being attacked and having her face and hands eaten by a chimpanzee is probably the most horrific example of nature’s capacity to shock us with its frightening unpredictability. Jaws is a stunning reminder to us that nature can impose horrific consequences for neglecting to observe the simple fact that we inhabit a shared space with it and not for a minute should be lulled into a false belief that we are in any way, shape or form that we are dictating those boundaries.
Jaws, like other films such as Deliverance  and to a lesser, albeit more transparent extent, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre  in the mid 70’s were cautionary tales of a more Orwellian nature. Unlike films such as Friday the 13th , which are for more linear in their hack-and-slash depictions of two-dimensional horror, these films presented us with a deeper, more sophisticated sense of fear. They presented us with further areas for thought and consideration to accountability. These films dealt primarily with the precipitating factors towards the creation of what we regard as monstrous. In essence, these films went so far as to suggest that their villains weren’t acting out of sheer malice, but were responding to a set of influences beyond their control.
Jaws is a film that causes us to reevaluate our process for determining villainy. While on the one hand we have the shark, which follows millions of years of evolutionary drive and instinct to fulfill two needs: to acquire food and to reproduce. The shark thus cannot be held accountable for its actions the way its human counterparts can be in other Horror films: the shark is not subject to morality. The mayor of Amity however, is.
This is where this film makes us reconsider onus for the deaths of the townspeople. Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) is plagued by the decision he must make: close the beach and risk losing tourist dollars, or leave it open and chance some deaths. Vaughn’s moral ambiguity causes us to reevaluate our sense of trust in authority figures since we are forced to confront the possibility that our officials may have more pressing motivating factors than our safety and wellbeing. This gives us pause as we reconsider who we should be more afraid of: the shark that’ll devour us, or the hand that’ll feed us to it.
The film possesses some very effective visceral scares as well. The filmmakers were acutely aware that in order for this film to succeed on its minimally complex plot, further elements were necessary. The film boasts some of cinema’s most tense and harrowing moments, not the least of which is Quint’s speech where he recounts his experiences aboard the USS Indianapolis.
This is a very dense scene, loaded with fabulous lighting, long takes and some dynamite acting by Shaw. The story he tells offers a heavy tone which becomes almost unbearable when contrasted with how carefree the troupe was moments before. The following song and subsequent shark attack come to be regarded as almost a blessing as it quickly cuts the otherwise indomitable tension and permits us access back into the briskly paced action sequences.
These sequences are masterfully assembled, always coming when unexpected, yet needed the most. They utilize the basic horror principle that less is more: always careful to just reveal enough of the shark to make it clear that it is a shark, but not enough to betray any real sense of proportion until the very end. There’s also no real great reveal sequence prior to the climax of the film. The shark thus retains a far more mythic and horrific quality as the most we’re permitted to see of it are the effects it has on its victims – the sinking leg I found particularly impressionable as a child.
The real power of Jaws is its ability to run the emotional gamut. The film is quite literally an emotional rollercoaster, guiding us through joy, sorrow, fear and grief. The film’s most potent and memorable scene is when the grieving Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fierro) confronts chief Brody with the death of her son. One can’t help but empathize with her sense of grief and share in her sense of loss. Revisit that scene on the beach in the preceding scene in which everyone runs out of the water. Imagine being her, the mother of the one person who didn’t make it out of the water that day. It’s a striking reminder that there are forces other than simply a rogue shark plaguing Amity.
While much of the film takes place outside in almost blinding light, I think it’s easy to overlook how moody and effective the lighting can be. The sequence with Hooper exploring the bottom of Ben Gardner’s boat (Craig Kingsbury), the way Hooper fades into the background under the swinging light for Quint’s story; there are numerous examples where careful consideration is given to ambiance. These scenes almost sneak up on us as they are so dark and foreboding in contrast with the brightly lit scenes, however no solace can be taken in the light as we quickly learn that attacks are just as likely during the day as during the night.
There’s a wonderful deconstruction of the safe zones in this regard. A typical Horror convention is to situate the majority of the moments of horror and terror in the dark for optimal effect and to lend nuance and enhance the effects of the shock. By situating the attacks during the daytime as well as the night there is a sense of never really feeling safe. The result is a shift in the cueing of when the spectator should feel alternately safe and at risk from day/night to land/water: we’re only really safe while on land.
71% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water so it makes more than a little sense for at least some of our horror to take place there, so many of us have at least a passive involvement or even dependency upon it, either professionally or recreationally. Jaws instills within us a fear of open water. It sounds almost obscure, however it’s not necessarily a fear of sharks, but a fear of what may be lurking below the surface. It’s a vast, vast world out there and we know so little about it. Mother Nature has been hard at work creating horrors the likes of which we have yet to see or understand for billions of years. I think it would be naïve to assume that we as a species represent the pinnacle of her creative, let alone horrific abilities. I think it’s a wonderful tale that reminds us that no matter what Mother Nature concocts, the human condition will be ever present to worsen matters for ourselves. Humanity seems destined to contextualize its own demise rather that perpetrate the deed itself.
 Sandoval, Edgar and Rich Schapiro. “Charla Nash Lost Eyes, Nose and Jaw in Chimpanzee Attack.” NYDailyNews.com. Feb. 19, 2009. Daily News. Nov. 14, 2009. <http://www.nydailynews.com/news/2009/02/18/2009-02-18_charla_nash_lost_eyes_nose_and_jaw_in_ch.html>.