In reality though, Jaws was my first horror movie. I saw it when I was about six or seven years old, when my family was vacationing in Wells Beach, Maine. The TV was right next to the sliding glass doors of the cottage, through which I could see directly into the ocean. Yes, I watched Jaws less than a football field away from the water. To say that it profoundly affected me would be an understatement. Let’s just say there wasn’t a lot of swimming done by me that year.
Jaws celebrated its 40th anniversary in June, and thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I was able to finally see it on the big screen with my both kids and my father. Three generations experiencing one amazing film together. It was glorious.
People have debated over the years whether or not Jaws is actually a horror film. You could certainly make the case that it’s more of a thriller, even an adventure movie, but there’s no denying the very basic and visceral horror theme that runs through this movie. Jaws was a film that capitalized on two very common fears–the ocean and sharks. One of the most oft-quoted taglines from the original ad campaign is “Don’t go in the water.” (NOTE: Probably even more memorable is the tagline from Jaws 2: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.”)
So, the movie has these very real and basic fears to play off of, but that wouldn’t matter if the film itself wasn’t executed well. We don’t have to look any farther than the terrible sequels and clones over the years to see that. But the fact is, Jaws is a freaking cinematic masterpiece.
John Williams’ very simple but dread-inducing score makes every moment a character is in the water terrifying. The rigs that cinematographer Bill Butler dreamed up to capture the underwater and water-level shots are MacGyver-esque. And when you combine Butler’s ingenuity and camera operator Michael Chapman’s techniques with Steven Spielberg’s composition and framing genius, you have magic.
The opening scene where a young woman goes skinny dipping and is attacked by the shark is absolutely terrifying, and beautifully shot. It’s a short film in and of itself.
And that’s the thing about Jaws–the whole movie is like that. Each scene is so well crafted that it can stand on its own. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when you have the likes of Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw playing off one another so well, either.
One of the most amazing things about how well Jaws turned out was how hard it was to make. Delays, mechanical problems, seasick actors–you name it, and the production was marred by it. But the final product is gold.
To give you an idea of how huge Jaws was, consider this–Jaws was the highest-grossing movie ever until Star Wars came along a few years later, and it currently has grossed over $470 million worldwide. When adjusted for inflation, Jaws is still the ninth highest-grossing movie of all time. And when it came out in 1975, Jaws actually had a negative effect on beach attendance, and also resulted in shark-fishing tournaments that depleted the shark population. It gave sharks a worse reputation than they already had, and one which they’ve never really recovered from.
Jaws was–and is–a cultural phenomenon. And it’s a movie that really needs to be seen on the big screen to be truly appreciated. I’m very thankful that my family and I finally got to see it that way.