5 Reasons Why JAWS is a Perfect Horror Movie

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SHOCK lays out 5 reasons why Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece JAWS has endured.

There are but a handful of “perfect” films. Not just classic films, but perfect films, ones in which you wouldn’t dare dream of a frame being changed. Ones that you can watch repeatedly and always discover something new and/or get swept up in them.

JAWS is one of those “perfect” films.

This writer has seen Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough 1975 horror/adventure hundreds of times and, I suspect, I’ll watch it that many more times before I die. It just gets better with age and repeat viewings. Rare is that sort of entertainment…

Young Spielberg’s vast improvement on Peter Benchley’s tawdry bestselling novel is as much a genre film as it is a rich, elemental story of heroism and quest, of mystery and transformation. It’s terrifying, shocking, melancholy, suspenseful, dramatic, beautiful, occasionally bloody and always enthralling.

A few years ago, JAWS was screening in a public square in Toronto, dead-center in the middle of the downtown core with traffic, grifting thugs, noisy teens, ample sirens and even construction bustling around the peripheral of the crudely erected screen. I sat there on a fold-out chair and, though I’d seen the picture countless times, got lost in it again, filtering out the din that surrounded me, fully completely locked into Chief Brody’s anti-Great White plight.

A perfect film indeed. A magical work of pop art.

Here are 5 reasons out of dozens why this film has endured the decades and still has the power to affect new generations of audiences and filmmakers, over 40 years after its summertime premiere.

JAWS Has a Strong Emotional Core:

Despite the horror of its central story and the grizzled, sea-battered nature of its setting and characters, the secret soul of JAWS lies in its sentiment, in its sense of melancholy. That sentimentality would become a Spielberg trait, the anchor of all of his films. And though some may criticize that emotional leaning, it’s almost always authentic and in JAWS it’s what gives the terror its weight. Nowhere is that gentle sense of humanity more lyrical than in the scene where a defeated Brody (Roy Scheider) sits at his dinner table, getting deep in his cups and with heavy heart, and is watched by his youngest son Sean (Jay Melo), who imitates his beloved father’s every move. Meanwhile Brody’s wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary) secretly spies on this delicate scene, overwhelmed with the love she feels for her family. And gluing it all together is John Williams’ gentle score, one filled with mild mirth and an earned sweetness…

JAWS Has an Iconic Theme:

Speaking of Williams, the most obvious pop culture impact JAWS has made is in the now immortal composer’s main theme, a simple, swelling double-note menace that starts on cello before being picked up by the orchestra, instruments adding, notes weaving in and out while those two notes – which represent the shark itself – get louder and stronger, culminating in either a violent attack or a hard-cut to future victims waiting ignorantly above water. Williams had to sell Spielberg on the deceptive simplicity of that theme and it’s a damn good thing the director bought it…

 

JAWS Has an Amazing Cast of Characters:

It’s easy to make a monster movie. But, as the JAWS sequels and myriad rip-offs have proved , a shark eating people is meaningless without a solid cast of defined characters and reliable actors essaying those characters. In JAWS, literally every single character has meaning. Not just the troika of remarkable lead turns in Roy Scheider’s Brody, Richard Dreyfuss’s Hooper and Robert Shaw’s Quint, but everyone; from Murray Hamilton’s despicable (bot not one-dimensional) mayor, to the desperate townsfolk to the salty dog sailors who haunt the harbor. Every face is unique. Every movement has meaning. Credit goes to the cast but also to Spielberg who loving spied on even the tiniest of sidebar character drama, this giving us a fully realized world in which Bruce the shark would hungrily devour.

L-R: American actors Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw on board a boat in a still from the film, 'Jaws,' directed by Steven Spielberg, 1975. (Photo by Universal Studios/Courtesy of Getty Images)

JAWS Has Its Share of Quality Jump Scares:

Jump scares are usually the low man on terror’s totem pole, easy to accomplish and often a quick, desperate grab for audience reaction. But JAWS’ jump scares are hard-earned. The most alarming of them occurs when Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) explores the MIA fisherman Ben Gardner’s seemingly abandoned boat only to be surprised by his bloated, fish-nibbled corpse. It’s a jump that Williams gooses with sound and Dreyfuss’ wild, scuba-masked eyes sell with conviction.

The Horror of “Bruce” is Judiciously and Effectively Revealed:

Everyone knows that JAWS’ aquatic antagonist, dubbed “Bruce” by the crew, had its share of problems. The mechanical beast just didn’t work the way it was supposed to work, leading to much headache and re-routing of shooting plans. But in the realm of filmmaking, necessity is often the mother of invention and happy accidents reign supreme. Because of Bruce’s “issues” the shark’s presence was kept carefully hidden, with only a flash of fang and a menacing fin appearing to add horror and dread. Later, we see a glimpse of the beast in the pond and it’s a  shattering, unexpected visual. By the time our heroes corner the shark in the middle of the ocean on Quint’s doomed vessel, The Orca, when Bruce jumps up to say hello and then, devours poor Quint, we are so wrapped up in the thrilling narrative and so in love with these eccentric, diverse and driven characters, we forgive any trespasses the questionable special effects affect. All we see is a person we adore getting gutted by a primordial death machine from the bottom of the blackest waters.

And, back to the emotional core point, that horror is quickly replaced by sadness and a deep sense of loss.

These are but a handful of reasons why JAWS remains one the greatest movies of all time and a “perfect” film.

What are your favorite moments that make the movie meaningful to you?

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