Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: Jaws.
It is hard to believe that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws turned 40 years old this year. Four decades after its initial release and three sequels later—you would have guessed more than that, right?—Jaws remains one of the most ground-breaking films of any genre of all time.
Ranked number 48 on the American Film Institute’s roster of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time, Jaws is not only an outstanding film on the merits, but it also single-handedly created the idea of the summer blockbuster, which had never before existed until Spielberg’s masterpiece came along. For all the amazing things about Jaws, however—the phenomenal performances, the terrific writing, and on and on—what is often lost about this timeless classic is just how good a horror film it really is.
Jaws actually scares you. And it doesn’t just scare you in the moment: it lingers with you, it haunts you, and it plays with your mind whenever you dip your toe into the deep blue sea. It is not hype to say that an entire generation of moviegoers learned to be afraid of the water from Jaws.
The real genius of Jaws was its ability to—really for the first time—come up with something as terrifying as the dark. For as long as long as humans have had the capacity for fear, they have been afraid of the dark. You can’t see in it, so there could be anything there. When you step into it, you are rendered all but helpless. And no matter what is in there, odds are that it would not be nearly as terrifying if you could actually see it. Jaws took everything that we’ve always feared about the dark and applied it to the sea.
The power of that approach was rendered even more potent by the happy accident of the malfunctioning mechanical shark. Spielberg’s difficulties with his malfunctioning monster have been well-documented, and the production’s inability to keep the shark prop functioning properly during the shoot forced Spielberg to adjust his style on the fly. So, rather than seeing the shark in all its glory early and often, Spielberg instead offers us subtle suggestions of the shark’s presence—the simple chords of the brilliant score, a swimmer’s reaction to the shark’s attack, a shadow in the water—and brief glimpses. By making the shark the thing behind the door, by the time we actually see it, we are already terrified of it.
Jaws may have been the first summer blockbuster, but it will always be a Halloween movie to me.