Celebrating Jaws, 45 Years Later
Though the franchise is often viewed as a string of cheesy monster movies better suited to Syfy than Turner Classic Movies, audiences shouldn’t forget that Steven Spielberg’s 1975 original Jaws is a horror masterpiece that terrified millions of summer theatergoers into staying out of the water, garnering five Academy Award nominations in the process, including Best Picture. That’s right, Jaws was up for the most prestigious honor in the biz, and anyone who has seen it should understand why. This killer shark movie understands how to take a bite out of people’s fear of the unknown deep, and perfectly preys upon our instinctual fear of predators. And while there are many scenes that could illustrate the variety of ways in which Spielberg exploits that fear, one, in particular, does so in a more understated way.
The “holiday roast” guys get a lot of play for that line, but that bit of comedy serves as merely the icebreaker for what is to follow, lulling audiences into a more relaxed state of mind. The pier scene starts off with whining, sluggishness, and a big fat hunk of meat attached to a tire — this has got to be some kind of goof. These two oafs play more like an Abbot and Costello routine than fishing masterminds with a solid plan.
It’s the perfect setup for Spielberg to start extending his cinematic tentacles into the audience’s brains, and he starts small. The shot of the hook sticking into flesh provides associating with another kind of meat, and the animal that’s been feeding on it nearby. After a clumsy toss of the bait and makeshift bobber into the receding tide, Jaws cuts back to Chief Brody, up late flipping through a book on sharks that he must have picked up from the local island library. It’s a quiet moment, but one that builds perfectly into the next phase of the scene by utilizing the power of suggestion.
Up until this point, Spielberg had shown some gruesome attacks, but not the actual perpetrator itself. He would carry on for a bit longer before the full reveal (thus letting viewers’ imaginations do the work that his fickle animatronic could not), but by having Brody peruse various photos of spooky great whites, mangled thigh wounds, and a jaw bone so big that a group of scientists can stand inside it (visually suggesting man-eating), the seed of Jaws‘ monster is planted in our minds. We can now associate gaping mouths filled with razor-sharp with that torn flesh from the coroner’s office. We can picture those dead, black eyes homing in on the kicking legs of a young swimmer. There is a face to the evil and reminders of its destructive power that makes that unseen force all the more real.
After also cleverly inserting an image of a shark with a scuba tank in its mouth as a bit of sneaky foreshadowing, Spielberg now takes his audience back to the once-amusing pier. As the two men whistle away the night, a more ominous tone sets in as a couple jerks and tugs on the tire provide a chilling callback to a certain Chrissie we once knew. In a flash, the tire is off and cruising through the water, taking chain faster than the fishermen expected. Shark attacks are abrupt and ferocious; the sheer power of the beast pulls the pier apart, sending one of the men into the water, clinging to pieces of wood for dear life.
And with those images from Brody’s book now stuck in the audience’s brain, Spielberg doesn’t need to show anything more than that piece of pier attached to a chain for everyone to know exactly what’s at stake, and letting people picture horror in their minds is a powerful way to make it stick. Few moments in Jaws are as tense as watching one helpless fisherman cheer on his tiring friend, urging him to swim faster as the broken piece of pier turns around and starts coming back. As that floating wood bears down on him, as he slips and struggles to climb to safety, Spielberg focuses on his legs — and thanks to Brody’s book, we all know how that turns out, right?
Well, it turns out that what may be the scariest scene in Jaws doesn’t actually involve anyone being killed. The fisherman is pulled from the water at the last moment, John Williams’ pounding score subsides, and the piece of pier washes innocuously up on shore. Yet despite this, Spielberg gets pulses pounding here like almost nowhere else in the film. In the end, nothing really happens in Jaws‘ pier scene, but years later it sticks out for all the various frightening things that could have happened — the attacks that occurred in theatergoers’ minds.