by Nick Cato
In June, 1975, my grandfather took me (who at the time was seven years old and in the first grade), my brother (who was two years younger and hence not yet in school), and my cousin (who was two years older) to see Jaws. Gramps was a fisherman and used to pick us up early every Sunday morning to go see what was biting. We always had a great time, and for a few months before the film’s release we had asked him if he would take us to see it. In the glorious 70s, without an Internet to ruin things, gramps picked us up one Saturday morning for a 1:00 PM screening. He picked us up at 10:30, but any good fisherman knows to get places early.
The two hour wait in front of the theater would’ve been boring, but my late gramps was a funny guy. He cracked jokes the whole time and eventually had a small audience as the line grew. I believe the film had been out three weeks by then, and we took our seats not knowing what to expect. I vaguely remember reviews from TV saying the film was causing people to stay out of the water, and as far as my parents were concerned, we were going to a movie with our fisherman grandfather to see a movie about a big fish.
Besides the initial sort-of shock this first grader had of seeing a naked woman run down the beach, it was quickly forgotten when an unseen creature gobbled her up within the film’s opening minutes. I had seen Night of the Living Dead on late night TV about a year before this, but Jaws was the very first time I saw a genuinely scary film in a theater. And by the time Hooper went scuba diving and found that decapitated head in the sunken boat, we were all glued to the screen, and the sight of that decapitated head caused my five year-old brother to hop onto my grandfather’s lap, where he remained for the rest of the film.
While, as kids, we loved seeing the shark attack sequences and were traumatized by them for years, it was the amazing performances by the main cast that made the film work so damn well. To this day, whenever I see Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, or Richard Dreyfuss in another film, I simply can’t accept them outside of their Jaws characters (although I kind-of came close to liking Dreyfuss’ role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) almost as much). But he’ll always be the wise-cracking Hooper to me when push comes to shove. I actually went to see Blue Thunder in 1983, but seeing Scheider flying around in a helicopter without blowing a shark to pieces left me feeling cheated. Same for the several older films I afterwards saw with Robert Shaw. I still think they should’ve had him somehow kill a shark in Battle of the Bulge. Okay, that was ten years before Jaws, but work with me here…
I tend to think that my love for gory films came from this screening of Jaws at such an early age. Two sequences in particular (a shot of a man’s leg sinking to the ocean floor, and Quint’s nasty demise as shark chow during the film’s epic finale) really did something to my psyche. As I had been doing for about a year after my late night viewing of Night of the Living Dead, where I obsessively thought about the film, drew pictures of it, and desired nothing more in life than getting to see it again, so I did the same thing with Jaws. It consumed me. I couldn’t get those creepy images out of my mind no matter how hard I tried. And when I finally got to see the film two or three years later on my aunt’s Betamax (anyone remember those?), I enjoyed it as much as my initial screening.
I was fortunate enough to have my own Quint: my grandfather. No, he wasn’t a shark hunter and as far as I know didn’t survive a military sunken ship shark attack, but he was a life-long fisherman who took me, my brother, and my cousin to see one of the greatest films of the 70s, if not of all time. Seeing the film with him made it more special, especially when I caught him nodding in agreement every time Quint spoke about fishing or what they had to do to catch this shark. It almost made the whole experience “3-D.”
Jaws scared the crap out of everyone back then, regardless of age. But seeing it with my gramps made it a little less scary for this (then) first grader, and he made an unforgettable film even more memorable. I watch the film at least once a year to this day and can’t help thinking about him whenever Quint comes on the screen.
And I still find Quint’s demise incredibly hard to watch…
Nick Cato is the author of one novel, five novellas, and a forthcoming book on grindhouse cinema.