The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 6

THE SIX-SIDED FISH TANK
by David James Keaton

When I was in first grade, I could never get a handle on Show & Tell. Every time it was my turn, I brought in a parade of nonsense that put the other kids right to sleep. Everybody else came in with stuff that had us scrambling all over each other to get a better look, and you’d think with 90% of Show & Tells just being a presentation of a kid’s favorite toy, I could have cracked this code. But I was so eager to blow them away, that I kept veering off course by bringing in, say, magnifying glasses and no sun in the room to actually burn anything, or the 12-inch single of Sweet’s “Fox on the Run” that I slapped down on Mrs. Circle’s mesmerizing turntable with the flashing diamond lightshow. Yes, her name was really Mrs. Circle and she had a cool record player, which seems unlikely but probably just a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. But this song was probably my worst Show & Tell ever, as I watched everyone’s eye glaze over but did learn a lesson as valuable as anything I retained from first grade—which is never put on music and stare intently into a blank face and wait for a reaction. Music is mostly for solitude, particularly when you hear it for the first time, and a dark room like a movie theater is probably best. This is something I’ve carried with me, which became amplified by a thousand when I witnessed karaoke. So if you’re singing an amazing Meat Loaf song at the bar, and I get up and leave? Don’t take it personal. We must have made eye contact, and I just had no idea what you wanted from me.

But one day, I solved the riddle and cracked the Show & Tell code once and for all by bringing in a toy for this movie I hadn’t even seen yet. See, the toy was ages 6 and up, where the movie was, what, 13 and up? It would probably be rated PG-13 today, like all of Spielberg’s movies (I mean, he’s the dude who invented that rating with Temple of Doom, right?) But this toy? Holy crap it was incredible. It was a big plastic shark with a rubber-band mouth, and you stuck a variety of plastic trinkets on the tongue and then plucked them off one by one with a wicked-looking gaff. And once the bottom jaw wasn’t heavy enough to hold the tension… SNAP! The mouth banged shut, little plastic junk flying everywhere, kids screaming, the works. And it snapped extra hard if you life-hacked that shit like we all did and put three rubber bands on the mouth instead of one. It wasn’t dangerous or anything. It had teeth, sure, but you wouldn’t lose a leg like that poor lifeguard in the movie (the scene that almost got it an R-rating actually), but don’t worry about him either, he’ll be okay. I know it seemed like he died but if you look close, he was barefoot in the boat, but then when his severed leg floated down to the bottom… the foot was wearing a tennis shoe. That’s why this lifeguard is the badass of all time. He took a moment to put on his goddamn shoes while a shark was chomping and blowing bubbles with him like Big League Chew.

Anyway, my shark was a bit hit. We didn’t even have to play the game. I just put it together, fin-by-fin, locked and loaded the rubber-band jaw, then piled up the tongue with the junk. And these trinkets you had to fish out of its face were fascinating, by the way. Sort of like Monopoly, which could have been way better of you spent the game putting sharks on all your properties instead of houses. Near as I can remember, there was a work boot, an anchor, a wagon wheel (?), a fish skeleton, no human body parts but this big ol’ bone that might have been from a person, and a walkie-talkie, which conjured up all sorts of Jonah-in-the-whale type fantasies (“Breaker 1-9, I’m still getting digested, over…”), and also made sense considering Spielberg’s later fascination with this technology. Remember the scandal when he replaced every gun in E.T. with a walkie-talkie? This was supposed to make the movie a bit more benign and kid-friendly, but instead it convinced us kids our walkie-talkies might be lethal.

No license plate came with the toy though, which seems like a real missed opportunity. So I just plucked out this junk for my first-grade class, eyes wide and intent like a mad scientist, or at least a mildly-disturbed dentist, and the room held their breath. And when the jaws snapped shut, I knew it was coming. It wasn’t hard to figure out exactly how much junk a three-rubber-band-tight jaw could lose before it sprung, so I barely flinched at all. The kids lost it though, squealing and rolling out of the way. And maybe I wasn’t a hero for a day, but a hero for 15 minutes, and that was good enough.

I didn’t see Jaws until about a year later when it was on “cable.” I have the scare quotes around cable because my uncle was stealing Showtime with a pirate box (only the biggest suckers paid for cable in the ‘70s). It’s not so crazy for kids to have toys years before they can see the movies that inspire them. And if you think it’s weird that they made toys “ages 6 and up” for a bona fide horror movie, remember this was the ‘70s, where kids were playing with Giger’s Alien in their sandbox or watching Blade Runner on their View-Master. No, seriously, they had Blade Runner on the View-Master! Or maybe it was The Black Hole, I can’t remember. Equally scary though.

But when I watched Jaws that day with my uncle Pat, I didn’t freak out. I was 7 years old or so, and my uncle and my parents marveled at how calm I was through the whole thing. This might have been my first case of “hype,” with my relatives needling me so much about being scared that I had to prove them wrong, because while I was watching it, I kept thinking “This ain’t so bad…” Either that or there was just no way I was going to show weakness. I’d already shown enough weakness earlier in the day when I ran full speed into their sliding glass door, bloodying my nose all over it. It wasn’t the first time I’d done this, which was why my aunt and uncle had put butterfly stickers on the thing so I wouldn’t make this mistake again. But they keep the door too damn clean. If I had a house made of sliding-glass doors, I’d be dead.

So when we were watching the movie, I was doing fine, cheering with everyone when Brody blew it up with that perfect shot, and that was that. Then people wandered off and I kept watching Showtime on my own.

And that’s when the cartoon came on.

I still have no idea what this cartoon was, and I’ve been unable to track it down, even in the Golden Age of internets. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one who saw it, so it really did happen. But my dad doesn’t really remember it like I do. Showtime was weird back then, too. No hosts, no original programming that I remember, with just these short, animated clips to fill time between movies. They were usually darkly humorous flicks, like something they’d play at a drive-in. Showtime is where most of us first saw Godzilla Vs. Bambi, for example. So this cartoon was supposed to be funny, too. It depicted an entomologist running around in a field with a butterfly net, catching butterflies. Then suddenly this even-bigger net swoops down and snatches him up instead. Camera pulls back, and it’s a huge butterfly carrying the squirming man in his net, flying back to a big cave. In the cave, the butterfly yanks the man out, gives him a cursory glance, then smack! Sticks him up on a wall with a giant pin. The camera pulls back again to show the wall is covered with men, all impaled on pins, heads lolling, and the butterfly sitting at a desk, drumming its fingers all bored.

It’s an old turning-the-tables gag I’ve seen a hundred times since, but holy balls did it freak me out. It sent me off, running through the house screaming, and everyone was left scratching their heads, “What’s wrong with Crash?” I listened to them diagnose my meltdown, and they decided that it was Jaws after all, combined with running face-first into the sliding door, that was causing this. Those were the real culprits, not a cartoon. And I was angry at the time, confused no one else was disturbed by the butterfly, but looking back, their assessment makes more sense. The cartoon was a fable, and it had a certain logic to it. Thinking about it now, Jaws was my sliding-glass door to the nose that day. Okay, the butterfly cartoon was freaky, but that’s a simple revenge tale. Sure, Jaws might be construed as a revenge tale, too (Jaws: The Revenge, anyone?), particularly today when sharks are undergoing a mass extinction and the Earth loses three sharks every second, but Jaws was weirder than all that, more alien. The water was outer space, the wrong place to be. And in the movie, any shot of some desperate swimming trying to get to the surface, but being pulled down at the very last second? That’s what got me. Isn’t this essentially what happens when a sliding glass door appears from nowhere? The idea that you’re underwater, that you’re in the fish tank with those alien life forms, only there’s six sealed sides to this tank and no exit, and the promise of sunlight from the surface will be stolen at any moment. That’s true terror. But if anybody can track down the butterfly cartoon, let me know. So I can destroy the negative.

But there’s a reason there’s a Shark Week and not a Butterfly Week on the Discovery channel. Shark Week is only slightly more ridiculous these days, as it’s mercifully pulled back from baiting the conspiracy theorist with fake Mermen and Megalodon documentaries. For a minute there, it was like they didn’t trust people to think sharks were big enough, that they didn’t need three heads or to be surfing tornados. A shark doesn’t need to be the size of an aircraft carrier to terrify. They’ve always been just the right size, meaning bigger than us. Remember the movie Mighty Joe Young? I don’t know about you, but there was something freakier about a King Kong that was somewhere in-between monster-sized and gorilla-sized, like that scary porridge that’s just right. And even a man-sized butterfly on a rampage still lives up here. With us. Not down under those sliding-glass doors, ready to rob you of any hope of escape or last gasps. Or even last thoughts.

Okay, last thoughts. When I used to work at a bookstore back in Toledo, my boss at the time told us how she’d spent summers in Arizona back in the ’70s doing volunteer work on a Navajo reservation, and one day she thought it would be great to organize a field trip to see Jaws. She said that most of them hadn’t seen many, or any, movies at all, so she hoped there would be some big impact, maybe like the Maori tribe in The Piano who stormed the stage while watching the locals put on an adaptation of Bluebeard, or the apocryphal tales of crowds panicking and running from a projected locomotive during the Lumière brothers screening of their first film, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Instead, she said, they watched the movie without comment, and when it was over, she eagerly went to them to debrief them about the experience. She was much more excited than they were, however, and one Navajo man’s response seemed to be indicative of the general consensus. He just said, “Big fish” and shrugged, which is a good way to remind us what was really important here, all desperate sliding-glass-door symbolism aside. That fucking fish was big enough.

David James Keaton’s work has appeared in over 50 publications. His first collection, FISH BITES COP! Stories to Bash Authorities (Comet Press), was named the 2013 Short Story Collection of the Year by This Is Horror and was a finalist for the Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award. His second collection of short fiction, Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead (PMMP), received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly, who said, “Decay, both existential and physical, has never looked so good.” He lives and teaches in California, where the roads are made of sand fleas and avocados.

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The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 5

SHARK BOMB
by Larissa Glasser

It’s been just over forty years since Spielberg’s adaptation of Jaws (1975) introduced the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), a new monster, to the popular imagination. But this “monster” was not just the product of some fevered imagination, it was a part of the natural world that actually predates our own species by millions of years. What made the film work as a sharp thriller was partly due to the technical difficulties the director had with the mechanical shark “Bruce,” and many of the fright-cues took place by suggestion (due also in part to the John Williams score). It bears repeating–horror should include what we cannot see, at least until it’s too late to escape.

I grew up on Nantucket. The Atlantic Ocean raised me. I stared at that Leviathan for hours, imagining remote, forbidden continents and the hidden forces of the deep. Around the time Jaws hit the screens, I was hearing The Beatles for the first time on my brother’s 8-track at the beach, wondering as a child and not quite sure what to make of life’s unknowns. My brain was very ripe for both the fear and awe thatJaws would inspire.

What made this monster work so well? Well, consider the ocean, the habitat of the shark. Humanity merely uses the ocean. We encroach upon that habitat for commerce, travel, recreation, dumping our trash and toxic waste. In Jaws,this gigantic, sparky fish decides to encroach in turn, mining our coastal shallows for some chow. Jaws served up a not-so-gentle reminder that when it comes to humans battling an unrelenting force of nature, we know who comes out on top. It’s good to be reminded that our dominion is tenuous, at best.

Plenty of ink (and blood) has been spilled on how Jaws shook up the Hollywood-studio model and essentially invented the summer blockbuster, so let’s focus instead that famous scene on board The Orca—The USS Indianapolis.

At this point in the film, tensions between Brody, Hooper, and Quint have eased enough for them to compare scars, drink, and share stories. When Quint gives the solemn account of his survival after the sinking of The Indianapolis, floating defenselessly in the shark-infested Pacific Ocean, the story shifts gears to a deep universal resonance that grips our attention and doesn’t let go. Quint has faced this enemy before, with more intimacy than anyone else present. The experience taught Quint more about sharks in a week than most would care to know in a lifetime. His account also lends historical context and immediacy to the already taut narrative. Quint begins his story in a clinical, almost detached manner as any survivor of trauma might, and then he dives deeper with helpful details about how people might cope with that situation: the forming of tight groups, the fighting back, the screaming. But after all is said and done, nature and its hunger almost always win the fight.

I also like how this scene reflects the intimacy of predator and prey. The eyes of the shark seem lifeless (although their senses are sharp as their teeth), he “don’t seem to be living ‘till he bites you.” Quint also admits he was most frightened as he was about to be rescued from the waters.

Perhaps best of all, Quint’s account of his survival at sea emphasizes the very real threat of the monster he and his fellow hunters face, and how ill-equipped they are to conquer it. They need more than a bigger boat. They need a bomb.

Larissa Glasser is a librarian and SF writer from Boston. She has previously published nonfiction and reviews in Harvard Review, The Boston Phoenix, and Maelstrom. She co-founded the Witching Metal band Hekseri and is a Member at Large of Broad Universe. She’s on Twitter @larissaeglasser.

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The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 4

ALAN SMITHEE AND THE MAKING OF GUMS
by Aaron Dries

The pitching office is like a mausoleum, a place where living things came to die, to be preserved in embalming fluid and good intentions. Two executives sit at a desk in front of the young director, a jug of water on the polished mahogany between them. The director doesn’t dare drink it for fear it will make him appear weak, even though he’s thirsty. The water mocks him.
          He knows this is a test.
          “Thanks for joining us, ______,” says the woman. “We’re excited about bringing Jaws back to the big screen. We loved your last film and think you’re a perfect fit for the remake.”
          “Are you a fan of the original material?” asks the man.
          “The book, you mean?”
          The man smiles. His eyes are like coffee stains on a starched shirt. “Jaws was a book? I meant the film.” This is a man who does not sleep. He is caffeine incarnate.
          “I love all of Spielberg’s stuff. Especially Jaws. It’s a masterpiece.”
          The woman leans forward. “Great to hear. We want to capture lightning in a bottle again. Help us make this happen, ______. Give us your ideas. Pitch us.”
          Here we go, he thinks. “Well. It boils down to this. I think that if something’s not broken we shouldn’t rush out to fix it—”
          MAN: “Loves it. Loves it!”
          “We should stick as close to the original as possible.”
          MAN: “Great! I knew bringing this kid in was a good idea. I’m a genius!”
          “Great. Well, we open on a beach in Amity—”
          WOMAN: “Ah, let me stop you there. Amity, yeah, it’s nice and all, but what if the setting was somewhere a bit more upmarket. The Hamptons, maybe.”
          “Oh-kay.”
          WOMAN: “Glamour. I think Jaws needs glamour.”
          MAN: “Definitely. The original has this unappealing grit to it. It really feels like it’s set in a small beach town. Who likes sand, really?”
          He squirms in his seat, leather squeaking. It sounds like a fart. He hopes they didn’t hear it, yet suspects they did. Keep going! “So the film opens with a shark attack on this beach…in the Hamptons.”
          MAN: “Loves it! Open with a bang. The original lacked that punch.”
          “But the first film did open with a shark attack.”
          WOMAN: “Really, I don’t remember that… Anyhow, keep going.”
          “Well, the attack is brutal and shocking. But we don’t see the shark yet.”
         MAN: “Ugh, let me stop you there. We don’t need the artsy-fartsy subtle approach. We want that shark front and center. I want it leaping right up out of that water.”
          “You don’t think that to build suspense and anticipation it might help to hold off on the reveal for a bit?”
          WOMAN: “We’d like to move the story along. Up the pace. Keep it going, ______.”
          “So maybe we do see the shark. That could work. But I think we need to go animatronic on this. Old school, nuts and bolts, the most impressive and realistic movie magic machine in cinema history.”
          WOMAN: “What do you mean? For the shark?”
          “Yeah.”
          MAN: “No. Can’t have that. Audiences don’t want machines. They’ll think it looks fake. We need CGI. We’ve got the team behind Jurassic World ready to go.”
          “But it’s the tangibility of the shark in the original film that makes an impression. CGI doesn’t look real, not even good CGI. If anything, it’s getting worse.”
          WOMAN: “Hey, look. We’re an open-minded department. We can compromise on some things, just not on this. Keep going with your pitch, though. You’re doing great!”
          He bites his tongue and continues. “After this opening scene we shift to Brody, the town sheriff, and his family—”
          MAN: “I’ll stop you there. We don’t want Brody to be sheriff anymore. And we don’t want him to be a family man, either. That old house in the original? Bah. It could be Anywhere, USA. For the new film, we thought he might be the owner of the local Hilton. Jaws needs glamour, remember! We don’t want this to be Universal—it needs to be somewhere.”
          “But at its core, the story is about a man going up against a town that doesn’t believe him. It’s David and Goliath. And he has to be a father. Remember that scene in the original where Brody has all this responsibility resting on his shoulders and he’s sitting at the kitchen table with his boy, pulling faces at one another as his wife watches from the doorway. It’s moving. It’s a perfect scene. It’s so perfect it’s almost unfair to the rest of cinema.”
          MAN: “Agh, let’s cut it and move on. Nobody wants character development anymore. We’ll drop it in somewhere, sure. Moving on! We want some teenagers in this picture. Let’s get to the teenagers.”
       WOMAN: “Great idea! A group of Hampton teens. Excellent potential for product placement there. Oh, they can all be going sailing and the shark attacks! The CGI shark.”
          MAN: “Loves it, loves it!”
          “So essentially you want to remake Jaws 2?”
          WOMAN: “I think that’s easier to market in today’s cinematic climate. Sequels sell. We’ve also got a cross-deal with Marvel in place. Great, huh? How do you feel about the inclusion of a superhero?”
          “Excuse me?”
         MAN: “Not like Spiderman or The Hulk or anything. That’d just be ridiculous, right? Ha-ha! No, I mean someone normal looking, right?”
          WOMAN: “Exactly! Bruce Wayne, maybe.”
          MAN: “Loves it.”
         WOMAN: “Bruce is taking a crime-fighting sabbatical and goes sailing with these kids. And he’s the one who eventually saves the day!”
          “So it’s Batman Vs. Superman, but with a CGI shark. In the Hamptons. With kids.”
          MAN: “Great idea! I love this guy. We knew you were perfect for this.”
        WOMAN: “The shark chews its way though the kids until there’s just Bruce left. And then—oh, yes!—he remembers that in the hull of the boat, which is sinking, he’s got his costume!”
          MAN: “Loves it, loves it!”
          WOMAN: “He puts it on and jumps right in the water and attacks the shark.”
          MAN: “Batman punches it to death. Bam! Kapow! Gold, kid. Gold!
          The boat isn’t the only thing that’s sinking in this scenario. It’s the young director’s passion, too. A passion that was sparked when he was a little boy sitting on the sofa with his mother as she showed him Jaws for the first time on their old television set, the one with the crooked wire bunny ears. The magic of cinema seen through a scrim of static. His eyes were wide with fear throughout, his childish thirst for adventure building from scene to scene. And then, by the end, he was standing on that couch, cheering when the shark exploded, spraying the ocean in torrents of guts and blood, swearing to his mother that yes, yes—I DID see the dead dog falling out of the sky!
          This was a long time ago.
          The man that child grew into reaches forward and drinks from the jug of water on the table. With this act, the conversation ends, and the faces of the executives turn towards him, cold and stern, as though carved from the same granite as the room in which they sit.
          MAN: “What’s the matter, kid?”
          WOMAN (gasping): “Are you okay?”
          He puts down the glass. The water has no taste. “I don’t think I can do this.”
          WOMAN: “What do you mean? This is the opportunity of a lifetime. We’re going to change the cinematic landscape with this.”
          “Change it for better or worse?”
          MAN: “Why you ungrateful—”
          WOMAN: “Maybe this was a mistake.”
          “I’m sorry to have wasted your time. I should leave.”
          MAN: “You smug, Gen Y, know-it-all! Look at you. You look like someone just took a dump in your Cheerios. This is the last time we invite someone like you in to pitch.”
          WOMAN: “Not a ‘maybe’ mistake. A ‘definite’ mistake.”
          MAN: “Look at you sitting there, all blank-faced. Where’s the gratitude? Get out of here, kid. You’re making me sick. Ungrateful!”
          WOMAN: “You’ll have to pay for that water, just so you know. It’s not for drinking.”
          MAN: “Where’s the gratitude?”
          WOMAN: “That’ll be $47.50.”
          The young director wants to get up and leave this room forever, but he can’t. He’s spent. Stunned and shocked by the shark bite in the lilo of his universe.
          MAN: “For heaven’s sake, kid. Do something. Say something. Smile, you son-of-a-bitch.”
          But the young director does not smile. He does not show off his teeth.
          He has ground them down to nothing.

Avid traveler, former pizza boy, retail clerk, kitchen hand, aged care worker, video director and artist Aaron Dries was born and raised in New South Wales, Australia. When asked why he writes horror, his standard reply is that when it comes to scaring people, writing pays slightly better than jumping out from behind doors. He is the author of the award-winning House of Sighs, and his subsequent novels, The Fallen Boys and A Place for Sinners are just as—if not more—twisted than his debut.

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The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 3

SWIMMING WITH SHARKS IN THE FIRST GRADE
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.

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The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 2

CLOSE THE BEACHES, LEST THAT SHARK TEACH US SOMETHING
by Stephen Graham Jones

What the fifties gave the horror movie was a crop of radiation-grown monsters come to punish us for our sins. Pretty much, they were our sins, given monstrous form. They were there to teach us a lesson, just, all they that had to do that with were claws and teeth, wings and fire. These monsters were impossible, unlikely creatures simply because exaggeration was the only thing that could shake the self-satisfied fifties from its smug recliner, scare it out onto its well-kept lawns.

But by Jaws 1975 (a year before for the Peter Benchley novel), heedless scientific progress wasn’t the cautionary tale we needed to be taught anymore. Was it?

Well. It might very well have been radiation from the Venus Probe that got corpses climbing from their graves in Night of the Living Dead just a few years before. And in 1974, the acoustic properties of cutting-edge “scientific” farming equipment had done the same in The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. And? Is it really any coincidence that the USS Indianapolis Quint’s the survivor of, it had been delivering Little Boy, the first atomic bomb humans had ever used on humans?

Think about it. Quint says there might have been a thousand sharks there for that feeding frenzy. A thousand sharks getting the taste for human blood. A thousand sharks cutting through the waters a ship had just gone down in. A ship that had secretly been carrying the world’s atomic bomb. Now, imagine if you will that, in 1945, we might not have completely known about radiation shielding. Imagine a loose rivet if you will, one that leaks radiation into the belly of the Indianapolis.

Now picture that irradiated portion of the hull sharing its pulsing green glow with one or two of those sharks come in to feed on the lower halves of all these sailors—that is, sharks getting a distinct taste for human flesh—and add that with what Brody researches up, about how we don’t even really know how long sharks live. Which is to say, we don’t even know if they die at all.

Then take into account that this particular shark that’s come to Amity Island for the Fourth of July (that is, when America celebrates in gruesome fashion, with mock-bombs in the air . . .), it isn’t really acting very sharky at all, is it? Granted, the initial kill we see—the drunk night-swimmer out by the buoy—that’s just a shark being a shark. Also, the shark coming up for the kid on the raft: that raft could have been a seal from the shark’s angle, right? By the time the shark knew any different, it was too late.

But we, and Amity Island, soon come to figure out that this shark isn’t any normal shark. No, this is a monster shark. This is a shark behaving in a fashion not at all in keeping with its kind.

First it sneaks into the ‘pond’—the estuary that’s supposed to be safe. Particularly, it sneaks there when there’s such better feeding out on the proper beach. And, once there in the pond, the only thing stopping it from getting to the police chief’s son is one unlucky guy in a rowboat, who quickly gets chewed through. That the son is the target is pretty obvious, from what I guess we’d have to call the point-of-view of the giant dorsal fin, as the shark pulls its first swim-by, its mouth momentarily too full for a second chomp. And, granted, there’s a way to read the story that this shark going for Brody’s son, that’s just to focus the story down to the people who matter—it’s dramatic economy. But another way to look at it is that this shark, it knows who it needs to take out, up on the land: the main authority figure. The one who wants to close the beaches.

As far as the beaches and their closing go, this shark, it’s right in line with the mayor. Which is to say, it’s aligned against Brody. And, like the mayor, it’s working events and situations in order to neutralize Brody—just, unlike the mayor, this shark has row after row of teeth, and no voting body to answer to.

This shark, it’s thinking. It’s got strategy. It can imagine a goal ahead of itself in time, and then work methodically towards that goal—unlike any of its shark brethren, all locked in the perpetual moment, as it were, operating on mere stimulus-response.

Monsters aren’t stimulus-response. Justice is so more complicated than that.

Next? Off-screen, this massive thinking shark, it takes out one of the boatful of hunters out chumming the waters—kind of a little dumbshow, illustrating again how unsharky this shark is behaving: instead of running from danger, it eliminates that danger. Understand that, in the open sea, when mating or territory or the current meal isn’t at stake, a regular shark has no reason to stick around when things get hot. No reason to go after a boatful of hunters. Unless that boatful of hunters has, say, insulted it.

Meaning? This is a shark that might have feelings.

Very unsharky. Matt Hooper should have said something about this. Or, he does, to Quint, with “You ever have one do this before?” which is followed up nearly immediately by Brody asking Hooper, “Have you ever had a great white—” but Hooper, frustrated, cuts him off with a flat, hard “No!”

No, this is not how typical sharks act.

This shark, it’s special. “Mr. White,” Quint calls it, even, lending his opposition a proper name, not just a species.

It’s getting personal, yes. Which we see when the shark, insulted by not one, not two, but three barrels being harpooned to it, proceeds to resist its own survival instinct and turn the predators into the prey. And not just in a single attack, either, but through a steadily mounting warfare of terror, as if—get this—as if maybe this shark, it’s aware that these people on the boat have interiors as well. Thoughts and feelings that can be manipulated to the shark’s advantage.

For the whole movie, this shark has been swimming closer and closer to a different identity, a different status. When it focuses all its attention on the Orca, essentially Ahab’ing Quint, it becomes a legitimate monster—a creature of monstrous proportions, acting outside its typical behavior patterns. More or less, it’s doing stuff for what we would call ‘human’ reasons, not shark reasons.

So, to wrap up already: how to make this monster?

Irradiate a long-lived shark in 1945, give it a taste for human flesh, plant a seed of human awareness in it, and then set it on a decades-long quest to finish the feeding frenzy that got cut short by rescue in 1945.

Yes, Quint is on a revenge-arc. Most definitely. He hates all sharks.

This shark, though, it just wants to finish its meal.

Can you see this shark as Quint’s pulled from the water, into his lifeboat? Can you see those doll eyes taking a snapshot or two? This is when the shark’s a “mere” three meters, say. But, thanks to the radiation, it’s already growing at an accelerated rate. Over the next thirty years, it’ll be eight times as big.

To understand this, look at Quint’s story from another angle. The Final Destination angle: sailor escapes what should have been his death, and then, a neat three decades later, that death swims up to his boat, bites him in half.

Kind of fits, yes?

And, the shark itself, it has a story as well. A typical shark, it pretty much needs two basic things: water and food. So, this shark, when it goes atypical and foregoes food in favor of revenge, it’s very much asking for justice to pay it a visit as well (for stepping outside its prescribed boundaries), and it’s only fitting that the thing that finally explodes its head, it’s the opposite of the water it so desperately needs: air (-tank).

And, note that for this read of Jaws to actually apply in a way that makes sense, it’s not at all necessary for Quint to ‘recognize’ this shark at the last moment—a tell-tale scar, say, or a missing eye, a notched dorsal fin. Really, Quint’s estimation of all sharks as pretty much just “sharks he hasn’t got around to killing yet,” that almost requires that he not distinguish one shark from the next. His own need for revenge has made him blind, has denied him the ability to discern one shark from the next. Could he, then he might elect not to smash the radio, thus severing all ties with the land and ensuring his own doom.

However, that this might be his particular monster come to chomp him, that gives the story a certain elegance, doesn’t it? It’s closing a circle that opened in 1945.

No, it’s no accident that the Hiroshima bomb the Indianapolis was smuggling across the Pacific was “Little Boy,” and that the first time we actually see actual blood in the water in this story, it’s from a “little boy.”

Neither is it any accident the “monster” in Jaws, it’s only name—aside from the Latinate—is “Mr. White”—which is a color America never actually calls itself, expect in contradistinction, when referring to all the “other” people of the world by colors.

“Mr. White” indeed.

But that comes back to bite us, doesn’t it?

That comes back to bite us in half.

Jaws is finally, and fundamentally, a story about heedless scientific progress. Specifically, it’s a story about using that “progress” against others. Jaws is a warning of what happens when we do. A bomb was dropped thirty years before the movie came out, but we’re all still living in the fallout, even now.

America, it drags an ugly, ugly past behind it.

We’re going to need a bigger boat.

Stephen Graham Jones
14 May 2016
Boulder, Colorado

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of sixteen novels, six story collections, more than 250 stories, and has some comic books in the works. His current book is the werewolf novel Mongrels (William Morrow). Stephen’s been the recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Fiction, the Texas Institute of Letters Jesse Jones Award for Fiction, the Independent Publishers Awards for Multicultural Fiction, three This is Horror awards, and he’s made Bloody Disgusting’s Top Ten Novels of the Year. Stephen teaches in the MFA programs at University of Colorado at Boulder and University of California Riverside-Palm Desert. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife, two children, and too many old trucks.

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Horror Films FAQ

John Kenneth Muir’s breakdown of the horror fiction genre in his book Horror Films FAQ proves to be a delightful addition to anyone who loves a good, scary movie. Referenced in the book are typical horror staples such as The Exorcist and Psycho, but Muir is not content to only point to the canon of Hollywood classics. Instead, Muir expands his scope to include films that, while under the radar of mainstream Hollywood, helped to establish periods in the genre and pushed films to new and groundbreaking cinematography.

In addition to breakdowns of the movies that helped to shape the growing culture of horror, Muir explores monsters that have made it into the common realm of consciousness, such as the vampire, werewolf, mummy, and reanimated man (re: Frankenstein’s monster), and why the genre has persisted. The work is a dense text, rife with information on the different types of films, how the films evolved, and how the genre as a whole has expanded. Muir puts his considerable movie knowledge to use in the construction of this book, referencing films as early as expressionist “shudder films” through to the sub-genre of “torture porn” which have become prevalent.

The book is set up as a series of expanded lists ranging from directors, characters, and types of horror movies, and prepares the reader for what to find in the rest of the material. Muir pulls together his knowledge of the genre with an expert eye for what constitutes “good” horror movies, constructing a broad and in-depth reference text. Muir makes good use of the sections to explain how the genre has transformed due to a number of factors, not the least of them Americans and their ever-shifting fear mentality. One of the best things about this book is the early breakdown of films by decades, to showcase the way in which media and fear have changed over time to create the scare-and-shock culture of the horror movie today.

The amount of information in Horror Film FAQ can’t be overstated. Muir has compiled dozens of pieces showcasing the best of each sub-genre, and has broken the book down to reflect such. Each section serves as an explanative dictating the way in which the film impacted the horror community, the director’s evolution, and the shifting consciousness that propels the genre forward. The wealth of information and Muir’s keen insight provide both an explanation of the films as well as a great dissection of what actually makes the movie scary. It doesn’t at all hurt that Muir has an entire section devoted specifically to Stephen King films, either.

Muir’s book is dense and vivid, but one thing seasoned horror fans may notice is the very lacking section on both zombies and television. Aside from White Zombie, I Walked With A Zombie, and The Serpent and the Rainbow, the collective of zombie films referenced is fairly limited in scope, with heavy reliance on the Romero film culture of zombies, including Romero’s last (and arguably worst piece) Survival of the Dead. The section on horror television is also sparse, addressing new favorites such as The Walking Dead and old classics like Twin Peaks. But, there are no references to groundbreaking horror series such as Tales from the Crypt, Dark Shadows, or The Outer Limits, though there is a beautiful treatment of The Twilight Zone included.

Beyond the first glance, this book serves as a great beginners text for not only knowing which movies to see, but also for people seeking to have a deeper understanding of the genre. It provides a core understanding for the evolution of the horror movie, and its gradual turn from films bent on simply spooking an audience, to films that are as effective as they are emotive, introspective, and, in some cases (especially in the new day and age of “torture porn,”) disturbing. John Kenneth Muir puts to use an expert wealth of knowledge and keen introspection to render a reference book that would be a welcome addition to any collection.

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Blood, Sweat and Drool: A Conversation with Director Jeremiah Kipp

When Shock Totem put out a call for filmmakers who’d like to have their work featured on the site, I bet that they didn’t expect to get anyone near as accomplished as Jeremiah Kipp.

Kipp, a short film writer/director, meshes art film heft and horror film content with a polish and style all his own. The combination seems to be working out for him as his work has been featured in festivals and garnered numerous awards.

Jeremiah sent us three films and was kind enough to sit down with me for some questions. Check out the films embedded below (WARNING: NSFW content) and then read on for our conversation.

Adam Cesare: The three films you sent to Shock Totem all share elements of genre films, but I wouldn’t call any of them genre. Are you a fan of the horror genre? How would you classify your work?

Jeremiah Kipp: I love horror movies and have found it to be a wonderfully flexible genre. What’s interesting to me is when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, they called it a romance, but not in the Hallmark sense of the word. Romance at that time meant it has sweeping elements of the fantastic. And how would you classify a movie like Don’t Look Now, the intensely dark story of a couple in Venice haunted by the death of their child and perhaps communicating with her beyond the grave? It feels like a drama and yet has a sense of tension and terror. I would call it a horror movie. I feel like the films I’m making might fall into that category. I’d be proud to have them called horror films, but am content if people find them to be beautiful and macabre.

(more…)

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Night of the Living Dead

Arguably the scariest offering from the 1960’s, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is more than the average zombie flick. For starters, it is the original zombie movie, and its original incarnation has served as inspiration for the myriad of humans-eating-humans in media for the last decade, most notably with television/graphic novel series The Walking Dead. In fact, at New York Comic Con in 2012, the creator of the series said his show was to Romero “What Fifty Shades of Grey is to Twilight.” Epic fan fiction. Even Roger Ebert, a budding critic for the Chicago Sun-Times regarded the film as “…something else.” At the time there was no rating system, and often children would show for the monster movies. No one expected the Romero film to elicit such a visceral reaction.

Though Romero’s zombies were the stuff of nightmares, the film has a very political and social focal point. It plays on many of the themes from the 1960’s—a time of civil unrest and dissension among the masses, and was one of the first horror films to feature an African American lead. Much of the dialogue from the film was ad-libbed, and though there was a script, it was Romero’s intention to capture as much surprise and candor from the actors, often telling them to “explain” a situation with no further notes than that. In many of these cases, there were only one or two takes before Romero moved on.

In a time when cinematography and film were in their prepubescent age, Romero brought a very new—and very dark—insight into what a horror film could be, and how it could touch upon the nerves of an already turbid and volatile apex in a societal realm. Though initially intended to be a dull-witted truck driver, the character of Ben was restructured by the actor Duane Jones. Jones, well-educated and mannerly, decided that if he were to play the character, the character should also be a reflection of the kind of people he knew. He once said he feared that if Ben appeared a lack-wit, that the audience would have a hard time liking him as a hero and respecting him as a leader.

The grainy black and white of 60’s era cinematography adds an additional haunting aspect to the film, the focal point of the movie is not the monsters themselves, nor the fear of them. The true core of the film is the fear of the unknown. In a world where the dead stalk the earth, they are a known fear. But the unknown fear of other people is in finding that, when faced with our own mortality, most people become monsters and would commit horrifying acts to save their own lives or the lives of their loved ones, and the moral codes that act as a cornerstone of our society and civility dissolve in that. The film seeks to explore what constitutes “moral” and “immoral” in a world verging on apocalyptic chaos.

As a movie, the acting is brilliant and the film itself pits strangers in a truly life or death situation to determine what manifests “good.” In a world where the dead come back to life as shambling monsters of their former selves, Romero executes a level of fear—not only from the dead rising, but from those of the living—rendering seven strangers struggling to survive in a world of the sick, the dying, and the dead, proving that the scariest monsters are not creatures of the imagination, but rather are people caught between the fear of death and the fear of the unknown.

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Patient Zero: White Zombie and Where the Dead Walk on Screen

If one were to examine pop-culture today and determine where exactly zombies and the undead stand, it would sort of feel as though they really do walk among us. In recent years, AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead, with now three seasons under its belt, has left zombies with an undeniable stamp on the medium of the screen.

Already in 2013, two films, Warm Bodies and World War Z, have graced audiences with two very different perspectives on, but nevertheless feature, beings that are neither dead nor alive. Countless upon countless horror films centering on zombies have been released over the decades that they, in fact, have spawned their own genre. The ‘Zombie Horror Film’ is now an immortalized subgenre of the horror flick but it goes even deeper than that as the folklore of zombies in North American culture is always being spun into more complex and varying webs of subgenre upon sub-subgenre.

Before one delves into the legend that continually grows, it is important to discover where the dead first began to walk the earth on screen. When we think of the origins of the ‘zombie,’ George A. Romero’s 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, is certainly a movie that comes to mind and although this is partly true, it being the origin for zombies as we know today, the source goes back a bit farther than that, in fact, over 30 years back whilst in the midst of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The term ‘zombie’ has roots reaching back into Haitian and African religion, where a zombie is someone who is an animated corpse or hypnotized into doing one’s bidding. Through voodoo and witchcraft it was believed to be possible to turn someone into a zombie. The living dead as we know them today, who rise from graves, is a little more of a recent concept. Rarely nowadays do movies that contain zombie subject matter actually depict them as traditional victims of witchcraft or voodoo; however, this was not always the case. Known to be the first ever full-length feature zombie-horror film, White Zombie is the motion picture which sparked the rise of what was to be a zombie take-over in North American horror.

White Zombie was directed by brothers Victor and Edward Halperin in 1932. The film stars the infamous horror virtuoso Bela Lugosi as well as Madge Bellamy, John Harron, and Robert Frazer. The setting of the plot actually takes place in Haiti and pits Lugosi’s character, Murder Legendre, as the voodoo master with a sugar mill full of his very own zombie slaves. Lugosi puts on a fantastically creepy  performance as the antagonist. His signature stare that garnered him so much respect in 1931’s Dracula curdles your blood and is ever present in this film. The atmosphere that the film evokes is undeniably scary and the blank expressions given off by Lugosi’s zombies are eccentrically eerie and truly void of any signs of human existence. Although at times the film is a little goofy (but are not all horror films from that time a little bit so?) and the acting also sometimes cringe worthy, there is a certain amount of charm that this independent horror gem carries along with itself.

Filmed in only 11 days, White Zombie was first released to the public in 1932 in New York City, where it faced less than positive reviews. Critically, the film was seen as a joke and as a laughable parody of what ‘true horror’ could accomplish. In retrospect, though, the film is seen as a pivotal piece in the growth of horror and is seen as the first film to introduce the term ‘zombie’ into mainstream media. For that alone it is certainly worth a watch, if not for Lugosi’s stellar performance.

After White Zombie, not many other zombie films saw zombies from the Haitian perspective and after the huge success of Night of the Living Dead, it would seem that for now, that perspective of zombie has all but been lost and forgotten. The hypnotism and voodoo magic is gone and in its place now stands bloodthirsty, flesh-eating, usually repulsively gory undead. However, after White Zombie there were still several zombie films that came out before George Romero ever got his start, and these included: The Ghost Breakers (1940), King of the Zombies (1941), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Plague of the Zombies (1966). None of them were hugely successful but each had their own little role in expanding and building upon zombie mythology in film.

With zombie-horror as an entire subgenre, it now appears as though sub-subgenres are expanding out of that as well. When you first want to create some sort of zombie-related flick, you have to ask yourself, what sort of zombies are we dealing with? Will the zombies simply rise from the dead or is there a virus involved? Do you need to be bit or is being scratched good enough to turn? Do the zombies specifically need to be shot in the head to be killed? Are they fast, jumping, and sprinting or are they slow, cumbersome, and lumbering? These questions and many, many more have to be answered and determined before one creates anything zombie related nowadays. When talking about zombies and zombie films, I will find myself asking questions like, “Are we dealing with 28 Days Later zombies or Dawn of the Dead zombies?” The list of characteristics that go into creating your own version of the undead is just so expansive, almost overwhelming now, that depending on which sort of zombie you wish to take on, chances are it will be very similar to some films while also very different to others, thus, the creation of a zombie sub-subgenre is created.

Infesting more than just the big screen, zombies are everywhere. Books, videogames (especially videogames), and television all host very successful zombie-related material and although some see the zombie genre as redundant and repetitive, it has been going on for roughly 80 years now and I am sure that zombies are here to stay. You can now have zombies attacking your garden on your iPhone in Plants vs. Zombies, watch Brad Pitt fend for his life against hordes of zombies in World War Z, and even read up and prepare yourself for the impending zombie apocalypse in Max Brooks’ best-selling book The Zombie Survival Guide, but just remember where it all came from; from a little Haitian plantation at the hands of a devious voodoo master practicing witchcraft and a spellbinding Bela Lugosi back in 1932.

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5 Kick-Ass Scenes in Horror Movies: 2000s Edition

Hey, let’s look at five cool horror movie scenes! (Beware of spoilers.) Let’s goooooooo!

5. Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead is awesome. That’s not my opinion. It’s a fact. It starts as a parody and slowly transforms into an honest-to-God kick-ass zombie movie in its own right. The most kick-ass scene? Shaun being forced to kill his own mom. The way this scene plays out is so hardcore and emotional that you forget you were laughing your guts out only minutes before. This was one of the most surprising sucker punches in recent horror memory, and earns a spot on this list.

KICK-ASS LEVEL: YOUR MOM

4. The Mist

The Mist is my dad’s favorite movie ever, and he says it’s all because of the ending. He calls it “wish fulfillment,” which I guess means he REALLY wants to see some giant monsters while out on a drive with me on a foggy day. For once, I agree with my old man, as the ending of this movie is KICK-ASS! But what happens at the end of the drive is what makes it so nuts. Out of gas and hope, our hero decides to play Russian roulette with his son and fellow survivors. Except he’s the only one who gets to pull the trigger. And he forgot to take any of the bullets out of the gun. And pretty much everyone else was sleeping. Then, immediately after he kills everyone, he’s saved! Yay! Life finds a way!

KICK-ASS LEVEL: DAD’S WISH FULFILLMENT

3. 28 Days Later

28 Days Later is probably one of the best “zombies that aren’t really zombies” movies ever, and it’s hard to pick just one scene that stands out. After days of solitary meditation (when that didn’t work I just asked my mom) I realized it was the empty London segment that sticks in my head. The pure loneliness of the sequence instills the entire movie with a sense of terrible hopelessness and illustrates a world where Jim has already missed the conflict…all he has to do is survive the apocalypse that already happened while he was out cold. I couldn’t find a clip of this scene anywhere, so enjoy this song about Thanksgiving. The number 28 features prominently at the eight-second mark.

KICK-ASS LEVEL: 28 (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?)

2. Troll Hunter

Troll Hunter is a “found footage” movie. I get why so many people hate them. Once my mom “found” some “footage” of mine when she put in what she thought was Police Academy II on VHS player. She would later refer to that Mother’s Day as “unfortunate.” You know what isn’t unfortunate? Troll Hunter, that’s what. This movie is paced ridiculously well, with a constantly escalating sense of danger and epicocity. The climax comes when our heroes confront a troll literally the size of a mountain, and the scale is truly frightening. I haven’t seen anything so big since the last time I had to pee. Wait. I apologize for that metaphor, but since Honey, I Shrunk the Kids didn’t make this list, I had to improvise.

KICK-ASS LEVEL: MOUNTAIN

1. Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin In the Woods. Lots of people loved this movie. Then lots of people decided it’s way cooler to not love stuff, and they began calling it overrated. I fall in the first camp, because it KICKS ASS. Even detractors will admit the last twenty minutes are awesome in the purest sense of the word. I mean, come on. Pretty much ALL the monsters EVER appear and proceed to throw the murder party of the millennium. Unicorn murder? It’s there. Clown fetish? You’re covered. KICK. ASS.

KICK-ASS LEVEL: KITCHEN SINK

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