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The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 8

FOR THE LOVE OF JAWS
by Jeremy Wagner

BRODY: “Slow ahead. I can go slow ahead. Come on down here and chum some of this shit.”
HOOPER: “That’s a twenty-footer.”
QUINT: “Twenty-five. Three tons of him.”

What can one say about the movie Jaws that isn’t already common knowledge? Like, we know Jaws stands as one of the most epic/awesome/untouchable movies ever made. Glad we agree!

I write this Jaws-worship piece for Shock Totem on June 19th—just one day before the film’s 41st Anniversary. Just thinking of this movie brings back countless memories of the film (and the Peter Benchley novel, too) that I’ve had since I was 5 years old.

Jaws was actually the first “adult” novel that I ever read. My mom and some other family members all had Jaws in paperback and I was immediately hooked (no pun intended) by the cover art. I recall a sense of fascination and dread as I stared at the brilliant artwork created by legendary Hollywood movie-poster artist, Roger Kastel.

(Kastel’s original art was painted in just days. Moreover, the original 20×30-inch painting went missing around the time of the film’s release, and as of today is still missing and reported as “stolen.”)

Jaws, the film, directed by Steven Spielberg, was released on June 20, 1975, a little more than a year after novel. The movie profoundly changed my life. The music alone scared the shit out of me—just like John Carpenter’s Halloween score would do to me a few years later.

Jaws opened across North America on 464 screens. Shortly after, the film’s distribution expanded to nearly 700 theaters, and then by August 15, 1975, it was in more than 950 theaters nationwide. Distribution overseas followed suit, with massive television marketing and wide releases.

The filming was riddled with major problems and was deemed a failure as soon as production started. “Bruce,” the mechanical shark, was the #1 culprit. The laundry-list of calamities that transpired set a tone of doom over the cast and crew—with Spielberg convinced his career as a director was over—but when the dust settled, unreal, monumental success came out of what was predicted as catastrophe. The superb cast; the genius, award-winning editing of Verna Fields; the Oscar-earning film score, by John Williams; and the directorial suspense that Spielberg delivered all made for the most legendary horror movie the world has ever seen, in company with, and with complete respect to, The Exorcist, Halloween, The Thing, and Psycho, among others.

Moreover, Jaws’s success surpassed the horror genre, skyrocketing to the top of countless “Best Films of All Time” lists to where it sat atop the cinema mountain with The Godfather and Citizen Kane.

Jaws became the highest-grossing film of all time until Star Wars hit theaters in 1977.

All the deserved accolades, music, and blockbuster facts aside, let’s get to what makes the movie really awesome: the fucking TERROR of an unseen monster in the deep. Jaws instills a primal fear in us. Entertainment is a given, but this movie did to oceans what Hitchcock’s Psycho did for showers—getting wet at home or in the ocean caused great anxiety and fear. I know this feeling firsthand, as I was scared to even swim in the country lake near my grandparent’s farm in central Wisconsin after seeing Jaws!

This feeling of unease and horror can be directly credited to:

VICTIM #1: Christine “Chrissie” Watkins, whose nighttime swim made for one of the most unforgettable and terrifying pieces of cinema.

VICTIM #2: Pippet, the black Lab, who goes out to fetch and never comes back.

VICTIM #3: Alex Kintner, who is attacked in broad daylight (post Pippet the appetizer), with a fountain of blood and bubbling, underwater screams accompanying his destruction.

VICTIM #4: Survivors. Mr. Denherder and his friend Charlie cast out a holiday roast for Bruce and get more than they bargained for when the shark takes the bait and the entire pier with it, sending Charlie into the nighttime ocean. He makes it to shore in one piece—that is, until his wife gets a hold of him.

VICTIM #5: Ben Gardner. When his dead, one-eyed head pops out of the gaping hole in his boat, I peed a little!

VICTIM #6: The rowboat guy. Bruce hits the rowboat guy and also causes Michael Brody and his pals to tumble off their sailboat and into the water. The shark bites off rowboat guy’s leg and pulls him under.

(Right before the attack on rowboat guy, a gal on shore sees Bruce’s immense dorsal fin and tail as it swims into the estuary/pond. She croaks out, “Sh..shark! It’s going in the pond!” And I gotta tell ya, just that scene alone still fills me with immense dread. Well done.)

VICTIM #7: Quint becomes dinner. Quint—my favorite character played by the amazing Robert Shaw, and based on real-life monster shark-hunter, Frank Mundus—spent most of his days catching sharks and boiling their jaws. Unfortunately, all those dead sharks get their comeuppance as Bruce destroys Quint’s boat and eats the hard-edged captain.

All these death scenes created what some call the “Jaws effect.” This phenomenon had unfortunate consequences as great white sharks—and many other species—were slaughtered for pure sport and with extreme prejudice. This troubled both Steven Spielberg and Peter Benchley years later. Thankfully, great whites are now protected in many parts of the world, and conservation is paramount to most countries—except Japan who still insist on eating shark fins and contribute to the 273 million sharks killed annually.

I won’t get on my soap-box and preach about shark conservation, but it is extremely important to me and, fictional horror-sharks aside, I’m a self-proclaimed “great white shark expert” and have huge understanding of their biology and ecology and harbor a deep love for these animals. “Harbor” and “deep,” there I go again with the unintentional puns.

After 41 years, this film still holds up and is one amazing movie. Even though I own this flick, if this movie is just on normal TV and I stumble upon it, I just drop everything and say,” Fuck my day…Jaws is on.” It’s one of the best movies ever made. I’m always floored when someone young or old tells me that they haven’t seen it. I passionately inform said virgins that they’re missing out on seeing pure cinematic greatness and that they need to get off their asses and GO WATCH IT NOW!

I’m not only a huge Jaws fan, but I’m also an insane memorabilia collector. I own the movie in every film format ever made, I own numerous photos and original posters signed by cast and crew alike, I own countless film-related toys, and the crown jewels in my collection include one of the five yellow barrels used in the film, a harpoon used on the Orca in the actual movie, and one of the original film PRODUCTION/CREW t-shirts.

I’ve also been fortunate enough to meet Susan Backlinie (Chrissie), Carl Gottlieb (Meadows, and the author of The Jaws Log), and Joe Alves (production designer/epic story boarder), all of whom are not only gracious and friendly, but will also happily talk about their Jaws experiences and give you personal insight. For a Jaws nerd like me, that’s pure gold.

It’s summertime. The beaches are open. Go swimming and watch Jaws…and then go back in the water again. And for those who haven’t seen it, I’ll say it again: GET OFF YOUR ASSES AND GO WATCH IT NOW!

You’ll thank me later.

Jeremy Wagner has written lyrics to numerous published songs spanning several albums with his band Broken Hope. He also writes horror fiction with work published in RIP Magazine, Terrorizer, Metal Edge, Microhorror, and various works of short fiction published through Perseus Books, St. Martin’s Press, Ravenous Romance, and others.

Wagner’s published works include the best-selling debut novel The Armageddon Chord, the short stories “Romance Ain’t Dead” (Hungry for Your Love) and “The Creatures from Craigslist” (Fangbangers: An Erotic Anthology of Fangs, Claws, Sex and Love), the anecdotal “When I Scared Myself Out of Halloween” (Shock Totem #9.5), and Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, an exercise in writing horror.

The Armageddon Chord earned a Hiram Award, a first-round ballot Stoker Award Nomination, and received critical acclaim in Decibel, Publisher’s Weekly, and Rolling Stone. Wagner has since completed two novels.

Wagner’s currently recording Broken Hope’s seventh studio album. The band last released Omen of Disease via Century Media Records.

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