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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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NOS4A2

The kid behind the counter is fiddling with the espresso machine when he rattles off a string of numbers and letters. NOS4A2. He’s staring at the book I’ve set on the counter, a rusted vanity plate stamped on the cover.

“Nosferatu,” I say, digging the cash from my wallet. “It’s German for vampire.”

Joe Hill, son of prolific horror writer Stephen King, has proven to be a powerful new voice when it comes to modern fantasy and horror. His first book, the brilliant short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, snagged the Bram Stoker Award, International Horror Guild Award, and British Fantasy Award for Best Fiction Collection. Heart-Shaped Box and Horns were soon to follow; the former claiming another Stoker Award for Best First Novel. Locke & Key, a comic series written by Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez, has also claimed its share of awards.

Now Hill is back with his fourth book, NOS4A2, and he does not disappoint.

In his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith, with the vanity plate NOS4A2, Charles Talent Manx cruises highways most people never know exist, but he doesn’t go alone. Nothing gives Manx greater pleasure than whisking innocent children off to a place called Christmasland, a wondrous playground where every day is Christmas and unhappiness is against the law; a place no child would ever want to leave, though the drive is far more taxing than his young passengers can know. Manx has never lost a child he has set his sights on. Then he meets Victoria McQueen.

Vic McQueen knows something about hidden roadways herself. She has a talent for finding missing things. By riding her bicycle over a magical covered bridge, she is transported to wherever it is she needs to be. It is only a matter of time before she crosses paths with Charlie Manx and the Wraith, though she proves somewhat more resourceful than the children Manx is accustomed to dealing with.

Years later, Manx is back with a vengeance, and Vic McQueen finds herself in need of the talent she has tried so hard to erase from her memory, this time to recover her son. Thus the battle between good and evil begins.

Hill’s prose sings, and the plot moves along at a blazing pace. This is a page-turner at heart. Everything boils down to the fact that Joe Hill is an excellent storyteller. He knows how to hook his reader from the first page and relentlessly builds tension throughout his tale. I feel it is a discredit to Hill’s talent to make the comparison, but NOS4A2 is reminiscent of King at his best. Constant Readers will feel right at home between the covers.

If you consider yourself a geek, NOS4A2 will welcome you with open arms. References involving Batman, Star Wars, Firefly, Jaws and plenty more are sprinkled throughout in heartfelt and touching ways that will leave you feeling nostalgic. He also gives nods to authors past and present including Ray Bradbury, Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and others for readers to sniff out. Fans of Hill’s earlier works will find references on that front as well.

Where the novel really shines is in its characters. Charlie Manx makes for a truly terrifying villain. The Wraith accents him perfectly, acting as a living, thinking accomplice. Doors open on their own; locks bang into place, trapping unsuspecting victims; the radio constantly blares Christmas music regardless of the season. In many ways, the Wraith functions in much the same way as the 1958 Plymouth Fury did in Christine, and picturing the Rolls-Royce barreling out of a snowstorm that shouldn’t exist is downright menacing.

Vic McQueen offers a great counterbalance, winning the reader’s sympathy and respect. She comes off as a strong, independent heroine who is also flawed in all of the right ways. Her motivations, as with those of Charlie Manx, are complex and well thought out, pulling the reader close to consider each twist and turn alongside her.

Some of the greatest characters in the book are actually the secondary ones. It is not often that I find myself attached to characters to the degree I was to those in NOS4A2. From a librarian with a fish tank lined with scrabble tiles instead of rocks to a mechanic who uses a monster truck tire as a playpen for his child, there are so many small quirks in this book that one can’t help but smile at them as they go by. I found myself wishing I were friends with half the people I met while curled in my reading chair, and I am in awe of Hill’s ability to continuously populate his work with such interesting people.

At 692 pages, NOS4A2 is Hill’s longest work to date, but it holds up throughout its entirety, and readers can rest assured that they will be rewarded with a satisfying ending to wrap it all up. If you are a horror fan looking for a little Christmas-laced fear to chill your summer months, NOS4A2 is a must read. And if during the course of your reading you find yourself cruising down an unfamiliar snow-covered highway in the back of a classic car filled with Christmas music, just remember that you are on your way to someplace magical, a place you will never want to leave.

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Dear Darth Maul

Dear Darth Maul,

I’ve missed you horribly.

It’s been over a decade now since I last saw you falling into oblivion and out of my life. Who was I kidding? I knew I wouldn’t see you again. The guy from Moulin Rouge! Big Fish cut you in two. There’s no coming back from that.

Life went on, as it does. I bought new toys made new friends. Got and got over the clap girlfriends. Some were even Star Wars fans. But not one of them understood my sense of loss.

Flash forward to the other night. I’d heard a lot of buzz for this movie Insidious. You know, the latest horror offering from James Wan, the guy responsible for giving us films like the original Saw and Dead Silence. Did you see those, Darth Maul? Call me and we can duel with our lightsabers discuss their artistic merit. But really what got me in the theater was—I heard you were in it. Everyone’s been saying so.

They were wrong.

The messy tousles of hair, those teeth, those beady eyes…that’s not you.

So you passed on the role. Hey, I get it. Obviously you saw the flaws in the second act, most notably the part where the story shudders to a complete halt in order to sell the audience on a pretty far-fetched if not completely laughable concept in order to “explain” the paranormal happenings. Maybe you just didn’t like the way it ended, which I hear a lot of people didn’t. I see how it can be divisive, and to be honest, that’s why I LIKED it.

James Wan definitely took risks with the direction the film plays out. He tried some things where other filmmakers would have opted to play it safe, and you have to respect that whether you agree with the results or not.

The biggest risk was the way he handled the role you let go to a muppet.

It felt the whole time that Wan was winking at the audience, deliberately tipping his hand, saturating us with visuals of the terrible denizens from “The Further,” and, in the current world of the whole “less is more” philosophy when it comes to movie monsters, it was refreshing to get a good look at what lays in wait amid the shadows.

There was a lot of stuff to like in this movie, Darth Maul, and I bet you’re kicking yourself right about now. You didn’t count on Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne delivering actual emotion and weight as the distraught parents of a comatose child who seems to have become a ghost magnet. You didn’t count on the scares being genuine. And most of all, you didn’t figure in how the guys from the Paranormal Activity franchise would influence the feel of the film.

That’s the best part.

See, that’s the thing about Insidious. It’s not a gotcha! kind of scary movie. The scary stuff is already in the shot, and you just haven’t noticed yet. Long shots just seem to wander—from the living room, down the hallway—wait, what was that in the corner just standing there, is that AHH IT IS!!!

And that’s scary. These monsters don’t have to find you. They wait like a hellish nightmare version of Where’s Waldo? for you to find them. Terrifying.

Darth Maul, I still miss you, and I hope next time James Wan calls, you’ll at least consider picking up the phone.

And fire your agent. (I’ll be your agent. Call me.)

Love,

Ryan Bridger

XOXO
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