Horror movies today could learn something from the first “summer blockbuster.” Jaws is a lesson in suspense. You don’t see the titular shark until 1 hour has passed in the movie but you have been scared out of your wits by the Great White plenty of times before then.
There could be an argument that Jaws would not be made today, or at least it wouldn’t be the same movie. Steven Spielberg plays the slow-game with Jaws. The shark kills in the opening and there are a few fleeting sights of fins and even some (ahem) red herring moments but when it comes to killer shark action, the first half is thin on the ground. Instead, Jaws is about a sheriff who struggles to protect his town and subsequently his family. It is about mayors who are too concerned with their tourist season to see the signs of danger and then it is about how to deal with a killer shark when it is all too late.
None of this would sell a modern day movie. There is too much going on that isn’t about the shark but because Spielberg sets the scenes, takes his time with the characters, even those that seem inconsequential to begin with, and doesn’t reveal the shark until the perfect moment, when you do finally catch a glimpse of him, it has all the intended impact.
It is also impressive that the film shifts tone and direction for the second half. Three men voyage out on an ill-equipped boat to hunt and kill the massive shark. Rob Scheider is the Sheriff nobody believes who hates the sea, Richard Dreyfuss is the shark expert who has seen nothing like this before and Robert Shaw is the old sea-dog who has far too much history with sharks. These characters could be a whole film to themselves and even with the suspense, tension and action at its peak, Spielberg can spare the time to get to know these characters and their motivations, even seeing full character arcs develop in the third and final act.
The finale itself is amazing and still holds-up today. The shark looks a little rubbery and mechanical but because the actors sell the fear, you are sold on the fear and some of the set-pieces are staged so well they will invoke a grin every-time.
Overall, Jaws is the perfect horror movie. It has a fantastic killer protagonist, great characters who are well-developed and purposeful and some amazing suspense and tension. The third act and finale are still incredible. It may not haunt your dreams but you’ll be afraid to go back into the water.
Rating – 5!
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)
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