Collins’ Crypt: How JAWS Spawned TWO Sub-Genres

The JAWS blueprint has informed more horror movies than any other.

There are few movies I would consider perfect; where personal taste and nostalgia have no bearing whatsoever - you either like (even love) these movies or you simply have bad taste. Objectivity has no place in the equation. And on that note I should point out two things: 1. None of them are among my five favorite films (all of which I can perfectly understand not liking) and 2. Only one of them is a horror film - and that film is Jaws.

I've watched the movie three times in the past couple months (once on glorious 35mm, twice on its glorious new Blu-ray transfer), putting my total at around twenty or so, and if anything I just love it more every time. Little things resonate more on repeat viewings, like the quiet shot of the three men building Hooper's cage - the only time on the Orca that they seem to be in sync when it came to their defense against the shark. Or I (shockingly enough) notice them for the first time - it was only during that last 35mm viewing that I noticed Ms. Kintner is the only one who doesn't instantly react to the shark attack that claimed her son's life (probably because I'm usually too preoccupied worrying about poor Pipit; I think I've finally accepted the poor mutt's demise).

It even still gets me scared a bit. Sure, the "shovel some of this shit" bit isn't as effective as it was when I was new to the flick, but damned if Ben Gardner's head doesn't give me a jolt EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. And every time the shark dips under the water with those barrels, it's like I get amnesia - I can never remember when/where he resurfaces. Also, no matter how many times I watch the film, I hope that Quint manages to hold on to Brody, or successfully brace his legs against the shark's mouth to keep from getting chomped. It didn't happen any of these times, but maybe the next time I give it a spin...

Part of the reason I appreciate it more every time I see it is likely due to the fact that I've had usually seen a few films that ripped it off in between viewings. In the 37 years since the film's release, there have been countless knockoffs or "homages", as it spawned TWO sub-genres. First is basically the killer shark movie, of which there are so many I could probably watch nothing but such films for a month's worth of Horror Movie A Day and still not run out: Shark Attack, Shark Zone, Mega Shark, Sharktopus, 2 Headed Shark Attack... they're all in some way just copying what Spielberg did perfectly the first time out (and if there was a killer shark movie before Jaws I apologize; I looked for a while, and while I found a few with killer shark SCENES, I couldn't find one that featured it as its main plot), and it's almost a law that they have to pay their respects in some way - copying John Williams' music is common, or having a variation on a key line like "You're going to need a bigger boat." Deep Blue Sea had one of my favorite little nods - the license plate that they find has the same number as the one Hooper pulls out of the tiger shark.

Then there's the "Nature Run Amok" series, which transplants the basic idea of Jaws but swaps out the animal, and often sets it on land (non "mad science" or prehistoric water entries are rare, Orca is one such exception). William Girdler was the king of such films, helming one of the first (Grizzly, or "Jaws with a bear") and one of the most insane (Day Of The Animals, which must be seen to believed). Incidentally, Girdler was also behind Abby, one of the most notorious Exorcist ripoffs, and to this day I am saddened by his early death in 1978 (due to a helicopter crash; he was only 30 years old) as he surely would have had entertaining responses to the slasher and zombie crazes that would come along in the immediate years after his death. As with the water-based films, pretty much every large animal you can think of got their own movie, not to mention smaller predators like snakes (Jaws Of Satan - they weren't even TRYING with that title), bats (Nightwing), and, er, worms.

Yes, worms. Jeff Lieberman's Squirm had the worm population of a southern town turning aggressive as a result of an electric storm, and its up to hero Don Scardino to stop them. As with Grizzly, this was one of the earlier copycats, coming along just a year later, so you gotta appreciate the idea to go in the complete opposite direction for a villain. Seriously, what's scary about a worm? Nothing. But TONS of worms? That can be scary, I guess (especially when Lieberman just tosses any worm-like thing into the mix, including snakes). Incidentally, Lieberman claims he was more inspired by The Birds, which is one of the few films that can be seen as a precursor to Jaws, but Spielberg's own Duel was closer in tone than Hitchcock's Psycho followup, in my opinion.

After all the animals were used up, the sub-genre(s) kind of died out for a while; only Jaws' own sequels kept the water-based version alive, and on-land films like Tremors or Arachnophobia either tanked or were flukes, with no resulting copycats. It wasn't until Anaconda and the advent of CGI that really ushered in the sub-genre's second life, as that film's success paved the way for things like Lake Placid and Bats, which tackled previously used monsters but with modern flair. Ironically, the thing that made Jaws such a classic - not seeing the monster too much, was due to the fact that their practical shark didn't work half the time. Now they had CGI, which always worked - but often didn't look very good. However, that didn't stop filmmakers from showing off their monster(s) as much as possible, which is why none of those films have even come close to matching Jaws' lasting appeal. Or even the less significant box office, for which you don't even have to factor in inflation to see how the public felt about these wannabes: Jaws remains on top, with Jaws 2 in the pole position (furthermore, only Deep Blue Sea and Anaconda managed to outgross Jaws 3, which was a relative disappointment). Unsurprisingly, the genre mainly lives on in DTV releases and Syfy original movies, as they seem to find a way to do a "new" killer shark film every other month or so (the recent Shark Week was basically a Saw film but with sharks).

And it's not just the idea of pitting a big animal against some regular folk after it kills some townspeople, there are specific beats that these movies all seem to carry over from Carl Gottlieb's script (from Peter Benchley's novel). The Quint like hunter character and/or Hooper esque nerdy expert are pretty common archetypes, and you gotta have a Chief Brody just trying to protect his town. Just take a movie like Lake Placid. You have Bill Pullman in the Roy Scheider role, Oliver Platt as Richard Dreyfuss, and Brendan Gleeson as Robert Shaw. The head law enforcement guy usually has some sort of personal trauma to deal with as well, and a slimy mayor/real estate tycoon/company man type is usually around mucking up the works.

Then there's what's affectionately dubbed the "close the beaches" subplot. In Jaws, things get out of hand and more people die because the town was opposed to closing the beaches down due to the tourist money that they relied on, and similar (in some cases, exact) subplots are featured more often than not in all of the above films and their ilk. Some are downright ridiculous - Jaws of Satan's big fear was delaying the opening of a dog track (!), but they all have the same basic plot function. The only difference is when they occur - does it happen halfway through so that the tragedy can inspire a new plan for the 3rd act? Or does it actually HAPPEN in the 3rd act, providing a big buffet and maximum carnage potential for the climax. The latter happens more often than the former, particularly on the Syfy channel, where a big finish is necessary in order to keep people from flipping the channel when the next one begins. The recent Jersey Shore Shark Attack wins points for novelty, as the main event occurred on a pier, where the big Ferris Wheel was knocked loose and begins rolling people over as the sharks attack nearby.

Some even go deeper to show their love of Jaws (or at least, their acknowledgement that its ideas are better than doing their own). I recently saw The Crater Lake Monster, which is the rare mid/late 70s Jaws knockoff that DIDN'T have a "close the beaches" subplot, but it inexplicably had a reprise of the bit where Roy Scheider mocks the sign-making skills of his deputy (here the sign is spelled wrong as a result of the guy doing it). Of Unknown Origin has a sequence that's almost shot for shot copying the fun bit where Scheider looks through a book of sharks and shark injuries, except here its of the rats that serve as (Origin hero) Peter Weller's nemesis. And Giant Spider Invasion directly mentioned the film, a bold move for a 70s audience since they could probably just go to the next drive-in and see it still playing. Hell, just today I watched a movie called Boogeyman, a new Syfy original, and while it was more of a Jeepers Creepers style slasher, it had an early bit that seemed to be referencing Jaws' opening with the kids on the beach, except this time the drunken male has a surprise when he catches up with his would-be conquest.

Needless to say, the Jaws blueprint has informed more horror movies than any other. Halloween is probably the only one that even comes close, but that film's nearly plotless nature makes it harder to tell. Plus, there were a number of "proto-slashers" before Halloween, whereas Jaws really only has two possible influences: Duel (from the same director) and The Birds, which shares only the basic idea of animals turning against us for no reason. For better or worse, a sizable chunk of the horror genre's offerings probably wouldn't exist if not for the adventures of Brody, Hooper, and Quint. Thanks, or "Thanks", Jaws!

For my thoughts on the new Blu-ray (the transfer, the bonus features, etc), read my full review at Horror Movie A Day.