Jaws changed everything.
Ask any of the New Hollywood mavericks who emerged during the '70s and they’ll tell you: after Steven Spielberg’s great white epic, there was no place in studio filmmaking for the intimate, personal portraits they were painting on celluloid canvases. Studios wanted bigger, faster stronger pictures that could bust blocks and become brands, breeding success through thrilling familiarity. Inevitably this meant sequels – the continuation of characters’ stories that audiences were already invested in, thus making it easier to plunk down hard-earned bread at the theater on a Friday night. Perhaps the most fascinating of these early franchise installments is Jaws 2, an obvious cash-in that still stays true to the original, yet whose “teen slaughter on the high seas” narrative both mirrors and predates (if only by a few months) what some consider to be the granddaddy of slasher films.
Ostensibly more of the same, longtime TV director Jeannot Szwarc (Night Gallery, The Devil’s Daughter) replaces the adventurous, swashbuckling tone of the Beard’s classic with a grim, fatalistic sense of dread. From the cold open – where two divers are attacked by a dark, unseen force while photographing the remains of Quint’s sunken Orca – the audience knows that another swimming terror has returned to Amity Island. Unfortunately for Chief Brody (Roy Scheider, fresh off of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer getting trounced both commercially/critically*) and the rest of his peaceful New England beach community, the specter of death remains mostly unseen. It isn’t until the charred scraps of a speedboat “accident” and a chewed-up whale wash up on its shores that Brody begins to suspect another killer shark has decided to set up a personal buffet. Of course, nobody believes the local hero, thinking the disaster from the first film left him emotionally and mentally shattered.
Truth be told, even though we know that Bruce’s son (or daughter, or cousin, or whatever…) has followed in his predecessor’s fin strokes, it’s not hard to see why the town council views Brody as batshit crazy. Once he runs out onto a crowded beach and begins firing his pistol at a school of bluefish, it seems as if the handsome, leathery lawman has completely lost his marbles. However, this is where it becomes easy to draw comparisons between Brody and another horror film Ahab who would emerge in October of ’78, a mere four months after Jaws 2 hit theaters. Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) chases his own ever-moving death machine in John Carpenter’s Halloween, ranting and raving about how the only thing that exists in the killer’s eyes (which are just as black as a shark’s) is death. Both have seen the horrifying damage these creatures can do first hand, and these atrocities have driven them somewhat mad. The only difference between the two hunters is that the residents of Haddonfield recognize the threat right away, while Amity Island goes out of their way to try and discredit the cop who swore to keep their sandy dunes safe.
The parallels between Jaws 2 and Halloween don’t stop at the men pursuing these marauding machines of carnage, as Szwarc’s summer spectacle quickly morphs into a full-blown high seas stalk and slash once his film focuses on Brody’s son, Mike (Mark Gruner). Goaded into sneaking out and joining a sailing party by his girlfriend, Jackie (Donna Wilkes), Mike disobeys his father’s wishes and even takes his little brother Sean (Marc Gilpen) along for the ride once the moppet threatens to snitch on his sibling. From here, the shark becomes nothing more than a maniac without a mask, sporting rows of butcher’s knives in its maw. The beast first scares a diving instructor (Barry Coe) into rushing to the surface, causing a brain embolism. Shortly thereafter, it begins picking off kids, one by one; circling their boats the same way Michael Myers stalks the houses of Haddonfield, Illinois. They’re now stuck in the middle of the ocean, defenseless as the animal decides which one it wants to coldly slaughter next.
The partying, petrified coeds are going to feel familiar to anyone who has spent a large chunk of time consuming slasher cinema. Beyond Mike and the other “hip kids” hanging in a bar (that appears to be the vacation spot equivalent of the Canadian miner saloon from My Bloody Valentine), we’re also presented with a pair of nerds; one played by consummate avatar for the uncool, Keith Gordon (creating another Carpenter connection via his starring role in Christine). The script by returning Jaws writer Carl Gottlieb and co-scribe Howard Sackler (Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire) spends a solid amount of time hanging out with these adolescents, so that you feel every bite when the shark sinks its teeth into them. The only thing truly missing is a bona fide Final Girl, though that doesn’t mean the picture is missing its share of courageous women. One of the most emotionally affecting moments in Jaws 2 is when Marge (Martha Swatek) gives up her life in order to save Sean after he falls into the water. She’s no Laurie Strode, but it’s still one hell of a heroic self-sacrifice.
In true “bigger equals better” sequel style (a mantra that would certainly be adopted by many slasher franchises), Jaws 2 achieves dizzying heights of silliness, as the shark not only amasses a body count that dwarfs the original, but also takes down a goddamn helicopter in the process. Like all great horror continuations, the monster’s ultimate demise attempts to outdo its previous comeuppance (though why you even attempt to one up “smile you son of a bitch” is beyond this author’s comprehension). Sadly, the Jaws franchise– in keeping with slasher series tradition – would get worse as it went along. Jaws 3D is nigh unwatchable (even with the gimmick projected in full silver screen glory), and Jaws: The Revenge is probably only notable for Michael Caine’s character being named “Hoagie” and Bruce’s mom somehow becoming psychic. Yet like its forerunner, Jaws 2 helped establish a weird horror movie formula that would be ripped off for years to come. “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…” the poster’s tagline screamed, setting in stone the marketing ploy of a million studio fat cats, all looking to mine box office gold out of brutal fatalities.
*…and who basically only returned in order to end a contract with Universal Pictures.
This post is sponsored by Chiller. The new original series Slasher airs at 9pm ET on Friday, March 4 on ChillerTV.
This article is part of B.M.D. Guide To: SHARKS!!!