Spielberg’s first blockbuster was also his scariest movie. And it was just a summer popcorn flick with a giant monster shark that ate people off the coast of a small New York tourist town.
Okay, okay, it’s a lot more than that, otherwise it wouldn’t be showing up here. Jaws features some great (for its time) special effects and gore, a powerful musical theme, a big scary shark, impressive performances from Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss, and great cinematography.
Unlike a lot of its followers, like Deep Blue Sea, Jaws works due to a lot of simple horror, keeping things simple yet solid. There’s no big reveal about the shark’s background, it’s just there, eating people. There’s no special team to get rid of them, just a couple of fragile guys in a boat. Heck, the local government doesn’t even think the shark’s enough of a threat to close the beaches. How do you get rid of a killer that the officials don’t recognize? Particularly one that’s aquatic, meaning you have to go into it’s turf to even try?
Some of these basics were lost upon the rest of the franchise, culminating in the atrocious Jaws the Revenge (wait, it slowly becomes not only an eternal killing machine, but it gains a death wish for the Brody family and anyone associated with them?).
Why is it scary?
A couple of good reasons:
- Don’t show the monster! The big rule of any monster movie or creature feature, spend time building the tension and suspense before letting the viewers see what the hell it is they’re afraid of. Coming up with an emotion to something before seeing it means that it’ll still be scary… even when it’s a mechanical shark that had the bad habit of sinking.
- Shark PoV! Because the shark had the bad habit of… sinking, Spielberg had to come up with a way to include it without showing it. Thus, the inclusion of the shots from the shark’s point of view, which work amazing because it plays into the above: we see what the shark sees, not the shark.
- Paranoia! In this case, it’s not just the shark that’s out to get people, it’s the greed of the town government not wanting to scare away tourists with the “possible” shark threat.
- My old friend, isolation! Our climax for today takes place with three would-be shark hunters, on a fragile old boat which sinks real easy, in the middle of the ocean. Their adversary is a shark who lives in the endless blue sea surrounding them. Good luck!
For these reasons—amongst others, including the solid pacing, gruesome shark attacks, and John Williams’ menacing score—this is the film that scared kids enough to stay off the beach.