Jaws (1975) is a breakthrough horror film directed by Steven Spielberg. The plot revolves around a community being terrorized by a man-eating great white shark and the men determined to stop it. Brody (Roy Scheider) is the chief of police for the community, enlists the help of marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and later veteran fisherman and shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw). The three of them set out to hunt the shark since the mayor of the town is unwilling to shut down the beaches during the Summer holidays.
Despite often being categorized as a horror movie, it doesn’t follow many of the typical horror conventions and perhaps has more in common with the adventure\survivalist genre; films such as Deliverance (1972) or The Grey (2011) come to mind. There is no final girl, and past the opening scene which starts with the standard scene of teenagers partying leading up to the death of a promiscuous personage, there is little moralizing regarding, or acquaintance with the victims aside from one notable exception. The message this sends to the audience, which perhaps contributed to the fear factor above the standard horror film, is that anyone could be a victim. Whereas the usual horror film can often be analyzed critically as upholding morality and punishing transgressors of it through the construct of a monster, with Jaws nobody is safe. This is established when the second victim is an innocent child. The killings are indiscriminate, executed by a thoughtless, borderline mechanical creature; one that is not altogether singular or unique either. It is implied by both Hooper and Quint that while an exceptional specimen for sure, there are sharks out there that rival and perhaps even dwarf the size and ferocity of the great white that is the films unnamed titular character.
Furthermore there is an added psychological element for the main protagonist, Brody, given his fear of the water. Though again, rather than toying with the concept such as Hitchcock perhaps would’ve been inclined to do (even if these issues have to be addressed eventually in all instances for the sake of plot resolution) it manifests more as perseverance and courage within Brody. Actually it has been said and is true that Spielberg did take inspiration for creating suspense from Hitchcock, and again if we are to make a distinction then suspense is different from horror. The main difference between Brody and a Hitchcock character however is that he is never crippled or made impotent by his fear. Combine the aforementioned with the character of Quint, whom is practically a modern day Ahab (I am far from the first to draw such a comparison), and despite the fear it may have induced in audiences upon it’s release it really does play out more in the spirit of an adventure than a horror film.
The one horror convention it really adheres to is in drumming up suspense for its monster without actually revealing it. This it does quite well and we only glimpse the shark briefly as it claims it’s third victim, more than halfway through the film. Spielberg, and screenwriters Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb were all acutely aware that even with excellent special effects, a good monster movie must function similar to a burlesque. That is to say flirtatious and rife with implication but very slow on the reveal. That the imagination is more powerful than any physical image that can be presented.
At the time of its release, it was not common practice to release major movies during the Summer season, the presumption being that there would be a low draw as the movies had other activities and the weather to compete with. Jaws, chose instead to debut shortly before the 4th of July weekend when it takes place and to over-saturate television advertisements in the weekend prior to it. This, a gamble estimated to have cost an unprecedented $700k, paid off tremendously. The film went on to have a return of well over 1000% on it’s 9 million dollar budget. The initial domestic run drew in around $150m and it’s current worldwide box office draw stands at $470m. Quite the return!
The success of Jaws changed practices for the industry. It showed that Summer releases could indeed flourish. As (mostly) children of the ’80’s and ’90’s, we take for granted that major films are released during the Summer but prior to Jaws this was not the case. It also proved the effectiveness of media blitz advertising, and of advertising movies on television; another thing that is easily dismissed, taken for granted, and treated as a norm to this day. Lastly it also propelled Steven Spielberg, then an unknown with one prior (and at the time unreleased) film to his credit, well on his way into becoming a household name and industry icon.
Jaws also had some curious effects beyond the world of cinema. It was so effective, in part due to the aforementioned portrayal of the shark as an indiscriminate man-hunter, and also due to Quints recollection of the U.S.S. Indianapolis (a real event), at capturing peoples imaginations and fears that after its release fear of shark attacks was widely disproportional to their likeliness or frequency of occurrence. Further still this triggered a wave of boisterous adventure-seeking men to go shark hunting as a macho endeavor and led to thousands of needless shark deaths. On the bright side, it also spurred interest in learning about sharks, since at the time of the films release little was really known about the creatures. (Perhaps also why people were so easily receptive to the mythos presented by the film.) Post-Jaws saw an influx of both funding and interested personnel into the field of marine biology, which while difficult to directly correlate is generally accepted as having been inspired by the popularity of the film.