summers ago, I rented the movie Jaws as a lark, shortly
after returning from a vacation on Cape Cod. I had seen
it maybe once since its blockbuster summer of 1975, and
I didn’t remember much beyond the basic plot. To my surprise,
it was positively riveting after so many years, right from
that eerie, faint, echoing ping of sonar that you
hear a split second before the opening dah-dum of
John Williams’ score.
was also campy, fun, and edge-of-your-seat scary. Moviegoers
of all ages apparently agree, because nearly a generation
after its release, Jaws remains a cult classic—the
movie that started the summer blockbuster and stands at
No. 48 in the American Film Institute’s list of the 100
greatest American movies of all time. There are people who
maintain entire Web sites devoted to Jaws, endlessly
debating every detail of Steven Spielberg’s first big directorial
hit. For the less obsessed, an annual viewing of Jaws
in the safety of your living room is a fun way to get into
summer, as long as you see it after you get back
from your beach vacation.
just gets better every time, although the reasons aren’t
at first obvious. There are movies whose one-liners have
become far more embedded in our lexicon. (“Go ahead, make
my day.”) Children born 20 years after Jaws debuted
might be more familiar with its closing-in-for-the-kill
theme music than its dialogue, but they probably can’t name
the movie it came from, while Jaws spoofs and references
fell out of comic routines a couple of decades ago.
as a horror flick—and most critics categorize it as such—Jaws
has something that Alien and Night of the Living
Dead don’t: A villain that exists in the real world,
a creature out there in the ocean that occasionally takes
a chunk out of the surfer along with the surfboard.
doesn’t matter that scientists now believe great whites
aren’t automatically man-eaters, or even man-hunters. The
underwater view of a human paddling on a surfboard apparently
looks like the silhouette of a seal to Mr. Shark, and kids
and dogs splashing around in the waves make the same choppy
motions as wounded prey—which the shark interprets as the
drive-through window at McDonald’s.
what counted then and now is the knowledge that one minute,
you can be having fun in the water, and the next minute,
you can be missing a leg, just like the guy in the movie.
(And that severed leg, dropping heavily to the bottom of
the pretty little salt pond, looks more convincing than
the movie’s shark, even though you know it’s a fake
leg.) A shark might be thinking, in shark terms, “Oops!
My mistake—I thought you were a seal!” after the initial
bite, but that doesn’t make Jaws one iota less terrifying.
don’t think it’s particularly gory—it’s scary,” says
Albany writer and film critic Amy Biancolli, who reviews
movies for the Houston Chronicle. “It’s such good
storytelling, because it taps into primal fear.”
you’re still not sure you’re ready to see what you’ve missed,
you’ve got plenty of time to change your mind. Sharks have
been around since the dinosaurs, and Jaws is probably
going to be available to rent longer than that. You might
try seeing the movie and skipping the book, because although
the late Jaws author Peter Benchley had impeccable
literary genes—he was the grandson of the humorist Robert
Benchley—Jaws is one of the few Hollywood blockbusters
where the movie was better than the book. For a really great
read about a real great white, try Close to Shore,
by Michael Capuzzo, a meticulously researched account about
the shark that terrorized the New Jersey shore in the summer
of 1916, an incident that is sometimes attributed as the
inspiration for Benchley’s novel.
should you first-time viewers want to impress your friends
with your Jaws trivia, here are a few fun facts:
Memorial Day weekend, Jaws fans from all over the
country converge on Martha’s Vineyard, the setting of the
movie’s fictional resort town of Amity, for symposiums and
sight-seeing built around the movie. The Chamber of Commerce
welcomes them, says executive director Nancy Gardella. A
number of Martha’s Vineyard residents who were extras in
Jaws still live on the island and will regale visitors
with their recollections. The chamber has a replica of the
model shark used in the movie, and Gardella has seen tourists
take pictures of their babies posed in its gaping jaws.
spent much of the rest of his career trying to counter the
image of sharks as ocean zombies seeking their next meal
of human flesh, an image for which he felt at least partly
responsible. He became a spokesman for the Environmental
Defense Fund and other conservation groups, and devoted
his later writing to nonfiction books about sharks that
underscored their valuable role in the ocean’s ecology.
white shark got trapped in a lagoon on Cape Cod in 2004
for about two weeks, after blundering into the confined
space when the water was unusually high. The shark inspired
daily updates as experts figured out how to lure it back
to the open ocean. It finally swam to freedom, but, unlike
the shark in Jaws, it did so without eating anyone.
fun in the water this summer.