Friday, June 25, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Altered (2006)

My friend and fellow blogger, Jim Blanton (at Fantasmo Cult Cinema Explosion) recommended Altered to me last week, following my review of Eduardo Sanchez's Seventh Moon (2008). I'm glad he did. This is another almost under-the-radar post-Blair Witch effort from the talented director, and one consisting of tremendous ingenuity and intensity.

Altered -- which was released directly-to-video -- is likely one of the weirdest "revenge" movies you'll ever see; one with some great genre twists. Fifteen years after a group of redneck buddies were abducted by aliens at isolated Nixon's Farm, three of them (Cody, Otis and Duke) -- armed with bear traps and shot guns -- return to the scene of the crime to bag themselves one of the offending extra-terrestrials.

In the film's first scene, set in the dark woods, these hillbillies unexpectedly prove successful in their unusual quest and bind the offending, captured alien up in duct tape. They drag the injured creature to the secure compound of their former buddy, Wyatt (Adam Kaufman), who was also abducted by the aliens, but spent more than two, terrifying days in their presence...and now deeply fears them. Wyatt's girlfriend, Hope (Catherine Mangan) calls the police over the situation, but before the local sheriff can get there, a night of terror ensues.

Specifically, one of the rednecks, Cody (Paul McCarthy-Boyington), becomes infected by the alien's blood and his flesh begins to rot off a layer at a time. The aliens also possess hypnotic mental powers, and so the captive from another world manages to hypnotize and take control of Hope for a duration.

And then, there's the incredibly disgusting scene in which the escaped, slobbering alien monstrosity leverages his freedom by yanking out -- and playing tug of war with --Otis's (Michael C. Williams) large intestines...

But the thing is this: Altered is a really, really low-budget effort, and Sanchez -- in the honorable tradition of many great B-filmmakers -- makes the most of this financial shortfall by limiting the locations but not the scope of his story.

In other words, Altered basically revolves around seven characters (including the alien), and only two or so locations, mainly Wyatt's garage/work-shop.

It's a pressure-cooker, and the tension in the film quickly expands to unbearable levels as Wyatt and his friends battle over how to handle the restrained alien.

Wyatt -- who shares an enigmatic mental link with the beings -- senses that if human beings kill an alien, they'll put us all down. "You know what happens when an animal kills a human?" he asks Hope. "It would be a goddamn massacre." Wyatt sees it as his job to rein in his overzealous buddies and even protect the the same time that he hates and fears it. Kaufman anchors the film with his intense, human (and humane) performance, a superb turn from an actor I recall seeing on episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars.

The angry, irrational Cody, meanwhile, seeks revenge for the death of his brother Timmy fifteen years earlier, during the first encounter with these green-skinned, monstrous creatures. His father actually blamed Cody for Timmy's death, and Cody has lost his very family over the aliens. This sub-plot gives the film one of its few humorous scenes; a macabre and ghoulish punch-line with a char-broiled alien corpse on a front porch.

As far as the other characters, Hope, in some sense functions as a surrogate for the audience: she just wants to get out of the house alive. Otis and Duke, by contrast, seem to be seeking emotional closure over the event that haunts their lives and their dreams.

Director Sanchez succeeds here (despite some dodgy alien make-up, particularly in one scene involving the alien behind a bed post...) because he adheres rigorously to the tenets and outline of the revenge picture. In basic terms, this movie is about a hostage and hostage takers. In the tradition of the genre, the hostage eventually wins over some of his captors, not by cajoling and appealing to their humanity, ironically, but by mentally/psychically taking them over; by brainwashing them. And -- also in adherence to the conventions of the revenge pictures -- the roles in the film are constantly shifting. The hunters quickly become the hunted, as they bicker pointlessly amongst themselves. And the prey, in the end, pulls a surprising and nasty coup de grace that you won't see coming.

Within the revenge film formula, the director of Altered keeps us on edge by continuously tossing up curve balls.

The redneck characters, for instance, are not the sharpest tools in the shed (especially Otis...) and they keep making very basic mistakes in their care of the alien, mistakes that more educated, less angry, less emotional folk might not make. For instance, they keep forgetting to close and lock doors behind them; they keep crossing the red line of paint on the floor around the alien that they are not supposed to breach, and they keep taking their eyes off the captive.

And then there's the alien himself, who is vicious, fast-moving, cunning and may be part of an elaborate strategy to locate and re-abduct Wyatt. In other words, the wounded alien may have permitted himself to be caught on purpose, so that the aliens could finally locate Wyatt (who lives in the woods and has surgically-extracted a weird, clicking biological implant.)

On top of all the narrative uncertainties and twists, Sanchez gleefully piles on extreme violence and especially gore. Altered pulls no punches in terms of upsetting, gory imagery...and it is all handled extraordinarily well, and in welcome practical terms (no CGI, thank you.) The alien, at least in dim lit, is terrifying. In one sequence, the savage creature ambushes Wyatt in a blood-soaked bath tub, and then skitters out of the tub, after the human...and it's enough to make you crawl out of your skin. It's just too bad the alien could not remain hidden or in half-light more often.

So Altered engages your intellect with story possibilities at the same time that it knowingly upsets your stomach. For a horror enthusiast, that's a potent combination. The film is not at all slick, and not very polished, unlike so many horror products of modern vintage. Altered is messy and a little rough, a loud, jangling affront to the senses. If you're in the mood for a dedicated, old-fashioned, balls-to-the-wall B movie with more guts than greenbacks, this is it.

Sanchez shares an important quality with Quentin Tarantino, I noticed, while watching Altered and Inglorious Basterds back-to-back. Both men are able to vividly present stories about huge, globe-spanning topics (an alien invasion and world war, respectively) in intimate, personal dimensions.

In Inglorious Basterds, we never actually see much of the war effort (there are no scenes of actual combat). Similarly, in Altered, we spend most of the time in a cluttered garage, dealing with Wyatt and his buddies' feelings of powerlessness, victimization and anger over their alien experience. There is constant talk of the aliens returning in force...but the film doesn't ever show much of that invasion. Still, the idea of aliens "putting us down" looms over the film like a dark shadow, and adds a layer of menace to the proceedings.

Again, some of the alien effects (and spaceship effects) in Altered are admittedly not-so-great. But the writing, the performances and the overall, almost-hysterical mood of the piece combine to make this a memorable effort, nonetheless.

Seven characters. One room (basically). And lots of gore: that's a recipe that really seems to work for Sanchez, and the surprising ingenuity and terror of Altered made me wish that the Sy Fy Channel would take a look at adopting this brand of template. The network keeps making all of these stupid, underwhelming "original movies" that function primarily as cheesy camp. What Sy Fy should do instead is take its small budgets and limit the setting and stars of its films, while maintaining a sense of scope and seriousness.

That's what Altered does, and that's how it achieves so much with so little.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 109: Alias (2002): "The Box"

I've probably written about this before here, but I once pitched a book project to a publisher entitled "Die Hard in a Book" and its intention to was to survey all the Die Hard (1988) films, and also all the Die Hard rip-offs, tributes and off-shoots.

Let's see: there was Die Hard on a plane (Passenger 57), Die Hard on a bus (Speed [1994]), Die Hard on a cruise ship (Speed 2 [1997]), Die Hard on a Train (Under Siege 2), etc.

One chapter of that proposed book would have been called "Die Hard on the Tube," because over the years so many TV programs have also re-purposed the sturdy Die Hard premise (terrorists take over an isolated setting, grab hostages, and end up battling an action hero like Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal or Wesley Snipes).

Just off the top of my head, I remember Captain Jean-Luc Picard battling terrorists for control of the evacuated starship Enterprise in the Next Gen episode "Starship Mine." And then there was an episode of the 1990s Glen Larson superhero show, Nightman, called "I Left My Heart," in which the hero had to combat a terrorist gang in a high rise building, in a plastic surgeon's office.

Probably the finest and most exciting television variation on Die Hard, however, arrived in early 2002, on the ABC J.J. Abrams spy saga Alias, starring Jennifer Garner as secret agent Sydney Bristow.

In "The Box," written by Jesse Alexander and John Eisendrath, and directed by Jack Bender, guest star Quentin Tarantino portrays the Hans Gruber/mastermind, antagonist role in the by-now familiar Die Hard scenario. This time, the character's name is McKenas Cole, and he has endured torture, humiliation and guilt after a failed overseas mission and a lengthy imprisonment. He blames SD-6 director Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin) for his suffering.

Beginning in the parking garage of SD-6 headquarters (from a van labeled with the legend "McTiernan," after Die Hard's director...), McKenas and his machine-gun-armed terrorists began a ruthless, violent take-over of the high-tech offices. SD-6's staff is held hostage, abused and threatened with death. McKenas seeks -- again in old-school Gruber-style -- something important (and secret...) from SD-6's impenetrable vault. In Die Hard, of course, opening up the Nakatomi Building's computerized vault was a lengthy, elaborate process, and "The Box" keeps that aspect of the story to help ramp up the tension.

Our John McClane (Bruce Willis) in this variation of the form is lovely and lethal Sydney, who returns to SD-6 HQ determined to quit, only to find an emergency already-in-progress. In short order, Bristow takes to the vent shafts and begins eliminating Cole's operatives one at a time. Just as McClane had some crucial help from outside, provided by Officer Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), so is Sydney assisted in her efforts here by her CIA handler, Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan). But, in the tradition of Powell, Vaughn must cut through infrastructure and bureaucracy, plus the efforts of a wrong-headed superior, in order to join "the party."

The core concepts of the Die Hard prototype are popular and oft-utilized for a reason. The story sets a loner and law-enforcement official against superior numbers, gives him or her a unique central location (high rise bldg., ship, bus, etc.) to grapple with, and then provides an obstacle that holds him/her back: the safety of hostages. In Die Hard, of course, John McClane had to worry about his captive wife, Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia). In Alias's "The Box," Sydney's Dad, Jack (Victor Garber) -- a fellow agent -- is among the hostages.

Quentin Tarantino is probably the undisputed contemporary king of movie homage, so it is appropriate that this particular director should be a guest star in the very Alias episode that most closely pays tribute to what is today considered an action-movie classic. But "The Box" is a laudable episode of Alias not merely because it adopts the Die Hard template, but because it so cannily re-purposes the ingredients of the Willis film to the specifics of its own storyline.

For instance, "The Box" opens at a low time for Sydney. She has just learned in the previous episode ("The Confession") that her mother was not a school teacher, but rather a murderous KGB agent in America. This knowledge has caused Sydney to question her work in the intelligence community, her continuing education to become a teacher herself, and much more. The unexpected take-over attempt at SD-6 by Cole is thus the very thing that jolts Sydney out of her self-doubt and self-recriminations. Her friends (including Dixon) and father need her help now....or innocent people will die.

More interesting, however, is the fact that Sydney realizes during the course of "The Box" that her agenda (to bring down Sloane and SD-6) actually aligns with Cole's (Tarantino's) agenda. In other words, Sydney has a moment of realization in "The Box" during which she realizes that Cole and she, in some sense, want the same thing; and are on the same side. Should she join him in taking down SD-6 -- her ultimate goal -- or stand firm and rescue the very man she hates, Sloane?

This is a very clever updating of the Die Hard concept: the notion that the hero and villain are joined by a common goal, but, for whatever reason, still must fight. This is part of the reason why Alias remains such an interesting series: Sydney is a double agent, and must constantly consider not only how her actions affect the real C.I.A., but how they will play out in the crucible of SD-6. Add her personal life to the mix, and Sydney's life is a delicate, split-second dance of lies, secrets, and feints. This episode, "The Box" really expresses that idea well.

I also find it intriguing that so much of this Alias episode involves Cole's "enhanced interrogation" (torture) of Sloan utilizing a box filled with acupuncture needles. Again, Alias has spent the first dozen episodes of the first season making viewers aware of what a terrible, villainous person Sloane is. He is, without a doubt, the big bad of the series (the man who had Sydney's fiancee killed). And yet, "The Box" goes out of its way to make audiences feel first sympathy and then respect for Sloane as he is tortured ruthlessly by Tarantino's character. The sympathy is bad enough...but then Sloane volunteers to have a finger chopped off (so as to de-activate a bomb with a computerized fingerprint read-out) in order to save the lives of his people. Suddenly, the bad guy seems...selfless.

In other words, "The Box" makes things even more murky for Sydney. She finds herself sympathizing with Cole's agenda; and then learning that the "monster" she hates actually features some admirable human qualities.

What I'm getting at, I suppose, is that Alias knowingly uses the Die Hard template as a starting point and then launches into some great and valuable character territory based on the specific elements of the series' narrative and overarching purpose. Like most episodes of Alias, the pace here is breathless; the action is endlessly intense. In particular, I enjoyed the final battle between Quentin Tarantino and Jennifer Garner. His character, Cole knows how to land a punch, and Sydney's a deft kick boxer, so it's fun watching their diverse fighting styles in action. Sydney moves with grace, like a dancer, but Cole hangs in there, blocking and punching away. Tarantino is clearly having the time of his life playing a smarmy bad-ass here, and the scene in which he makes Sydney drink his backwash (!) from a champagne bottle (in lieu of a kiss....) is classic.

I watched the first two seasons of Alias when it aired on ABC in the early years of the 2000s, and episodes like "The Box" still really get the blood flowing. I guess there's been serious talk of a series re-boot in the last few weeks, and I can't comment on that idea too much except to observe that today Alias holds up remarkably well. It looks like it was produced last week; not eight years ago. A re-boot so soon sounds unnecessary, and I'm not certain that anyone could portray Sydney Bristow with more verve, more humanity, than Jennifer Garner brought to the role.

Why not an Alias feature film reuniting the original cast, instead?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Cult-TV Faces of: Terry O'Quinn

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"All the gods...they cannot sever us. If I were dead and you were still fighting for life, I'd come back from the darkness. Back from the pit of hell to fight at your side."

-Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Monday, June 21, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Lost Highway (1997)

"There is no such thing as a bad coincidence."

-A pertinent line of dialogue from David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997)

"It should be acknowledged, straightaway," opined critic Eric Bryant Rhodes in Film Quarterly (Spring 1998, page 57), "that Lost Highway is, by design, extremely resistant to reduction into a definitive narrative account; by the film's end it is evident that Lynch has intentionally withheld the answers to questions inevitably provoked by the narrative's elusive and elliptical plot. It is virtually impossible to reconstruct a definitive and rational account of what happens in Lost Highway."

Critic Kenneth Turan called David Lynch's film the director's "most accomplished work since Blue Velvet" and termed it a "metaphysical stag film," (Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1997, page 10), while David Denby noted that the film is a "virtuoso exercise in spooky unintelligibility" (New York, March 3, 197, page 53).

Meanwhile, Jack Kroll at Newsweek suggested insightfully that with Lost Highway Lynch had become "the Heisenberg of cinema, telling us that the uncertainty principle rules our lives" (February 24, 1997, page 68).

Elusive. Metaphysical. Spooky. Uncertain.

All of these critical descriptors highlight the confounding essence of this beloved and beguiling David Lynch film noir. It's a movie that can't be intellectually "understood," perhaps, only "interpreted" in relation to the director's style and singular voice, in particular his pervasive use of "dream sense," the surreal language of dreams.

Specifically, Lynch has has publicly likened Lost Highway to a Psychogenic Fugue...a mental state of disassociation from oneself. That comparison could be the very key that unlocks a few of the film's most enduring and baffling mysteries.

We've met before, haven't we? Or We Got Some Spooky Shit Here...

Lost Highway
depicts the startling descent into madness of a jealous saxophonist named Fred Madison (Bill Pullman).

Experiencing strange dreams about his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette) -- whom he suspects is having an adulterous affair -- Fred also comes to believe that someone is watching him inside his own home; videotaping him as he sleeps. Fred is a paranoid man, and even his house -- painted in deep, dark shades of crimson and scarlet -- appears to reflect his intemperate, suspicious nature.

When Renee is discovered murdered, Fred is arrested for the bloody crime, but then something truly strange occurs.

In his jail cell: another man seems to take his physical place. Fred wakes up...and is different. He is now Peter (Balthazar Getty), a young fellow, a car mechanic, associated with gangster Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent (Loggia). And Eddy/Laurent’s girlfriend is Alice (Arquette)...a dead ringer for the murdered Renee.

Behind this strange metamorphosis -- and this strange new life -- is a terrifying and ubiquitous "Mystery Man" (Robert Blake) with a video camera...a man who can apparently be in two places simultaneously.

In the Far East, when a person is sentenced to death, they're sent to a place where they can't Escape: Or The Splintered Psyche as Madison's "Escape" Valve.

A restless spirit of madness seems to haunt angry Fred Madison in Lost Highway. That spirit, while actually a part of Fred's psyche, is manifested externally in the film; as another "being" he physically encounters.

Specifically, this specter of violence, revenge and madness takes the form of the pasty-faced, grinning maniac portrayed by Robert Blake.

In the film’s most deeply unsettling, most dream-like sequence, this specter of violence and guilt confronts Fred at a party and informs the saxophonist that he, the Mystery Man, is at his house right now, killing his wife.

Of course, a person can’t be in two places at the same time but the Mystery Man urges Fred to call his own house to confirm his disturbing story. Fred does so, and at his house the Mystery Man answers the phone. “I told you I was here,” he says.

The idea underlining this horrific, surreal sequence is that Fred has effectively disassociated from himself, from his personal identity, in order to carry out an evil, brutal deed: the murder of Renee. Fred has created a Boogeyman, a monster, to complete the task for him, since -- as a rational, evolved human being -- murder is not an acceptable act. Instead, Madison has reached deep down into his reptilian brain and created this thing, this monster.

Psychogenic fugues or dissociative orders are often precipitated by intense stress, and there's plenty of that to go around in the early scenes of this Lynch film. Sexual intercourse between Fred and the gorgeous Renee goes poorly, for instance. After some slow-motion photography and the exaggerated sounds of panting, Fred loses his erection, and Renee appears frustrated. The impression is of a troubled marriage and of Fred's looming, impulsive rage, ready to be sated. The Mystery Man appears briefly in this scene too: superimposed over Renee's lovely face. The monster's sudden appearance here is Fred's "flash" of violent intent, of rage, when he proves impotent.

Jealousy and looming rage are manifested again in the film's very color scheme, in Lynch's presentation of another important sequence. After a public musical performance, Fred rings Renee up on a red telephone and he's likewise bathed in hellish neon-sort of red light. She’s not home, and Madison's conviction that she is cheating on him grows exponentially. His very world seems to visualize this “red” streak of jealousy. Unable to get satisfaction from her husband, Renee has sought fulfillment outside the relationship...or so he imagines.

After creating the "mystery man" as an alternate identity from which to commit the murder of cheating Renee, Fred then disassociates again after the crime, creating an additional personality, Peter Dayton, where he can hide from his intense feelings of guilt and responsibility. Those unlucky souls who experience psychogenic fugues in real life often create totally new personalities, in new environs, with no memory of their real personalities or histories.

Of great significance, Madison's new personality, Dayton, is a heroic, young character who liberates Renee (now Alice...) from sexual humiliation and slavery at the hands of a powerful exploiter and abuser, Eddy/Dick Laurent.

Where Fred is impotent, Dayton is virile, engaging in satisfying sexual intercourse with Alice on a beach by night. He is the "dream" persona of Fred, as an unspoiled, vigorous, desirable youth. Fred Madison does not "snap back into being" until the film's conclusion when his Peter Dayton identity closes the loop and informs him that "Dick Laurent is dead." The death of his competitor for Renee's/Alice's affections allows Fred to be restored to his "real" state.

Importantly, this scene represents a kind of cinematic Möbius strip, relating back to one of the first scenes in the film. There are two ways to interpret it. The first is the psychogenic fugue approach. The early appearance of an unseen "stranger" at the door, informing Fred that "Dick Laurent is dead" is actually the fledgling start of Madison's dissociative mania; the sort of mental canary in the coal mine that pushes Fred to kill his wife and his competitor for her affections.

Or contrarily, one might read the entirety of the film as a murderous, disassociated fantasy occurring in Fred's dreams as he awakens to receive that cryptic message. He is only told once that "Dick Laurent is dead," and every event that happens in the film seems to occur in that very instant; his dream of murder; his escape into another identity, etc. This is the Jacob's Ladder (1990) reading of the film, I suppose.

David Lynch's description of the film as a Psychogenic Fugue also relates, in fascinating fashion, to musical terminology. A fugue is defined as a piece of music consisting of "two or more voices." Fred Madison, the Mystery Man, and Peter Dayton are all different voices inhabiting one psyche and their tale might appropriately be described as a musical fugue as well as a psychogenic one. For instance, a "fugue" often begins with an opening key (here, the "key" in which Fred Madison exists). Then, further episodes establish additional notes or keys (the Mystery Man, Dayton...). Finally, after expressing these "new" notes, the opening key in a musical fugue is re-asserted as the piece ends.

That is precisely the structure of Lost Highway, with Fred Madison -- our opening "key" -- brought back for the film's conclusion. A fugue (psychological dream state) explains the movie's narrative, and a fugue (piece of music) explains the movie's structure.

I swear I love that girl to death: The O.J. Simpson Connection?

Those associated with this Lynch film have reported that Lost Highway represents the director's free-association meditation on the O.J. Simpson trial which occurred mid-decade, shortly before the production of the film.

This clue helps us discern another layer of the film. Pullman plays a public figure (a musician, not a sports hero), who becomes irrevocably connected to the murder of his beautiful wife.

The opening shot, a point-of-view from the dashboard of a car rocketing down a lonely highway by night -- the pavement illuminated only by headlights -- even recalls O.J.’s famous freeway chase in the white bronco.

Like O.J., Fred Madison also loudly proclaims his innocence, but he’s not necessarily a reliable witness. For one thing, Fred doesn’t like the prying eye of the video camera. “I like to remember things my own way,” he complains “not necessarily the way they happened...” But go deeper. If the glove does not fit, you must acquit. And if Fred Madison is Peter Dayton...who do you arrest for the crime?

A true appreciation of David Lynch’s cinematic work arises from interpreting his symbols and reading carefully his powerful, subconscious dream imagery. In the case of Lost Highway it feels like Lynch is attempting to capture the psychological condition of instinctual, unconscious, reptilian rage, the utter madness and insanity of a jealous husband who is destined to kill his wife. Even the settings reflect this rage, in shades of terracotta, crimson and blood red.

The Lost Highway of the film's title is, perhaps Fred Madison's threadbare sanity; his psyche now fractured into blind alleys, dead-ends and avenues that go, approximately, nowhere. Lynch takes us into this nightmarish fugue state, showing us pieces of the splintered psyche and making us feel Fred's impotent, bubbling rage.

And some real "spooky shit."

Sunday, June 20, 2010

35 Years Ago This Weekend...

...Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) opened in theaters and captured the nation's imagination.

I was old enough (five) to get a good, long look at Jaws fever, from the Ideal-produced game to joke books and beyond. I still recallthe onslaught of sea-based horror movies that came in the film's wake too, including Orca (1977) and Tentacles (1977).

In many important ways, Jaws still hasn't been outdone. The Spielberg film has stood the test of time, and remains scary as of the great horror movies of the disco decade.

Here's a snippet from my Jaws review to celebrate the 35th birthday of Bruce the Shark:

"Jaws derives much of its terror from what you might half-jokingly term "information overload." Although the great white shark remains hidden beneath the waves for most of the film -- unseen but imagined -- Steven Spielberg fills in that visual gap (and the viewer's imagination) with a plethora of facts and figures about this ancient, deadly predator.

Legendarily, the life-size mechanical model of the shark (named Bruce) malfunctioned repeatedly during production of the film, a reality which forced Spielberg to hide the creature from the camera for much of the time. Yet this problem actually worked out in the film's best interest. Because for much of the first two acts, unrelenting tension builds as a stream of data about the "monster" washes over us. It's the education of Martin Brody, and the education of Jaws' audience.

After a close-up shot of a typewriter clacking out the words "SHARK ATTACK" (all caps), images, illustrations and descriptions of the shark start to hurtle across the screen in ever increasing numbers. Chief Brody reads from a book that shows a mythological-style rendering of a shark as a boat-destroying, ferocious sea monster.

Another schematic in the same scene reveals a graph of shark "radar," the fashion by which the shark senses a "distressed" fish (the prey...) far away in the water.

Additional photos in the book -- and shown full-screen by Spielberg -- depict the damage a shark can inflict: victims of shark bites both living and dead. These are not photos made up for the film, incidentally, but authentic photographs of real-life shark attack victims.

Why, there's even a "gallows" humor drawing of a shark (with a human inside its giant maw...) drawn by Quint at one point, a "cartoon" version of our learning.

Taken together, these various images cover all aspects of shark-dom: from reputation and lore to ability, to their impact on soft human flesh, to the macabre and ghastly.

The information about sharks also comes to Brody (the audience surrogate) in other ways, through both complementary pieces of his heroic triumvirate, Hooper and Quint, respectively. The young, enthusiastic, secular Hooper first becomes conveyor of data in his capacity as a scientist.

Hooper arrives in Amity and promptly performs an autopsy on shark attack victim Chrissie Watkins. He records the examination aloud, into a tape recorder mic (while Brody listens). Hooper's vocal survey of the extensive wounds on the corpse permits the audience to learn precisely what occurred when this girl was attacked and partially devoured by a great white shark. Hooper speaks in clinical, scientific terms of something utterly grotesque: "The torso has been severed in mid-thorax; there are no major organs remaining...right arm has been severed above the elbow with massive tissue loss in the upper musculature... partially denuded bone remaining..."

As Brody's science teacher of sorts, Hooper later leads the chief through a disgusting (and wet...) dissection of a dead tiger shark (one captured and thought to be the Amity offender). Again, Hooper educates not just Brody; he educates the audience about a shark's eating habits and patterns. All these facts -- like those presented by illustrations in books -- register powerfully with the viewer and we begin to understand what kind of "monster" these men face.

Later, aboard the Orca, Quint completes Brody's learning curve about sharks with the final piece of the equation: first-hand experience. Quint recounts, in a captivating sequence, how he served aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis in 1945. How the ship was sunk (after delivering the Hiroshima bomb), and how 1100 American sailors found themselves in shark-infested water for days on end.

Over a thousand sailors went into the water and only approximately three-hundred came out.

As Quint relates: "the idea was: shark comes to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin' and hollerin' and screamin' and sometimes the shark go away... but sometimes he wouldn't go away. Sometimes that shark he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And, you know, the thing about a shark... he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be living... until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then... ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin'. The ocean turns red, and despite all the poundin' and the hollerin', they all come in and they... rip you to pieces."

This testimony about an eyewitness account is not the only "history" lesson for Brody, either. Brief reference is also made in the film to the real-life "Jersey man-eater" incident of July 1 - July 12, 1916, in which four summer swimmers were attacked by a shark on the New Jersey coast.

This "information overload" concerning sharks -- from mythology and scientific facts to history and nightmarish first-person testimony -- builds up the threat of the film's villain to an extreme level, while the actual beast remains silent, unseen. When the shark does wage its final attack, the audience has been rigorously prepared and it feels frightened almost reflexively. Spielberg's greatest asset here is that he has created, from scratch, an educated audience; one who fully appreciates the threat of the great white shark. A smart audience is a prepared audience. And a prepared audience is a worried one. We also become invested in Brody as our lead because we learn, alongside him, all these things. When he beats the shark, we feel as if we've been a part of the victory.

Another clever bit here: after all the "education" and "knowledge" and "information," Spielberg harks back to the mythological aspect of sea monsters, hinting that this is no ordinary shark, but a real survivor -- a monster -- and possibly even supernatural in nature (like Michael Myers from Halloween).

Consider that this sea dragon arrives in Amity (and comes for Quint?) thirty years to the day of the Indianapolis incident (which occurred June 30, 1945). Given this anniversary, one must consider the idea that the shark could be more than mere animal. It could, in fact, be some kind of supernatural angel of death.

Thematically, the shark could also serve as a Freudian symptom of guilt repressed in the American psyche. The shark attack on Indianapolis occurred thirty years earlier, at the end of World War II, when a devastating weapon was deployed by the United states.

Now, in 1975, this shark arrives on the home front just scant months after the fall of Saigon in the Vietnam War (April 30, 1975) -- think of the images of American helicopters dropped off aircraft carriers into the sea. This shark nearly kills a young man, Hooper, who would have likely been the same age as Quint when he served in the navy during World War II.

Does the shark represent some form of natural blow back against American foreign policy overseas? I would say this is over-reach, a far-fetched notion if not for the fact that the shark's assault on the white-picket fences of Amity strikes us right where it hurts: in the wallet; devastating the economy. It isn't just a few people who are made to suffer, but everyone in the community. And that leads us directly to an understanding of the context behind Jaws..."