Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Beach Week: Jaws 2 (1978)
I once wrote regarding Jaws II (1978) that your enjoyment and appreciation for this sequel may depend, finally, upon which end of the pool you’re swimming in.
If you’re in the deep end of the pool, having just finished a viewing of Spielberg’s superb Jaws (1975), you may find the 1978 Jeannot Szwarc sequel a serviceable horror film, perhaps only lacking a bit in terms of inspiration and execution. It’s a step down from greatness, for certain.
But if you’re swimming in the shallow end of the pool, having recently watched Jaws III (1983) and Jaws: The Revenge (1987), this first sequel may rightly be considered an unqualified home-run.
Unlike either of those later sequels, Jaws II features some strong horror set-pieces, and re-connects the viewer powerfully with Roy Scheider’s Chief Martin Brody, and his family.
Importantly, this sequel also seems to occur in a reality viewers can identify with, and not in some fantasy land in which sharks growl like lions or jump headlong onto the pointed masts of passing ships.
But while Jaws was a remarkable human story -- made doubly so by the unforgettable friendship of Brody, Hooper, and Quint -- and a great adventure set on the sea to boot, Jaws II adheres to a less awe-inspiring template.
Essentially, the film is precisely what critic Roger Ebert called the slasher film sub-genre: a “dead teenager” movie.
Only this dead teenager movie happens to feature a great white shark in the role of Jason or Michael, and is set at sea instead of in suburbia or at a summer camp.
The crazy thing is that on these terms, Jaws II is actually a pretty good slasher movie. It’s just -- again -- a come down from the brilliance of Spielberg’s picture.
“I think we’ve got another shark problem.”
In the waters near Amity a great white shark prowls again.
The first victims are two vacationers that are attacked near the underwater wreckage of the Orca. The next victims are a water skier and her mother, but their death is ruled accidental.
Amity’s sheriff, Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), however, becomes obsessed with the notion of a great white threatening the peaceful town, much as one did a few years earlier.
But the town officials all think he is simply Chicken Little, insisting that the sky is falling. When Brody causes a panic on a public beach in front of potential real estate investors, the town officials take his badge away, declaring him a menace.
Soon, however, Brody learns there is even more at stake than his job. His sons Mike (Mark Gruner) and Sean (Marc Gilpin) join a group of teens on a boat race to Lighthouse Island.
They change course for Cable Junction, however, unaware that a great white is shadowing the convoy’s every move…
“I don’t intend to go through that Hell again.”
To examine Jaws II as a “dead teenager” or slasher film, let’s take just a moment and unpack the slasher paradigm a bit, as I defined it in my book Horror Films of the 1980s (2007).
All good slasher movies begin with an organizing principle, and then a set of related elements in orbit around that organizing principle.
The organizing principle is a “hook,” the key aspect to connect every element of the film together, and in Jaws II, our organizing principle is not unexpectedly summertime in Amity, a beach town.
This umbrella provides us our primary settings (the beach and the ocean). It also gives us a sturdy victim pool, in this case not the unsuspecting swimmers of Jaws, but rather a gaggle of teenagers sailing at sea in their rag-tag boats. This flotilla comes under attack by the menace, a great white prowling the waters nearby. We also get, under this same umbrella, water-skiers and other summertime revelers.
In addition to the victim pool, another common element of slasher films comes into play in Jaws II. In particular the “crime in the past” plays a kind of oblique role in the action of the film. Chief Brody wonders if this shark has arrived in Amity because it is the mate of the one he destroyed in Jaws. Perhaps it has come looking for its opposite number?
If that is indeed the case, then the shark picks the right victims by going after Brody’s family. The crime in the past is the death of the shark from Jaws, and Martin -- the only survivor of that “murder” is the overall target of the apparent rage spawned by that crime.
You see, this time it was actually “personal” as well…
If we break down the dramatis personae of Jaws II, we see that it consists of “types” also dramatized often in slasher films. For example, the killer in slasher films is almost universally defined as “the other” by appearance and nature. That appearance generally includes a mask, but may also include a blue collar uniform (garage overalls) of some type.
In broad terms, the shark in Jaws II is certainly easily defined as an “other” since it is a fish. Also like a slasher it depicted with near-supernatural powers. It always knows the right place to be to seek the weakest or most vulnerable victim.
Jaws II also gives us the common slasher movie archetype of the Cassandra Figure, named after a figure in Greek myth that could see the future but was never believed about her visions. In many slasher films, we meet a character whose warning are dismissed, even though he or she speaks the truth, and knows that danger is imminent.
In Halloween that figure is Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence). In Friday the 13th (1980), the Cassandra figure is Crazy Ralph.
Oddly enough, Jaws II’s Cassandra Figure is heroic Chief Brody himself, who loses his badge over the (correct) assertion that another great white shark has arrived in the waters of Amity.
Jaws II distinguishes itself from the typical slasher film largely in its heroic depiction of the teenagers who encounter the shark. One teen jumps into the shark’s path and saves Sean Brody. Others pray aloud, seeking fellowship and grace in prayer. Sure, some of the kids act as the stereotypical “bitches, practical jokers and jocks” that I note in my book, but overall these teens aren’t so dislikable that you root for them to be killed. Sure they want to score and have fun, but they aren’t rotten or indulged to the point that we despise them.
In terms of film grammar, Jaws II -- much like its predecessor -- frequently employs the P.O.V. subjective shot, as it bears down on victims. In other words, our eyes are the killer’s/shark’s eyes, and indeed this is a crucial aspect of the slasher format, though for different reasons.
The P.O.V. in the Jaws films relieves the director of having to deploy a malfunctioning robot shark for several compositions, whereas the P.O.V. in slasher films is deployed so audiences will be surprised by the killer’s identity when it is revealed in the last act.
By breaking down Jaws II into the slasher paradigm, we can note, at the very least, that the film seems far more formulaic (and thus predictable) than its predecessor did.
For example, there is no moment in the film with the raw, human power of the Indianapolis scene aboard the Orca, and no death here that carries the same weight as Quint’s, or even Hooper’s (apparent) demise in the shark cage.
In some sense, the sheer number of teens in the victim pool here also renders Jaws II less scary. We never get to know the teen characters all that well, and so it matters not very much when a few of them die. They aren’t differentiated to such a degree that we are knocked back on our heels and left in shock when we lose them.
That said, Penelope Gilliatt writing in The New Yorker pinpointed the sequel’s great virtue. She wrote. “It lies in the performance of Roy Scheider as the kicked-out police chief, an underdog with a nose for danger and with real tenacity.” She further notes that Scheider is a born actor and “seems always to be contemplating the temper of things.”
Scheider is Jaws II’s most valuable player because he invests the material with real humanity and real passion, even when the screenplay isn’t entirely up to snuff. In 1978, we might have termed his emotional state “shell-shocked” but we can see today that Chief Brody suffers from PTSD. He’s never gotten over that encounter with the great white in Jaws, and so Jaws II very much concerns him confronting his own state of fear, his own demons.
Finally, Jaws II is a bit less effective than its predecessor because of the carnage candy factor (see: Scream 2 ). In this case, that means not only are there more victims to kill (and therefore less identification with each individual), but also much more elaborate death scenes, including ones that strain believability. The deal killer in Jaws II is the moment that the shark brings down a helicopter.
I can readily imagine and believe that Brody and company fight a supernaturally-powered giant shark once, in Jaws. But the next shark he encounters is also so powerful and vicious that it can down a helicopter, without being killed itself?
This, my friends, is Jason Voorhees territory, and that brings us back to the movie’s structure. It’s a (wet) slasher film.
Not that there is anything wrong with that. Jaws II is an entertaining horror movie, but it does not endure as a classic like its predecessor does.
That said, I will happily watch this sequel over and over again if the alternative is Jaws III or Jaws: The Revenge.
Finally, there's one scene I'd like to mention here that continues the amusing cinematic sea animal war begun by Orca (1977). There, you will recall, the killer whale saved Charlotte Rampling from a shark, dispatching the great white with relative ease. In Jaws II, there is a rebuttal to that moment. Here, we get a scene where the corpse of a killer whale is seen on the beach...ripped apart by a great white.
Too bad there was never an Orca II to continue this pissing contest between Jaws knock-offs.