Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #9 - Great White

When I was younger (four or five, to be precise), my life revolved around my weekly trip to Depot Video in Sandown, New Hampshire on 2-for-1 Wednesdays. I could spend half an hour - longer, if I'd had the option - scrutinizing the VHS boxes on the shelves, making the careful choice of what I would take home with me that week. Or not so careful - sometimes it was Ghostbusters or The Road Warrior, sometimes it was My Pet Monster or Pound Puppies: The Movie. In any case, the trips to this little mom-and-pop video store housed in a former railroad depot held the same level of excitement and importance as a freebie trip through the Criterion closet would today.

An important part of this ritual was reorganizing titles in the categories I felt they belonged - the manager was kind enough to indulge a smartass preschooler telling him how he should run his business. And every week, I would inevitably move Jaws from action/adventure to horror. After watching the movie at my uncle's house and being scared silly, this was an inarguable fact in my four-year-old brain: Jaws is a horror movie. And over the years, when people ask me to name my favorite movies and I include Jaws, they tend to ask, "Is Jaws a horror movie?" My feelings have not changed: Jaws. Is. A. Horror. Movie.

It's a horror movie for its brutal opening - the swimmer cries of "God, help me!" swiftly silenced as the shark pulls her underwater. It's a horror movie for the merciless way it kills off a nine-year-old, the shark's second victim, whose death scene is punctuated by a geyser of blood. It's a horror movie for the way it builds our dread of the shark, even in its absence from the film. It's a horror movie for the way that Ben Gardner's grimacing, one-eyed corpse pops in to say hello. And while the second half of the movie definitely has a jauntier, Melville-as-popcorn-movie feel, it remains horror in the blood spurting from Quint's mount in his last moments and the stunning shot of Chief Brody swimming across the waterlogged cabin of the drowning Orca just as the shark crashes in, the water-level shot placing us in the point of view of soon-to-be-chum. For this and many other reasons, Jaws is a horror movie.

But while people debate where Jaws belongs in the video store, few are in disagreement that Jaws is a great movie. It has all of the technical and storytelling brilliance that we would come to identify with Spielberg, along with a mercilessness that has, for better or worse, mostly disappeared from his work. And the Great White is an amazing monster - perfect in its absences and the moments when its presence is merely suggested, and perfect when it suddenly reveals itself to a petrified Chief Brody. With its senseless and insatiable hunger, the shark has scared the hell out of millions since 1975 - I love hearing stories of people who saw Jaws when it was released and stayed out of the water for the rest of the summer. It also has very vindictive descendants with a long memory, at least judging by its sequels, which are practically Dadaist in their very existence. But like all iconic masterpieces, Jaws has survived and outlasted the sequels and ripoffs; it's horror at its most archetypal, universal and perfect. In a strange way, Jaws makes me proud to be a New Englander.

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