To call JAWS a classic film is an understatement. It is the yard stick against which every modern monster movie is measured. To this day, the film still draws crowds, drives Narragansett beers sales, and terrorizes skittish beach goers wherever a shoreline is visible. What is it about JAWS that is so alluring? What gives this film the ability to scare audiences as easily today as it did 38 years ago? It certainly isn’t the riveting dialogue, or advanced special effects. Rather than these, it is the film’s cinematography and camera work which make the shark attacks feel personal–a sensation that defies generations.
Film scholar Robin Wood famously defined horror films as consisting of three variables: the normal, the monster, and, crucially, their relationship. With any monster movie the normality of man and the monstrous monster are easily defined. It is this relationship, which can change and evolve throughout the course of a film, that sets the tone for the film. In JAWS, Spielberg created an atmosphere of an incredibly close relationship between the shark and humans, which made the film more terrifying as opposed to other horror films that maintain distance.
Spielberg conveys this relationship is conveyed through the camera work. His use of point-of-view shots from the shark’s perspective forces the audience to identify with the killer. Early in the film, we see a pair of teenagers drunkenly race into the open water to skinny dip. The girl reaches the water first, and swims out into the deeper waters. As she waits for the boy, who has passed out on the beach, she treads water and turns to face the shore. From here we see her legs kicking, far underwater. The camera’s perspective shifts to that of the killer shark. She is being stalked, and we know that there is no possible way for her to escape. Spielberg’s camera takes the audience along for a ride as her killer, and we have no choice but to associate ourselves with the shark.
Using the point-of-view of the killer was by no means groundbreaking at this time in movies. Hitchcock’s PSYCHO famously used that perspective for the shower scene, and Michael Powell’s career was all but ruined after including killing scenes from that standpoint in his criminally under-appreciated PEEPING TOM (later, the slasher boom of the 1980’s relies so heavily on these point-of-views shots, it would be impossible to imagine that genre of film without them.) This intimate association with killers is amazingly effective at making audiences uncomfortable, regardless of how often we are exposed to this associative cinematography.
But the audience manipulation does not stop there. With most of the water scenes, Spielberg has the camera at just above the water’s surface, inferring a swimmer’s point-of-view. When crowds of beachgoers flee the water to escape from the shark, the audience is right there with them. And when the shark is stalking the Orca ship, far away from shore, the camera still hovers just above the water. This forces the audience to see these attacks from two perspectives: both as the killer shark, and as a person in the water who could very well be the next victim. The camera is exactly where our view of the attack would be, as if we were the target of the hunt, and we feel just as helpless as those swimmers. The camera itself is both defining and creating a space for the relationship between the monster and man.
Spielberg created these effective shots mostly out of necessity. He arranged for a very costly animatronic shark model (which he lovingly named “Bruce”), but the shark’s mechanics were faulty and it did not work well. Rather than try to shoot around a malfunctioning shark dummy, the shots involving the shark were simply taken out of the equation. Rather than having JAWS become another marvel of modern special effects, the film became an elusive game of cat and mouse. This mystery surrounding the killer shark for most of the film adds to the film’s timelessness.
Looking back, JAWS could have easily fallen into the trap of being a mediocre film. The writing, especially the wooden dialogue, could have dominated the film, or William’s now iconic score could have been complicated by complex orchestrations. The model shark could have functioned as it was designed, and the film would become another monster movie with special effects. But none of this happened. Spielberg’s creativity as a new director, and his genius use of camera work, brought the average expectations for a shark attack movie, and created a classic film that never seems to age.
JAWS screens on July 3rd and 4th as part of our DCP Debut series.