The Dark Heart of Jaws

JAWS is not your typical horror movie. Steven Spielberg spends much of the film holding back his watery menace, building tension masterfully with the innovation of the ominous yellow barrels marking the shark’s location. He also builds exquisite claustrophobia by contrasting the cramped environs of Quint’s boat, Orca, with the vast expanse of the ocean. In space no one can hear you scream but, in open water, no one can hear you being torn apart by a hungry fish.


The film’s most powerful moment of horror, though, is a good, old-fashioned jump scare.


The scene in question, which will no doubt haunt the memories of all Jaws fans, occurs with Richard Dreyfuss’s Hooper on a crusade to prove that a tiger shark hauled from the waters off Amity Island is not the beast responsible for the recent attacks. He proves his hypothesis when he cannot find any human remains within the captured shark’s stomach and he and Brody (Roy Scheider) subsequently find a sunken vessel when investigating the waters.


Hooper dives to explore the vessel and recovers the enormous tooth of a great white shark from its hull. As he examines the tooth, however, he is shocked by the sudden appearance of fisherman Ben Gardner’s dismembered head floating out of a hole in the boat. It’s a precision engineered jolt that provides a real, bowel-loosening scare.


Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this scene is that it never loses its power. In the same way that a joke is almost always less funny when you know the punchline, a jump scare seldom maintains the power to shock when you return to the film. That’s not the case with Spielberg’s work here. It’s as if some sort of movie trickery changes the timing on each viewing, so you’re always surprised. 


Remarkably, like so many of the best innovations in Jaws, the scene was pretty much done on the fly. After the film was test screened, Spielberg decided he wanted a little extra stank on this particular scene to get another big scream out of his audience. Universal refused to pay for the reshoots, so the director stumped up $3,000 out of his own pocket. It was a bold move from the young director, but one that would ultimately pay off.


The new version of the scene was shot in a swimming pool owned by editor Verna Fields in Encino, California - more than 3,000 miles, or 46 hours in a car, away from the original shooting location of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Spielberg added powdered milk to the water to make it look murky and used a latex replica of actor Craig Kingsbury’s head. Those who freak out online when the latest mega-blockbuster undergoes reshoots should remember that one of the best moments in arguably the greatest film ever made was shot in a woman’s back garden, six months after principal photography wrapped.


There’s a tendency among cinephiles, and even horror fans, to look down upon jump scares as a somewhat cheap way to shock the audience. British film critic Nigel Floyd coined the term “cattle prod cinema” to refer to films like Insidious and The Conjuring that rely almost exclusively on long periods of quiet, culminating in a deafening noise as some sort of evil thing appears. This notion is often held up as a critique of the jump scare, but it’s actually merely a criticism of films that misuse them.


A properly executed jump scare can have a stunning impact, especially in a film that’s relatively sparse when it comes to jolts. Black Phillip emerging out of nowhere to skewer Ralph Ineson like a Puritan kebab in The Witch works precisely because of the measured, eerie tone that has been engineered up until that point. The same is true of Jaws, which has little in the way of full-on jump scares until the appearance of Gardner’s floating noggin.


Spielberg’s sudden jaunt into more route-one scary filmmaking is simple, but immensely effective. From that point on, the audience knows that a scare can come from anywhere - and it doesn’t always have to be from a shark. Once the horror is established as being ever-present, there’s no room to relax.


Jaws is a stunning example of cinematic craft and it’s a clear manifestation of a young filmmaker trying out everything he can and taking risks in order to create something special. There are scares aplenty throughout the story and the tension once the trio get out on to open water in search of the shark is unbearable. Spielberg fills Jaws with sophistication to flesh out the characters and the setting, but he’s not afraid to pull out the oldest trick in the book when the story demands it. 


There’s a lot about the movie that gets under your skin, but there’s almost certainly nothing that makes you scream aloud like a big latex head floating out of a boat. It’s a moment that has the power to make even the most seasoned horror fan squeal like a teenage girl at a Justin Bieber concert. And for that, we have Spielberg - and his editor’s swimming pool - to thank.

By Tom Beasley of The Popcorn Muncher 

If you would like to contribute a guest blog, please visit our ‘work with us’ page