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Brief History of Aquatic Horror, Part 2: We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

The 1960s and 1970s were shadowed by numerous ecological catastrophes that made people think about environmental issues in a whole new light. In 1967, an oil tanker on its way to Wales hit Pollard Rock at the coast of Cornwall, spilling its cargo of 25 million gallons of crude oil into the water. In 1969, a Union Oil’s Platform off the coast of California had a blow-out that caused the largest oil spill in US waters at that time, coating 50 odd kilometers of coastline in toxic black sludge. Later the same year, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire due to the amount of pollution that had been dumped in its waters by surrounding heavy industries. A decade later the residence of Love Canal, New York, revealed the devastating impacts of toxic waste being dumped in the local landfill, which subsequently poisoning the land and its inhabitants. Furthermore, the rise in air pollution and the thick layers of smog that lingered around big cities such as Yokkaichi, Los Angeles, Houston, and New York made the air around these areas nearly unbreathable.

In the wake of these disasters, America saw a new era of environmental regulations, with the Clean Air Act of 1963 and the Water Quality Control Act of 1965 both increasing in intensity and scope. They were soon accompanied by the Environmental Pesticide Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), the Safe Water Drinking Act (1974), the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (1976), and the Clean Water Act (1977), all with the aim of preventing such atrocities from happening again. Similarly, with an ever-increasing pollution crisis, Japan saw its environmental laws tightened in the early part of the 1970s. After joining the EU in 1973, Britain made strides in cleaning up it’s shading its reputation as the “Dirty man of Europe”,  and started slowly moving towards a cleaner, greener future. 

While the new legislation was certainly a step in the right direction and a source of new hope to some people, there were still plenty of those who saw a much bleaker future ahead. Many were of the opinion that the game had already been lost in a number of environmental fronts, and predicted things only getting worse. These fears that also informed much of the horror cinema of the times and nowhere is it quite as obvious as in the aquatic horror genre. In the background of nearly all of the films of this genre from the era looms the devastating effects of pollution, fear of genetic manipulation, and rampant capitalist greed. They may be buried under several layers of tongue in cheek creature feature action but are nevertheless present, and repeat themselves over and over again. 

To kickstart a new decade of aquatic terrors, we are presented with a new kind of humanoid monster: Octaman. This 1971 Mexican-American production directed by Harry Essex bears a striking resemblance to The Creature from Black Lagoon (1954), but unfortunately possesses none of its charms. In the film, Dr. Rick Torres (Kerwin Mathews) and Susan Lowry (Pier Angeli) find worrying amounts of radiation in the waters of a remote Mexican fishing village. Not only this, they also encounter a mutated octopus that can crawl on land. While Torres and Lowry take a trip to the big city in hopes of securing extra funding for further research, the remaining crew at the village are is attacked by a humanoid octopus, leaving devastation in its wake. When Torres and Lowry return to the site, they are informed about a local legend of a half man-half sea serpent and naturally make the connection between the recent attacks and the legendary creature. Torn between whether the results of their study or destroying this newly found thread, the scientists must forge on to find a way to put an end to Octaman’s deadly attacks.

Octaman is not a very good film. It stumbles along in a repetitive manner, making one continuously check whether the film has just somehow skipped backward, as the exact same stuff seems to be going down in an endless circle. The Acting is wooden, the plot lacks excitement. Due to the decision to film a lot of the action sequences in the middle of the night, much of these scenes are simply impossible to make head or tails of. With its burning red eyes and stiff rubber tentacles, the titular monster is a sight to see. Interestingly, despite its incredibly cheesy execution, the man behind the monster suit is none other than Academy Award-winning special effects artist Rick Baker (together with Doug Beswick), whose name might be familiar in association with such films as An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Harry and The Hendersons (1987). Octaman however, is not quite the award-winning material compared to the two aforementioned films. Rather than going down in history as one of the iconic creatures of its time, the rigid antics of the human-octopus hybrid will more likely make its way to the listings of worst movie monsters of all time.  

Besides The Beast From 20, 000 Fathoms (1953) and Godzilla (1954), one of the most significant and genre-defining films is of course Steven Spielberg’s 1975 aquatic masterpiece Jaws. It’s hard to overstate the influence that this maritime thriller has had, not only on over the horror genre, but the cinematic landscape of American film in general. It’s often cited as being the first summer blockbuster (although some academics disagree), setting a new trend for how and when films got released. Made with a humble budget of roughly nine million, it went on to make over $470 million in global returns and was the first film ever to reach the magical 100-million-dollar number in the American box office. Jaws premiered only after an extensive and innovative marketing campaign that piqued the audience’s interest not only in the film but in the book it was based on, further cementing their enthusiasm for the story and making sure that when the film was finally released, the lines to see it would snake around the corner of every theatre showing it. 

Based on Peter Benchley’s 1974 eponymous novel, Jaws tells the tale of a sleepy island coastal community based on Amity Island, and an extremely territorial great white shark that has made the surrounding waters its new hunting ground. In the center of the story is island’s police chief Martin Brody (Roy Schneider) who desperately tries to warn the local authorities about the new danger lurking the usually peaceful beaches. Teaming up with a marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and an eccentric local shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw), Brody will take on the beastly fish in order to make his community safe once more. 

The production of Jaws the film was famously a tortured one, riddled with problems start to finish. Adapting Benchley’s novel with its various subplots into a working movie script took three different writers: Benchley himself, the playwright Howard Sackler and finally comedy writer Carl Gottlieb, who was initially hired to add some much-needed levity to the otherwise rather dark story. Instead, Gottlieb ended up rewriting the entire script, doing most of the work while the production was already well on its way, putting finishing touches on scenes sometimes only a night before they were due to shoot particular scenes.

The filming location at Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts,  set its own challenges. For years, the historic little town had been reluctant to let film crews parade around its beautiful landscape. The production was only allowed to take place if the crew promised not to alter any of the existing cityscapes. This meant that even putting up a fake billboard (the famous “Amity Island Welcomes You” sign that gets vandalized by local youths) created a whole lot of extra work for the crew, as they had to build and tear it down during the same day, leaving no trace behind. The location was chosen not only for its the picturesque setting it offered but also for the fact that the surrounding ocean, — as far as 19km out from the shore, had a sandy bottom that never dropped below 11m  and thus offered the chance to operate the all-important mechanical shark without having land in sight. However, this did not mean that the waters around the island were calm. T and the rough swells broke equipment and made filming impossible on numerous occasions. The decision to film on location rather than in the much more forgiving environment of a studio tank also meant that the crew had to deal with impromptu boats floating into their shot, putting shooting on hold for hours on end, sometimes resulting in only getting few minutes worth of footage from a whole day of being out at the sea. The biggest problem was of course the shark itself and the various malfunctions of “Bruce”n(named after Spielberg’s lawyer) have become a well-known part of the film’s history. The principal photography ran an outrageous 104 days overtime, stretching from the intended 55 days to 159 days and leaving Spielberg wondering whether he would still have a career left after it. The crew was close to mutiny after being cooped up on a tiny island for 5 months and Spielberg escaped the island before the filming of the final scene, as he believed that the crew (quite justifiably) were planning on throwing him overboard. 

Still, even with all its problems, Jaws is undoubtedly one of the most pitch-perfect films ever made. As a monster film, it’s beautifully paced, taking its time to build suspense around the creature, not fully showing it until the last third of the film. Indeed, much the of film’s fantastically built tension comes from the fact that you do not get to see what lurks underneath the waves until you are well into the story. One of the greatest scenes in the film,  and quite possibly my favourite scene, is the one where we get a first good glimpse of this underwater beast. After a false alarm on the beach, the real shark has made its way to the nearby estuary where it attacks a boat, tipping it over and its occupant into the water. In the horrifying scene that follows, the young man in question is then dragged underneath by a behemoth of a shark. Water around the pool turns red as traumatised bystanders watch in horror as the beast escapes with its latest victim. Even after viewing it more times than I can count, that scene still brings cold shivers down my spine every time I see it. It’s the scene that made me afraid of going back to water.

The casting is fantastic all around and it’sits hard to think of another film that would be cast with the same precision. Schneider is fantastic as the water-fearing Brody, giving a genuinely relatable performance as the small-town police chief way over his head. The same is true of the lovely Lorraine Gary as Ellen Brody, with her salt-of-the-earth approach to the role.  Dreyfuss is perfect as the kooky ichthyologist Hooper, and the off-screen discord between him and Shaw comes across in the film as fantastically believable tension between the two very different characters. 

The shark itself is a work of art. I would argue, it still beats any of the CG monstrosities of today. It may have been one of the most troublesome pieces of mechanics ever to grace the silver screen, but the end results really do speak for themselves. The shark’s cold, black doll’s eyes are still as terrifying as they were 45 years ago, and the notion of having a beast of such magnitude lurking around your local water remains as blood-curdling as ever. Much of the film’s suspense isn’t really due to the monster itself, but John Williams’ iconic musical score. The masterfully simple “Sharks” theme, consisting of only two notes, sets the mood from the start, effectively informing the viewer of approaching danger. The reappearance of the score makes the viewer instantly alert to the expectations of another horrific attack, and it’s hard to imagine the tension, no matter how well built through imagery, could have ever made as deep an impact when paired with Williams’ score. 

The legacy of Jaws is multifaceted, but not entirely a positive one. The incredible theatrical success made studios hungry for more, leaving them wanting similar numbers from productions that followed. The aggressive advertising campaign equally changed how films were marketed and released, starting the trend of a film opening simultaneously in thousands of locations at the same time, not leaving any room for a film to build up its reputation slowly and find its audience because of its genuine merits, rather than an oppressive publicity campaign. Most regrettably, Jaws has been reported to perpetuating negative stereotypes of sharks and as having contributed to people’s negative attitudes towards them, even to the point where some species are being hunted to near extinction: a fact that made Benchley regret ever writing the book. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the landscape of horror cinema would not be the same without it, and the aquatic horror genre is certainly much richer because of it. 

Naturally, the success of Jaws was followed up with a sequel, and in the summer of 1978, Jaws 2 hit the big screens. Amity island was once again in trouble with another bloodthirsty shark using its coastline as its personal hunting ground. Luckily for the islanders, Chief Brody is still on duty and ready to take on another aquatic beast. While Spielberg did not want to get involved with the sequel, Howard Sackler and Carl Gottlieb returned to work on the script, and Roy Scheider and Lorraine Gary both reprised their roles as the Brodys. Unfortunately, the production was not that much easier than the first time around, and the troubles started from the get-go with the film’s original director John D. Hancock taking the film into much darker territory waters than the producers had intended. Not happy with how the direction of the film was going, the producers ended up giving Hancock the boot. After stopping production for a few weeks, the project was eventually handed over to Jeannot Szwarc. Scheider only agreed to return to honor his contractual obligations to Universal and was reportedly not thrilled with having to rehash the role, stating that there was nothing new he could possibly bring to it. The mood on set was tense, with Scheider and Szwarc getting into arguments in front of the crew. Amazingly, none of this translates to the end product and despite all the animosity, Scheider did his job like a pro, giving the best performance he could under the circumstances. Besides these issues, many of the same problems that plagued the first film naturally continued with the second one: poor weather conditions, shifting winds blowing the sailboats in the wrong direction, saltwater damaging the equipment (including the mechanical sharks), and real sharks swimming in and freaking out the actors. At one point the set for Cable Junction Island (which was built on a barge) got loose and nearly drifted away in the middle of the night. 

In spite of all this, Jaws 2 is actually a fairly decent sequel. It never reaches the same level of suspense as its predecessor, and with a much more action-focused plot, it obviously doesn’t offer anything as well crafted story-wise, either. The shark attacks are bigger and more outlandish, with the beastly fish snapping up water-skiers and helicopters alike.  Nevertheless, it has solid pacing and the plentiful appearances by “Bruce” should keep any monster film fan happy. It will always hold a soft spot in my heart as one of the better horror sequels, and a decent follow-up to a film that, let’s face it, is pretty hard, if not impossible, to beat. 

Whatever your opinion on Jaws 2, anyone with a half a brain will have to admit that when it comes to Jaws sequels it still stands head and shoulders above the two atrocities that followed. The third installment, Jaws 3-D made its debut in 1983 with the hopes of bringing into the audiences by hopping on the 3D revival bandwagon. The story takes place in an aquatic park somewhere in Florida. As the brand-new attraction, including underwater tunnels and lagoons, gets ready to open its doors to customers, its waters are infiltrated by a great white. While this specimen is relatively easy to capture, the team soon finds out that it has been followed by its 11-meter-long mother, who is not best pleased about her offspring being captured. The waters of the theme park run red with the blood of tourists as this behemoth of a shark stalking its prey in revenge.  Jaws 3-D is exactly as terrible as it sounds, and no amount of special effect gimmickry could have saved it. The plot is full of holes, the most blatant being the absolutely massive fucking shark getting in without anyone noticing and furthermore stalking the relatively tiny pool full of underwater cameras without being seen. The special effects are awful, with the 3-D shark gliding through the water with all the grace of a block of wood. The only thing that Jaws 3-D really has going for it are the campy performances,  which are ample, to say the least, but do not quite justify wasting an hour and a half of your life. 

No matter how bad the third Jaws installment was, in 1987 the series somehow still got a fourth sequel: Jaws: The Revenge. Lorraine Gary returns to reprise her role as Ellen Brody, taking the lead in this ludicrous story of fishy revenge. Having lost Mr. Brody to a heart attack some years earlier, tragedy strikes again when her son Sean (Mitchell Anderson) gets killed by a shark. Devastated, and for some reason convinced that there is a shark after her whole family, Ellen is lured to spend some time in the Bahamas with her other son Michael’s (Lance Guest) family. After all, great whites have never been seen in the Bahamian waters, so at least she can stop worrying about vengeful sharks. Wrong! The same fish we see in the beginning follows the Brody bunch to the tropics and begins a murderous stalking campaign, in hopes of killing them all (I assume). Furthermore, Ellen seems to have some kind of psychic connection with the fish and can sense its presence even before it gets to its first victim. These feelings are largely put down to crazy grief talk and not believed until Michael himself witnesses the giant beast while on a dive. In the end, the killer fish is once again tamed with explosives and the Brody family can go on with their happy, shark free lives. 

Jaws: The Revenge is so full of bizarre plot holes, it is hard to know where to start. First of all, we have Ellen who is miles away from the shrewd, strong woman we are introduced in Jaws and Jaws 2 and has instead turned into a neurotic mess of a human being with added psychic abilities. These abilities are not directly addressed at any point but there seems to be a clear indication that Ellen is somehow connected to this shark. It’s never explained why or how, it just is. Ellen also possesses memories of events that she has no earthly way of knowing anything about, including the final moments of the original shark from Jaws. Perhaps this is part of her newly found psychic abilities? We will never know. There is also the quite glaring issue of a revengeful shark. The notion of such an animal is a bit outlandish to start off with. Sharks don’t go on epic journeys of vengeance, they have got better things to do. However, what really takes the cake is the fact that Ellen seems to be under the notion that this fish is somehow familiar with the family, stating things like “It came for him. It waited all this time and it came for him!”. Who?! Who came for Sean if Jaws, Jaws 2, and Jaws 3 are all dead? Another mystery never to be solved. Without rambling any further, the acting is bad, the rubber shark is bad, the plot is bad, everything is pretty bad. I would only recommend wasting your time with Jaws: The Revenge if you happen to be a Jaws completist and have a need to see all that the franchise has to offer. Otherwise, you can happily skip this one. 

Schell J. (2015) Polluting and Perverting Nature: The Vengeful Animals of Frogs. In: Gregersdotter K., Höglund J., Hållén N. (eds) Animal Horror Cinema. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137496393_4 

Christman, Ben. A Brief History of Environmental Law in the UK (November 1, 2013). (2013) 22(4) Environmental Scientist 4, Queen’s University Belfast Law Research Paper No. 2014-03, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2383906 

Sven Mikulec. Jaws’: The Groundbreaking Summer Blockbuster that Changed Hollywood, and Our Summer Vacations, Forever. From Cinephilia & Beyond. https://cinephiliabeyond.org/jaws-groundbreaking-summer-blockbuster-changed-hollywood-summer-vacations-forever/ 

Dean Newman. 40 Years of Jaws 2. From The Daily Jaws, June 16, 2018. https://thedailyjaws.com/blog/40yearsofjaws2 

Junko Edahiro. A Brief History of the Environmental Movement in Japan (Part I). From Japan for Sustainability, July 21, 2009. https://www.japanfs.org/en/news/archives/news_id029180.html A Look Inside Jaws. DVD. USA. Universal Studios.

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About Niina Doherty

Niina is a life long genre fan and enthusiastic amateur writer. Originally from Finland, but currently based in the UK, she mostly spends her time writing, painting, watching films and in general tomfoolery with her little boy. Besides Diabolique, Niina also writes for Horrornews.net as part of their Asian horror review team.

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