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Gods & Monsters: Teenage Kicks in Jaws 2 (1978)

The body count horror film is an age-old institution, but it has to be understood that way before films such as Halloween (1978) established this prototype as a “go-to” and provided a sturdy blueprint for films to follow, pre-code outings such as Thirteen Women (1932) starring Myrna Loy, featured this kind of systematic offing of its characters in just as flamboyant and inventive a fashion. Of course, come the late seventies with John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s aforementioned indie success, this trend in horror pushed the slasher phase into gear with numerous “knife pictures” emerging and building cult fandom – seeing sexed up teens and young adults hacked to pieces. However, not all of these teen-centric horror films featured the likes of masked madmen wielding axes or chainsaws. Universal’s sequel to the massively successful game changer Jaws (1975) adopted this narrative device the same year Michael Myers stalked babysitters in Midwest suburbia, and here in this picturesque and thoroughly entertaining follow up from French-American director Jeannot Szwarc, Jaws 2 wholeheartedly embraces the “youngster in peril” dynamic while successfully keeping the film’s lead of Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) as the film’s key protagonist – once again having to convince Amity Island officials (including Murray Hamilton who reprises his role as Mayor Larry Vaughn) that another dangerous great white has been up to no good and chomping on unsuspecting residents.

Carl Gottlieb – the co-writer who had worked on the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s film – was hired by Universal to come in and rescue the film from various rewrites that seemed to be running on different tangents including screenwriter Dorothy Tristan using a discarded subplot from the original Peter Benchley novel involving Amity Island’s debt to the mafia, as well as a filmed but never used aside that had Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) – now working in realty – being romanced by her boss. What Gottlieb added to his script was the notion of using young Amity Island teens as both pivotal players as well as potential shark bait. He saw what was happening in the suburbs with teen car culture and also what was happening in cinema during this period where young people were highly invested in congregating in their newly bought and hotted up automobiles and it was a case of “Eureka in the bathtub”. With this in mind, he decided to change the role of the car to the sail boat, and had his teens that populated the serene New England beaches of the East Coast being obsessed with sailing and setting out to sea – free from the trappings of responsibility and the nagging nuisance of parents. Massive hits from the seventies such as nostalgia kicks (which was a trendy aesthete during the decade) like American Graffiti (1973) and Grease (also from 1978) featured young people and their romance with cars, so here was a chance to flip that around and have teens use sailboats as a means of escape, a means to “cruise” and a place to be with that sexual conquest one has had their eye on for some time. Setting this course of action against Brody’s angst, frustration and despair (which leads him to lose his job and hit the booze) the film moves swiftly from an introspective character study to an outdoor, high sea adventure with some impressive set pieces.

One such set piece is the sequence where a young couple is out on their boat only to be stalked by the monstrous shark that eventually devours the boy and leaves the girl as a cowering mess. Similar to fifties fare where couples’ romantic interludes are interrupted by the movie monster, this kind of additive really does tap into what would eventually become a standard in the realm of teen-centric horror cinema that would flourish and become bountiful come the eighties, where young flesh will be discarded (and in some cases devoured) and those who survive will be forever “changed.”

The much discussed and studied formula of the slasher film usually consists of a combination of elements: an event that happened long ago that will influence the course of action in the present, a group of teenagers oblivious to danger who will become victims of a bloody body count, the one sole survivor who is almost always a girl who is not distracted by the things that “blind” the other teens (coined as the Final Girl by feminist film scholar Carol Clover who wrote the much respected Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film) which leads said Final Girl to combat the killer and defeat them (at least for the one film before an imminent sequel). Jaws 2, while featuring heroic young women (and men) shies away from adopting the latter aspect, however it most certainly utilizes the past monstrosity that will affect the course of events in the present – and this is primarily because we have encountered shark attacks before in the 1975 blockbuster. Haunted by this aspect, Brody then becomes the equivalent to the Final Girl, and the shark itself is rendered perpetual leviathan akin to the likes of popular slasher villains such as Jason Voorhees. Another inspired aspect that foreshadows the eventual aesthetic of the slasher film, is the fact that the shark itself is disfigured and burned in Jaws 2 and this is culturally linked to what will happen in eighties gore soaked stalk’n’slash pictures where a psychotic killer is either physically grotesque or masked/hidden from view until the very end. In Jaws 2 the shark’s face is burned during an attack on a motorboat; its flesh gray and blackened and singed. This affliction adds to the horror and monstrosity of such an unstoppable beast, much the same way Freddy Krueger or Cropsy from The Burning (1981) have terrifying faces marked with burnt skin adding to the ugliness and “otherness” of their presence. This evokes more terror by showcasing scar tissue and exposed tendons and the shark in Jaws 2 is no longer an unseen mysterious hidden demon lurking just under the surface of a usually stoic man’s subconscious, instead it is a horrible serial killer marked with grotesque injuries and hungry for young flesh.

In Jaws 2, a group of attractive teenagers radiating good health and normalcy (not unlike the Crystal Lake camp counselors of the Friday the 13th films) are stalked by an “enemy of the people” who has not only killed innocent swimmers, but has influenced and burdened commerce and trade. A powerfully poignant commentary is written by Benchley in his original novel, and that is the acute push to scrutinize the effect of a disturbance in the natural order (a shark eating humans at a popular beach) jeopardizing personal success. The fact that this water dwelling creature has infiltrated human endeavor on land by causing the beaches to close which leads to local businesses failing is an inspired additive to this ecologically bent horror story – and this continues here in Jaws 2 (something rather distanced from Benchley’s source novel). In an original draft of the screenplay, Amity Island is a ghost town, completely devastated by the shark attacks from the previous film, but what Jeannot Szwarc’s film delivers is another presentation of a halcyon gloriously lit beach town happily celebrating life (a school band variant of “Downtown” introduces us to a town ready to rebuild) and trying to forget previous events.

With a shark returning – and this time hellbent on taking on adventurous and horny teens – this all powerful leviathan with its disfigured face becomes an extension of something primitive and other worldly. The fact that certain aspects of the imagery in the film is based on classicist art such as “The Raft of Medusa” by French Romantic-era painter Theodore Gericault suggests that director Jeannot Szwarc is culturally invested in bridging artistic expression and subversive sociological and political thought to Hollywood sequel accessibility and base entertainment.

Jaws 2 has some inspired moments that read like chamber horror (introspective and claustrophobic which is very much a great feat seeing that the film is mostly set at sea) and most of them come from the exhilarating sequences following the young teens setting out on their boats for a day of fun in the sun. The teenagers in this film are all completely likeable and their plight is dramatically strong – the stress levels and group dynamics make for wonderful screen time and the shark attacks are nicely staged. Peppered throughout such frenzied action are quiet moments and one of the most poignant would come right after a ferocious shark attack. After the pandemonium the group starts bickering and arguing as to what should be done about this perilous situation. Suddenly one of them realizes that their yelling at each other is not going to be helpful at all and one of the girls is heard whispering a prayer which stuns the rest of the youngsters. Here, hedonistic sun loving and highly sexed teens stop for a moment to listen to their friend’s plea to a God possibly forgotten during adolescence post-the Age of Aquarius (a period that ushered in a movement that was fervently against organized religion). A musical sting at the masterful command of composer John Williams hits and the camera pulls back to reveal the disheveled mess that is the remaining shattered ships that carry our teenage shark bait across the vast deep dark blue sea.

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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