THE REVENGE OF 'JAWS'?


Ahoy, SPOILERS AHEAD.

1987's JAWS: THE REVENGE was an earnest attempt to regain some franchise lustre after the relative critical and financial disappointment four years earlier of JAWS 3-D. It returned us to Amity Island and two generations of Brodys, the accidental shark-hunting family. Its veteran director Joseph Sargent was keen to focus on character to a level not seen since Steven Spielberg's 1975 original classic, and together with writer Michael de Guzman was desperate to find a unique angle in which to energise and expand the formula. The desperation was compounded by an exceptionally short production period, where Universal, unsettled by the box-office under-performance of their 1986 summer films (such as LEGAL EAGLES, HOWARD THE DUCK and PSYCHO III), scoured their back catalogue in the hope for a quick franchise hit come Summer 1987. The cast and crew were game, but ultimately JAWS: THE REVENGE exceeded JAWS 3-D in poor notices and disappointing box office. Three decades on, a JAWS 5 is yet to surface.

A unique spin had certainly been identified, though, taking a Brody family member's obsessive shark fears onto a whole new plain, and, in the process, creating the impression of a shark more villain than force of nature. This is the JAWS film where the youngest Brody son (Mitchell Anderson) is attacked and killed by a shark, and mother Ellen - a returning Lorraine Gary from JAWS and JAWS 2 (1978) - becomes convinced a shark is holding a grudge against the family. Even when she and her surviving family retreat to the warm waters of the Bahamas, her fears remain. What consequently transpires on screen suggests many a good reason for Ellen's paranoia.

The plot device of - what would seem - a shark seeking revenge understandably attracted derision, as did the shark effects; never immune from critiques in previous installments, but copping it here primarily due to the not-entirely-helpful clarity of Bahamian waters. I find the film, despite its weaknesses, a diverting studio flick, helped along by an excellent music score (by Michael Small), sparkling cinematography and design (courtesy of John McPherson and John J. Lloyd), and, most significantly, an engaged and engaging cast - including Michael Caine as the humble rogue, Hoagie - who are keen to sell this tale of what might be best described as 'saltwater uncanny'.

So, what of this revenge angle: are we really being presented with a shark intent on revenge, presumably enraged for the destruction of its kin by the late Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), hero of the first two JAWS films? ‘This time, it's personal’ proclaimed the tagline. But personal for whom?

This is the interesting thing about JAWS: THE REVENGE: the creative team can ride the momentum of a fantastical drama about a vengeance-seeking shark, without actually committing to the idea of a vengeful aquatic beast. Certainly, we regularly see the shark turning up in waters wherever Ellen, her surviving son Michael (Lance Guest) and granddaughter Thea (Judith Barsi) dare dip their feet – and it turns up with hungry intent. But the film often suggests that a persecutory shark resides in Ellen's head, and increasingly in Michael's head as the film progresses; a case of their minds filling in the blanks with their sheer volume of shark encounters. (Ellen even attributes her husband's fatal heart attack to a fear of the shark.) Furthermore, the film never confirms whether it is one shark doing the dirty work (and thus travelling from New England to The Bahamas on the scent of Brodys) or whether there's a hungry shark at every port.

It instead appears to employ a stylistic tactic reminiscent of THE EXORCIST (1973) - where a great feat from the monster/s is observed with wide-eyed intensity by the protagonist - suggesting a portion of what we, the audience, sees is simply the protagonist’s imaginings. And cleverly, in the majority of the attack scenes we are shown other attractions to pique the shark's interest: dangling feet, meat and blood chumming the water, an inflatable, and so on. The Brodys aren't being presented as the only attraction. The space is being given for multiple interpretations (should the audience care to ponder), a quality reflected in the film's strategic subtitle THE REVENGE and aforementioned tagline. Heck, even come the climactic reels and we hear the ever-supportive Michael Caine character not entirely endorsing Ellen's convictions: “She's got the idea in her head that the shark…”

In talking about the film during production, Michael de Guzman emphasised the theme of fear and facing one's fears, and how when such is denied, mocked or rationalised, it will rise again to haunt you (a 'revenge of the unconscious' which informed the film's second tagline: 'Man's deepest fear has risen again') - and this is indeed the subtext which drives the film, and I think gives it a propulsion that JAWS 3-D lacked. Of course, an exploration of fear via a shark that keeps popping up wherever you travel is a fantastical way to go about it. And the deliberateness that Ellen attributes to these shark attacks actually takes our 'Jaws' shark into the realm of a classic Universal Pictures monster, a crafty, methodical bugger on the lines of The Wolfman, Dracula and The Creature from 1954’s CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON  (considering how the latter inspired Spielberg in his direction of the original, perhaps, in some small way, JAWS: THE REVENGE takes us full circle).

Now, there is a moment suggesting a single Great White has taken a long southward route along the North Atlantic Ocean in pursuit of Brodys. Not in the film's shooting script, the short scene occurs after Ellen has settled into Michael and family's Bahamian home, endured a bad dream or two, and been assured there is nothing to fear in warm Bahamian waters. Nothing to fear, huh! We cut to a shark point-of-view shot, followed by an unexpectedly upfront shot of a mechanical shark making its way through said waters. The effect is somewhat like the bad guy advancing into the frontier town, on the scent of the wounded hero. On the other hand, perhaps we are just being introduced to a second shark, our Bahamian shark, who will haunt the remainder of THE REVENGE. More than anything I think this quick scene is just an anxious post-production decision to place a shark moment in between the human chatter. But it throws the cat amongst the pigeons in terms of ‘what's really going on’ and strongly supports a vindictive shark thesis. I much prefer the scene that follows, where Ellen, building sand castles with her granddaughter, is suddenly spooked by the sense of a Great White nearby. It keeps things closer to Ellen's psyche.

In discussing the plot, de Guzman stated that the reasons for what occurs are there for the audience to decide, while Sargent focussed on Ellen's grief-stricken sense of being targeted and how this, in effect, gives the shark a certain mystical dimension. Only in an interview conducted within the new millennium did Sargent assert that, from his perspective, the shark was pursuing revenge. (Would de Guzman have agreed? Was Sargent conceding to the anger of the herd?) In which case, JAWS: THE REVENGE can definitely be placed as the series' first explicit foray into a classic Universal monster template. de Guzman's contentions about letting the audience draw their own conclusions were likely too opaque for a summer blockbuster: what moment is there - in blunt blockbuster terms - to truly ram home that the Bahamian shark's more wild and persecutory actions could just be Ellen and Michael's anxiety-fuelled imaginative embellishments? In which case, why not consider the film as anything else than a vengeful fish flick?

Still, while its makers throw ideas 'out there' rather than draw a clear line in the sand (and limited production time surely contributed to this), some people find this studio oddity quite involving nevertheless. I'm one of them. Lance Guest has that Roy Scheider-esque anxiety down pat: Michael is spooked by the sense his mother's obsession may contain a skerrick of truth, and then in trying to disprove it, is only spooked further. And the film includes the return of something small but effective, missing since JAWS 2: the patented profile shot of a Brody looking out nervously at the vast ocean.

However, the mechanical shark this time out is about as convincing as the shark on the Hollywood Universal Tour; that is, an impressive creation (I'd love one in the front yard), but obviously a creation, a rubbery behemoth stalking about in the revealing Bahamian waters. Additionally, Sargent's tendency is to reveal the shark in all its detailed glory rather than hide or partially disguise it, a significant stylistic shift from the first three films. The shark does manage some moments of menace (the fatal attacks are effective), but the film gets by more on colour and diverting elements than it does on the sort of genuine suspense that defined the first two films. And by the fourth film I suppose we are less inclined to compare the mechanical sharks to real sharks than we are to compare them with the mechanical models that came before. However, it feels like the sharks of JAWS 3-D and JAWS: THE REVENGE are a devolution after the series’ first two efforts. While the ambition with the shark effects is evident, equally evident (for those aware of its production history) was the lack of time to execute them to their fullest potential.

Revisiting the film with the knowledge of this limitation, though, I again find the film perfectly diverting - and I find this beast far preferable to the static monolith of JAWS 3-D. Michael Small's music helps the shark matters, too; his variant of Williams classic shark theme and his memorably haunting ‘chime’ motif, selling - and propelling - the shark as effectively as possible (that it took this film's soundtrack 28 years to receive an official release is, to my mind, the greatest sin associated with JAWS: THE REVENGE) ... and did I mention geysers of blood look absolutely magnificent in Bahamian waters?

Not quite so magnificent is the anticlimactic climax, the final nail in the coffin for many. The shark, in the throes of being driven mad by electrical impulses, is skewered by a boat's bowsprit and then ... explodes. And triggers a collective double take in the audience. After it sinks to the bottom of the ocean, courtesy of footage from the Spielberg original, it is revealed that a supporting character, Jake (played by Mario Van Peebles with an enjoyable line in self-effacement) has inexplicably survived an earlier attack from the shark. This climax was not the original one seen in US cinemas. The original was judged to have no bang - indeed it didn’t, the shark sensibly sank after its skewering - and no 'audience pleasing' return from the dead for Jake. Still, while this ending may have been duly slated by both critics and audiences, and motivated a quick reshoot/revisioning for international release and subsequent video and DVD releases, it is the better ending for a film that may or may not be about a vengeful shark. It's a bit more elusive and enigmatic in effect, given its dreamlike final shot, looking up from the bowels of the ocean to see the shark bloodily descend into an effective 'fade to black'.

Both versions, however, are true to form in keeping the focus on Ellen's vision/interpretation of events. As she watches the shark approach, her imaginings of previous shark attacks and her husband extinguishing the first shark flash past us. This is not an entirely successful device as these imaginings are shown via footage we have already witnessed. There is a certain intuitive sense to all this - she's psyching herself for the shark's final lap - but based on critiques, this use of familiar footage has given the impression of Ellen having 'flashbacks' to events which, in most cases, she wasn't even witness to, as much as it has given the impression she is invoking events in her mind she has previously been told of.

Anyhow, with the Bahamian beast destroyed, we move into the coda, and hear Ellen eagerly imploring her family (well, the remaining folk) to visit her in Amity the following summer. She's convinced she's killed the shark. The coda, on one level, seems a bit too bright and triumphant. After all, with the shark destroyed, Ellen is now permitted the horribly daunting task of truly grieving a son (and quite possibly a husband, too, if her shark obsession has been consuming her for years). But the filmmakers are honouring the subtext here, and a celebration is needed. It's nice, though, that as the credits roll the cheery naval tunes segue-way into Small's sterling variation of the JAWS theme, as menacing as one could wish.

In the process of writing about JAWS: THE REVENGE, it’s prompted me to reflect on my first experience of the film. I certainly remember I stepped into the theatre untouched by critical conjecture. And what I took away from that virgin viewing, aside from Small’s musical motifs, was Lorraine Gary. It was, and continues to be, a refreshing – if not striking – sight for a glossy studio adventure-thriller to be headlined by a middle-aged female protagonist (with said protagonist encouraged to be emotionally open, rather than a stern-faced toughie armed to the hilt). Gary has always impressed; she’s very natural and convincing in these movements between grief, vain hope and obsession. And in respect to the sincerity and skill of her performance, I entertain a parallel universe JAWS: THE REVENGE, where the murderous intent of a Bahamian shark is clearly all in Ellen's mind, a JAWS (OF THE MIND) RESURFACES. But I also entertain a longer than ten-month production period to permit the level of thought, vision and revision needed to pull off that level of conceit.

As far as the sequels go, I enjoy JAWS 2 for its highly effective shark scenes and its Roy Scheider fan service, but the one I most regularly revisit … JAWS: THE REVENGE. Perhaps it's the pull of the Bahamian climate, but a shark that travels to the beat of a classic Universal monster is not without an appeal or two, either.


Posted January 12 2019