The Saltwater Uncanny (Jaws: The Revenge)


"It came for him. It waited all this time - and it came for him." 
- Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary), wife of inadvertent shark hunter, Martin Brody

Ahoy, spoilers ahead.

It's a Hollywood tale of grief, fear and obsession ... with a shark at every port. 1987's JAWS: THE REVENGE was probably always destined to be vilified. Pulpy B-movie thrills mixed with the opaque and symbolic are attractants for mirth. Have the filmmaker ideas above their genre station? I like JAWS: THE REVENGE. I don't mean as a 'guilty pleasure'. I like it. However you read its onscreen events - a vengeful shark pursuing a family or a family cursed by shark encounters - the film has one hell of a bite radius in 'real life' feasibility. But the film has a certain character, too, what with its 'fear summons the monster' vibe. I find it an always-diverting 90-minute anomaly, with a great cast and music score in tow. 

To recap: when the youngest Brody son, Sean (Mitchell Anderson), is attacked and killed by a shark, mother Ellen becomes convinced 'the shark' is holding a grudge against the family (she attributes the heart attack suffered by her husband, Martin, played by Roy Scheider in the first two instalments, to a fear of "it"). Even when Ellen and her surviving family retreat to the warm waters of the Bahamas, her fears consume her. What transpires on screen suggests many a good reason for her paranoia. 'This time, it's personal' proclaimed the film's principal tagline; from Ellen's perspective, it most certainly is.

There was a certain inevitability that a 'Jaws: The Revenge' would arise: each sequels has insisted throwing members of the Brody family back in the fray. And thus, by Jaws - The Fourth, the sheer volume of the family's encounters with sharks would become a story point in and of itself. Writer Michael de Guzman and veteran director Joseph Sargent envisioned JAWS: THE REVENGE as a 'wipe the slate clean' sequel to JAWS (1975);
1 but make no mistake, it is the spiritual heir of JAWS 2 (1978) and JAWS 3-D (1983).

Popular consensus insists the shark has travelled from New England to the Bahamas in vengeful pursuit of the Brodys. This is the sort of thing that happens when you inject the opaque into blockbuster obviousness; people make up their own minds. Hank Searls, in his novelisation of the film, even charts the shark's lengthy southward trek -as well as suggests a voodoo curse on the Brody family
.2 The filmmakers never commit to such ideas, though. Is it the same shark? No one's saying. There isn't sufficient evidence in the visuals or the verbals. The film's shark expert consultant John McCosker said the shark's pursuit of the family ain't necessarily so.3 de Guzman said that the 'truth' of what Ellen Brody believes and experiences is up to the audience to decide.4 And Sargent said 'the shark' would have a mystical element this time out - in so far as Ellen Brody was convinced "it" was a vindictive critter.5

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. And smartly, in the attack scenes, additional attractions are displayed to pique the shark's interest: the dangling feet of a fisherman, meat and blood chumming the water, an inflatable, and so on. The Brodys aren't the only offerings on the menu. Heck, even come the climactic reels and we hear Ellen's ever-supportive rogue, Hoagie (played no less than by Michael Caine) give a tentative endorsement of her convictions: “She's got the idea in her head that the shark…”

de Guzman's concept for the film suggests that Ellen's fear of the shark is so overpowering that it is only inevitable that a shark will arise within the Bahamas. It's an interesting idea. For many, such alchemy is a laughable fit with the 'concrete' world of mechanical sharks, summer thrills and Hollywood happy endings. And that's fair enough. The ideas and concepts of JAWS: THE REVENGE were reportedly borne of a desperation to bring a new angle to this fourth instalment (a lack of time compounded the desperation: the film went from development-to-cinema release in just under 10 months).
6 But a new angle it definitely is and its subtext of facing one's fears provides a human engagement its immediate predecessor lacked - and I was surprised how willing I was to travel along with it all.

The obsessive, grieving Ellen and her initially non-believing but increasingly spooked surviving son, Michael, are a good reason for this willingness. They are likeable and engaging protagonists, and Gary and Lance Guest as Michael give terrific performances. The film is brimming over with close shots of Brodys staring obsessively, unblinkingly (their neck muscles tightening) at the shark in action. The cumulative effect reminds me of a stylistic choice in THE EXORCIST (1973) where the priest stares intently at an incredible feat from the monster, the implication being that what we are seeing in this instance is not necessarily objective reality, but the imaginative embellishments of the obsessive observer. (The filmmakers just don't add a lens filter to say "This here is a hallucination".) I'm not saying there isn't a shark in the Bahamas, but the suggestion is there that Ellen and Michael are embellishing its actions and giving them purpose. 

Ellen and Michael also spend a substantial amount of time looking apprehensively towards the ocean, something Martin was wont to do in the first two JAWS'. Come JAWS: THE REVENGE, it is a defining stylistic device. In a film where the creative team do not draw a line in the sand in terms of what events 'really mean', an evocation of the 'mysteries of the deep' is a canny approach (well complemented by composer Michael Small's eerie 'chime' motif.). Ellen is also stopped in her tracks on a number of occasions with a sense of foreboding; another good touch, although some have classified this as a telepathic relationship with the shark. If it's telepathy, it’s wildly inconsistent. I'll go with foreboding.

JAWS: THE REVENGE's final confrontation is another matter. At a crucial point, it is oddly edited. Actually, I strongly suspect the mechanical shark is the culprit for the editorial 'jump', not quite giving the filmmakers the shot they needed in the limited time they had. (And the filmmakers were demanding, asking the beast to rise out of the water and hold position for an extended period of time.) The final confrontation is also anticlimactic, at least for audiences of previous JAWS', as it doesn't uphold the extended battle of wits between human and shark. And the reasons for the shark exploding are extremely unclear. (The moment is intended to work through cinematic momentum, not real-life logic.) Here's the paradox, though: the ending is abrupt and disappointing (some might say crushing), but I like it. What holds the un-holdable together is Lorraine Gary. The grim, obsessive determination that is painted on Ellen's face as the boat circles around toward the shark is effective. Gary makes interesting choices, too (truth to tell, she does throughout the film): in the face of the shark's impending doom, there is no righteousness to be found in Ellen's expression; instead there's a fixedness, staring at proceedings as though they are not quite real, as though she expects to wake up from her fever dream any moment.

Other elements contribute to the dreamlike quality: the fuzziness of the tight close-ups of Ellen, her imaginings of Martin vanquishing the original shark. The climactic moments thus sit - intentionally or not - fairly comfortably alongside the ideas the film evokes. These are reasons the film is palatable for me. Even the original ending seen by US cinema patrons is dreamlike with its shot of the shark descending into the bowels of the ocean, with the screen soon fading to black and the sound of water enveloping us. An allusion to the subconscious is evoked. Unintentionally? Who's to say? But it's worth noting the film's second tagline - 'Man's deepest fear has risen again' - which certainly suggests some creative cognisance of the subconscious. (Critics and audiences were cool about the film containing two dream sequences, but such things are at home in the overall gist of the film, and they certainly signify the peaks of obsession for both Ellen and Michael.)

Of course, this left-field JAWS would probably have been treated more leniently had its shark effects surpassed previous instalments. But the crystal clear clarity of the Bahamian waters never lets us forget the rubbery origins of our monster (here's another tagline for the film: 'In the Bahamas, there are no shadows in which to hide'), and Sargent consistently shoots the shark from up close, a case of escalating the 'level of reveal’ we've seen over the series. In these days of CGI, my fondness for these mechanical monsters grows firmer, but the first time I saw JAWS: THE REVENGE I was hoping to see the next level in shark effects. The second time I saw it, the expectations were humbly in check, and I could truly embrace the film's attractions, in particular the sight of a middle-aged woman taking the reins of a genre pic (and not having to be transformed into a stern-faced 'badass' in the process). 

By the way, did I mention geysers of blood look absolutely magnificent in Bahamian waters?

To me, the film's essential weakness is its subtitle. THE REVENGE is pretty impactful, in a B-movie exploitationer-kind-of-a-way. Perhaps a shark is after revenge; oddly, Sargent proclaimed as much in a conciliatory interview conducted two decades later, in which he contradicts much of what he and de Guzman originally suggested about the film's concepts.
7 And perhaps Ellen, in skewering the Bahamian shark with a boat's bowsprit, is attaining some sort of symbolic revenge, rather than merely stopping another killer shark. But I just don't feel revenge is foremost on this film's mind (I especially like the moment where Ellen's intention to confront the shark is revealed to be driven by self-sacrifice, not vengeance). It instead moves on the aforementioned currents of fear, grief and obsession. And taking our fears, however nonsensical they may feel, seriously. If there is any revenge, it is the 'revenge of suppressed fears', the sense of our denial catching up with us, something that Ellen and Michael ultimately both need to deal with. I'd put forward JAWS: OUR DEEPEST FEAR (or some variant of) as the title that captures, as precisely as possible, the essence of this film. 

If nothing else, enjoy JAWS: THE REVENGE for its beautifully-lensed New England and Bahamian locales, and the self-effacing charm of co-stars Michael Caine and Mario Van Peebles. Caine, in the film's final stretch, almost overbalances the whole shebang with a repertoire of shark-related quips. But he also knows when reverence is needed, his blue eyes transfixed by a moment of shark spectacle - and, in the process, giving the sparkling blue Bahamian water a run for its money. 

Spare a thought for Ellen, though. In the film's coda she is obviously a woman who has overcome her fear, and therefore satisfied the film's subtext. The coda is celebratory. It is satisfying traditions of popular film. But many a newly bereaved person experiences pangs of conviction to embrace life - in all its tenuousness - to the full. Debilitating grief soon weighs in, though, with the realisation that loved ones won't return.

And I'm sure Sean's killer is still lurking in the beaches off Amity…



1 Gross, Edward. 'Setting Sail with 'Jaws: The Revenge'', Fangoria, 68, 1987, pp. 26.

2 Searls, Hank. Jaws: The Revenge, Berkley Books, 1987.

3 McCosker, John E., 'Building a Better Bruce: In the Belly of Universal's Newest Beast', L.A. Times, 19 July 1987, viewed 9 February 2019, http://articles.latimes.com/1987-07-19/magazine/tm-4566_1_shark-carcasses

4 Gross. Fangoria, pp. 25.

5 Gross, Edward. 'Joseph Sargent: Of Sharks and Star Trek', Starlog, 121, 1987, pp.21.

6 'Joseph Sargent: Archive Interview', Television Academy Foundation, viewed 9 February 2019, https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/joseph-sargent

7 Ibid.


Published 10 February 2019.