The era of the modern summer blockbuster came riding in on the fins of a great white shark. Jaws was not only the most successful film of 1975, it was the most successful film the world had yet seen. With an unforgettable theme and two hours of white-knuckled suspense, Jaws did for the beach what Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho had done for showers 15 years earlier.
The shark claims its first victim in the opening scene, as a young woman runs off from a beach party for a late-night skinny dipping session. When her body (what’s left of it) washes ashore, the small, coastal New England town of Amity has a crisis on its hands. Police Chief Martin Brody wants the beaches shut down until they know what’s out there, but Amity’s Mayor Vaughn frets over losing the lucrative summer season. When another attack makes it clear a shark’s involved, the mayor offers a reward to whomever brings in the beast. A group of local fishermen capture a shark, but recently-arrived shark expert Matt Hooper is convinced they’ve got the wrong fish.
Stubborn as ever, Mayor Vaughn keeps the beaches open, but when the great white claims another victim, even this sniveling civil servant knows enough is enough. The city pays a large sum to the salty, foul-mouthed shark hunter Quint to catch and kill the beast, riding out to sea aboard his ship, the Orca. Brody and Hooper both come along, setting out for a Moby Dick-style showdown with the great white killer.
It’s hard to say whether director Steven Spielberg made Jaws or Jaws made Steven Spielberg. The shoot was plagued by problems, most notoriously by the finicky mechanical shark “Bruce.” To compensate for the shark’s frequent malfunctions, Spielberg and company managed to keep Bruce off-screen for nearly all of the film. When the shark stalked swimmers, audiences watched from the beast’s point of view, as John Williams’ Oscar-winning music let viewers know exactly who was coming up from below.
The end result was a classic horror/thriller, a movie that set the standard for summer popcorn flicks. After Jaws, every studio hopped aboard the blockbuster boat, and 1977’s Star Wars only solidified the trend. The shark movie was soon surpassed as the all-time box office champ (by Star Wars), but its place in history was secure.
Jaws also set the standard in movie sequels. There were, of course, movie sequels long before 1978’s Jaws 2, but that film swiftly became the biggest sequel to that time. Roy Scheider (Chief Brody), Lorraine Gary (Mrs. Ellen Brody) and Murray Hamilton (Mayor Vaughn) all returned for the second film, but Spielberg had moved on to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and other projects. Even without the star director, Jaws 2 caused a splash, as its tagline—“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water”—was backed up by another round of great white attacks on once-peaceful Amity.
It took five years to mount another Jaws sequel, but to compensate for the wait, the filmmakers delivered the swimmer-eating goods in 3-D. Jaws 3-Dput Chief Brody’s grown-up son Mike in the middle of another shark crisis, this time at a Florida amusement park (shades of the first Creature From the Black Lagoon sequel).
The final installment, Jaws: The Revenge, arrived in theaters in 1987. Nearly the entire Brody clan was back this time (including Lorraine Gary as Ellen), as was a certain great white shark…and this time, it was personal. Somehow, the vengeful shark had begun a stalking campaign, refusing to rest until the last Brody was encased in its gigantic belly.
The Jaws phenomenon had largely died down by the time Jaws: The Revenge hit the big screen, and Universal decided it was time for Bruce and his heirs to retire. The original film remains as popular as it was in the summer of ’75, surfacing regularly on television and in special anniversary video and DVD packages, still giving swimmers second thoughts about going back in the water.