One common critique of the Terminator franchise is that after the first two films, each subsequent terminator model (the T-X, T-RIP, T-3000, and REV-9) feels less threatening despite being more technologically advanced than the T-800 and the T-1000.
Why is this? Perhaps it’s because in the first two films, the characters are under-equipped to take on the terminators, and even those who are trained and know about their opponents (Kyle, the T-800) are aware that they aren’t going to win in a one-on-one fight and act accordingly. Their goal is to stay alive and not fight unless there is absolutely no other choice. They’re underdogs, and there’s a very real sense of danger every time they face the T-800 and the T-1000.
Starting with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, though, the characters become more willing to fight and are better equipped: in T-3, John, Kate, and the T-850 gain a large cache of weapons. In Salvation, humanity knows about terminators and has the weaponry to take them on. In Genysis, Sarah and Pops have built up an arsenal of weapons over several years and are unfazed to take on the T-3000. And in Dark Fate, Sarah and Grace are battle-hardened warriors unafraid to take on the Rev-9. As a result, the sense of danger is largely gone. The underdogs are no longer underdogs.
There are many ways for the Terminator series to make the terminators frightening again, but I think one important lesson is to take inspiration from, of all places, 1993’s Jurassic Park: the park’s game warden, Robert Muldoon was a big-game hunter armed with shotguns and decades of hunting experience, but even he was scared of facing velociraptors, only doing so when he had to. If the Terminator franchise gives its protagonists and robotic killers the same relationship, that can help restore the sense of danger and terror that’s faded since 1991… that, and stopping the terminators from just throwing everyone around instead of snapping necks and punching out hearts.
Ever since it’s release in 1980, ‘The Shining’ has kept viewers guessing for decades about it’s various secrets, including exactly what is going on with the Overlook Hotel itself. The film strongly hints – and the sequel, ‘Doctor Sleep’, all but confirms – that the building itself has a sort of consciousness that forces the ghosts of the hotel to do its bidding and absorb more souls into its haunted walls. And this hotel is an example of the most frightening kind of evil, one that is patient, biding its time as it watches it victims, learns about them, discovers their weakness, and slowly applies pressure to make them give in to their worst impulses without them realizing it, eventually becoming permanent guests in the time-warp that is the Overlook Hotel.
But like all great horror stories, ‘The Shining,’ never reveals what the Overlook’s malevolent self looks like. It is always out of sight, always hidden, and never seen..
But what if the Overlook’s dark core has been hiding in plain sight?
In the 2019 adaptation of ‘Doctor Sleep,’ a grown-up Danny Torrance returns to the rotting remains of the Overlook. What follows is a nostalgic tour of the hotel’s many iconic areas in a state of disrepair, including the Gold Room, where Danny has a ghostly reunion with his father. And while the film rightfully focuses entirely on the talk between father and son, there’s something about this scene that isn’t noticeable unless you’re paying very close attention to the background. Specifically, this shot:
Notice those lamps in the background? They look like mouths. Gaping maws of darkness with the bright, glowing, featureless eyes above them. This, I believe, is the true face of the evil haunting the Overlook, a gaping maw and inhuman eyes, ready to suck in anyone it can get, and they’ve always been there. Compare that shot to the original film:
Notice how in both films, neither Jack or Danny notice these faces. But Lloyd does, and so does Jack when he’s behind the counter in ‘Doctor Sleep.’ How can you tell? Look at their eyelines.
It’s as if they’re silently watching their demonic master before turning their attention back to the latest slave the Overlook wants to add to its collection. And it’s not just the gold room; these lights can be seen throughout the film: the very first time we see Jack, the hotel is watching him.
It watches Jack when he’s working on his book:
Or when Danny is riding his bike:
Or when Rose walks through its halls decades later:
But that’s not all: there are moments when these lights are not lit, like when Wendy is walking around:
The lights aren’t lit because the Overlook isn’t interested in Wendy. It wants Jack and Danny, not her, so it doesn’t bother watching her. Likewise, when Dick arrives at the Overlook and looks for the Torrances, the lights aren’t on; he doesn’t see them:
Yet, moments after he dies, the lights are on, watching Jack, encouraging him to continue his rampage:
Of course, this is just a theory. But perhaps the Overlook has been staring at us for decades; we just never saw it.
Every story has a cast of characters that we follow and watch and come to love… but what about the background characters? The nameless masses who rarely get our attention? This column examines my favorite background characters who deserve a moment in the spotlight.
‘The Lenny Henry Christmas Show’
A random audience member
Why He Deserves A Moment In The Spotlight
It’s spooky season once again, and what better way to mark the occasion than with this terrifying live action parody of Wallace and Gromit from 1995’s ‘The Lenny Henry Christmas Show’? The lovable, charming duos of Wallace and Gromit have gone from England’s most lovable couple into inter-dimensional abominations wearing skinned flesh in an attempt to blend in with humanity and their canine companions. It’s so grotesque, so horrifying, that at 0:51 in the clip, you can just faintly hear someone in the audience groaning, ‘Oh god…’ I don’t know who this man is or anything about him – and he’s not even a background character, per se – but he sums up the audience’s feelings so perfectly that he becomes the best thing about this sketch, stealing the show from the two things that will haunt my nightmares forever more.
Last year, I gathered all my courage, mourned not being able to watch The Incredible Hulk, and finally sat down to watch the Star Wars Holiday Special, which is commonly called one of the worst moments in television history and one of the biggest missteps in the Star Wars franchise, sentiments that are completely and utterly 100% true. And while I played up this awfulness for comedic value, I figured it was time to actually write out what works well and what doesn’t in the special because, despite what pop culture might tell you, I was surprised to find that the special is… not that awful.
Now, don’t get me wrong; the special is not some misunderstood masterpiece that has aged like fine wine. It is a bad show with seemingly endless padding, almost ten minutes of non-stop Wookie gargling without subtitles, stirring and whipping, and the… inconsistent acting. And that’s before Leia breaks out into song. But as hard as it may be to believe, there’s also some good things, too: the lighthearted, feel-good music, seeing Luke, Leia, Han, and all the other classic characters doing their stuff, the 70’s style that saturates the whole thing, and some downright hilarious Youtube comments.
Now, lest you feel the temptation to actually sit down and watch the special (an endeavor I don’t recommend unless you’ve consumed copious amounts of alcohol) sit back and let me present to you the hard-won writing lessons I got from watching this piece of 70’s kitsch.
What does the story do well?
The core concept isn’t bad
Regardless of its execution, the story of the Holiday Special itself isn’t bad: During a period of galactic civil war, Chewbacca tries to get back to his family on Kashyyyk to celebrate Life Day, the most important holiday in Wookie culture. But it won’t be easy: the Galactic Empire is in hot pursuit of Chewie, and maintains a presence on Kashyyyk harassing the locals. Not only will Chewie and Han have to escape the Empire, but Chewie’s family will also have to outsmart and outwit the local Imperials before Chewie arrives so they can all safely celebrate. That’s not a bad story at all, which leads the Special to stand as proof that even the best story ideas can fail due to other circumstances.
It has a good introduction to Boba Fett
While fans generally agree that the Holiday Special is awful, there is also agreement that the best part is a short cartoon that features the first appearance of Boba Fett, one of Star Wars’ most famous side-characters. And they’re right! It’s a short, self-contained story that takes full advantage of it’s animated medium to create interesting and unique visuals that would be expensive to do in live-action, as well as give Boba a moral ambiguity that left first-time viewers wondering if he truly was an ally or someone nefarious, all aided by an excellent voice performance by Don Francks. Plus, hearing Darth Vader in any cartoon is always an excellent thing.
It shows what life is like for ordinary people in a sci-fi universe
If there’s only one thing the Holiday Special does well, it’s to show what life is like for ordinary, everyday people in the Star Wars galaxy, the folks who aren’t involved in the war, who aren’t firing blasters at Stormtroopers, and who just want to get through their day. We get to see cooking shows, what a Wookie home is like, the toys a child has in this galaxy, and what common people do to relax and have fun.
While showing ordinary life in a fantasy world sounds boring (don’t we indulge in fantasy to escape from everyday life?), it actually adds a lot of depth to that universe. Films and books typically devote little to no time showing what everyday life is like for people in fantasy worlds because of needing to focus on whatever is threatening that world. Devoting an hour and half to showing people buying and preparing food, playing, relaxing in bars, and celebrating holidays doesn’t bring in the big bucks at the cinema, after all, which makes these kind of stories rare, and even rarer in one of the biggest film franchises in history.
What could have been done to improve the story?
Okay, that’s too easy.
It could have cut out the Wookie porn
Unless it is a vital part of the story, we don’t need to watch an elderly Wookie getting sexually stimulated by softcore virtual pornography.
It could have cut out all the padding
On retrospect, I think one reason the Holiday Special earned such a disastrous reputation is that so much of it feels like padding. Part of this is due to the variety show format, but while parts of it are… tolerable… most are not, such as Malla stirring and whipping, and almost four minutes of assembling a transmitter. If these segments were removed and the story revised to focus on the holiday aspect, it would have been a stronger, more enjoyable tale.
It could have made the story more ‘holiday-ey’
While the slice-of-life format of the Holiday Special is a welcome change from the constant, non-stop war seen in all the Star Wars films, the holiday aspect feels almost non-existant. While it wouldn’t make sense for the Star Wars universe to just copy Christmas traditions verbatim, it would have been nice to see more holiday traditions throughout the special, such as festive decorations, gift-giving, etc. Even having Itchy, Lumpy, and Malla try to spread holiday cheer to the Imperials who come to their house would have helped embody the spirit of a winter holiday. As it is, the special’s only holiday aspect comes at the very end; while this works as the climax to the story, it would have been better to have more moments of festivity throughout.
While it deserves much of the negative reception it’s received, the Star Wars Holiday Special is, like every story, a product of its time. Where the rest of the Star Wars saga is a timeless story, the Holiday Special is a weird time capsule of the late 70’s, for better or worse, a time where where variety shows were viable entertainment, but starting their slide into obsolescence, and the Star Wars franchise was still trying to find its footing. And while there is a lot to dislike here, there’s still some good stuff, too. In a way, the Special is like our own holiday season: If we honestly search for things to be thankful for in a world filled with pain, suffering, and misery, we can find them.
Ever since the release of ‘Aliens’ back in 1986, it’s been hailed as one of the greatest sci-fi action horror films of all time, as well as one of the greatest sequels ever. While I agree with both sentiments, I still prefer the original, 1979 ‘Alien’. Where ‘Aliens’ is about highly-trained warriors taking on a threat they can kill, ‘Alien’ is about everyday people struggling to defeat an opponent who’s stronger than them, faster than them, and can kill them in an instant. ‘Aliens’ has a stronger focus on action, while ‘Alien’ has a better formula for horror.
Recently, that got me thinking: What would ‘Aliens’ look like if we were to, say, take away all the marines, guns and military-grade equipment?
In this parallel universe, ‘Alien’ ends with Ripley, Parker, Lambert, and Jones escaping the Nostromo, which explodes and kills the Xenomorph. Sixty years later, the three survivors are woken by the escape shuttle’s computer detecting a nearby colony. Ripley and the others set down on the planet, only to discover that the colony is in ruins. Sneaking inside, Ripley, Parker, and Lambert (Jones remains on the parked shuttle) find Newt and realize that the colony has been overrun by Xenomorphs. Needless to say, the group tries to get back into space to avoid facing any more penis-monsters from beyond the stars, but the shuttle is overrun by said penis-monsters. While they just barely manage to rescue Jones, the shuttle is rendered inoperable via acid blood, stranding Ripley and the others on the planet.
Lambert, predictably, freaks out. Parker’s not happy, either, but Ripley manages to calm them down: if they can use the colony’s communications grid to call for help, they can then hunker down and wait for a rescue, as Newt managed to survive on her own without any training. But due to damage to the colony’s atmosphere processing unit, power is out throughout the complex. Parker and Lambert jury-rig the system to let them send off a single broadcast, and then all they can do is survive until help arrives. But as in the original film, the processing unit begins to melt down, and without any means of escaping into space, everyone will be forced to flee into the inhospitable wilderness of LV-426 and fend off any Xenomorphs that come after them.
Would Ripley and the others be able to survive? Would they be able to drive far enough away from the plant before it explodes? Would they be able to last months before help arrives? And, most importantly, would they be able to discover why kids like the taste of Cinnamon Toast Crunch? I’ll leave that up to you, but this thought experiment changes the tone and feel of the movie completely: by replacing marines and their weapons with untrained civilians, ‘Aliens’ becomes a more frightening movie because surviving becomes so much harder without smartguns, pulse rifles, and APCs. Ripley and her friends would have to scavenge whatever equipment they could find and improvise in order to fight for survival. And where they had to only face one alien last time, now they have to face dozens, if not hundreds. Survival is still a possibility, but much less likely.
The bottom line from this thought experiment? Untrained, unprepared, everyday people are almost always the best protagonists to have in horror movies, as the fight to survive will feel more authentic than if our protagonists are highly-trained, testosterone-filled, well-armed soldiers. Take away the big, powerful guns, the body armor, the apcs, grenades, missiles, and fighter craft, and you’re no longer the alpha predator; you’re prey, and your fight to survive will be all the more intense.
Normally most of us try to forget our nightmares, especially the more distressing ones, and I’m no different. But after a particularly vivid nightmare last night, I decided to instead remember it and see what nuggets of writing wisdom could be unearthed.
In the nightmare, I was in a future where poverty, suffering, and desperation was out of control in the United States (in other words, the present-day). But in this nightmare future, kidnapping is a frighteningly common occurrence, and I was only the latest victim. I was kept inside this grungy, run down house by a group of young 20 somethings who didn’t see me as a person but as a product to be used, sold, or traded. Thankfully, I managed to sneak out of the house and tried to run to freedom, including going through the backyard of a house owned by a bear and asking her for help. However, when I was being pursued and realized there was no way to escape, I used the back button on an internet browser to go back in time so I was back at the house to try and figure out a smarter way to escape.
Then, to make matters worse, I was shown why all this suffering was so commonplace: the kidnappings were done in such a way that if you resisted your captors or tried to escape, they responded by digging out your eyes, cutting off your limbs, then digging out your ears, ripping out your teeth, then your tongue, and finally tearing off your nose so you would become little more than a living sex toy to be used however rich people wanted to use you. It was no wonder so many people just meekly went along with whatever their captors wanted.
But it wasn’t just what happened to individuals: the kidnappings were all being orchestrated by an unspeakably powerful gang that was making headroads into the United States, and threatened all members of law enforcement that the fate of being turned into a blind, deaf, mute, and crippled sex toy was what would happen to their loved ones if they tried to stop the gang in each city they went into, and the gang had the power and ability to do so, meaning it was not an idle threat. Against such malevolence, police and federal law enforcement were all but powerless… and that’s when I woke up, thank God.
What did the nightmare do well?
It used the ‘If you try anything we will harm your loved ones’ trope to devastating effect
It may be used time and time again in countless stories, but there is no faster way to make a good character capitulate to evil than by having evil threaten his or her loved ones with horrific suffering. That taps into our deep-rooted desire for our loved ones to be safe, and the terror of something awful happening to them. While simple, it’s always a devastatingly effective storytelling tool (and an excellent way to make your audience eager to see the villains get their equally horrific comeuppance).
It showed evil as cold and indifferent
It’s easy to imagine evil as smug, cruel, and enjoying tormenting people. But the other side of flashy, smug evil can be equally frightening, if not more so: The kidnappers I faced in the story didn’t care about me or my feelings. They were unaffected by screams, pleas for mercy, threats, and begging. To them, captives were just products, and using torture didn’t bother them at all. They were indifferent to human suffering.
That kind of evil is, in my opinion, more frightening because we expect people to be swayed by emotions, even if it’s only to be more cruel and to laugh at our pain and suffering. But people who aren’t moved are like aliens or robots in human flesh: they may look normal, but we realize that something about them is wrong, and we instinctively fear them because they’re unpredictable and could do anything to us without any warning. They are like spiders, always watching you, never betraying any emotions, waiting to strike when you least expect it, and when they do, it’s unexpected and overpowering. At least with people who relish watching you suffer, you know what to expect and can try to prepare. But with these people? You can’t.
Cold and impersonal is the opposite of smug and selfish. Both work in different circumstances, but in my opinion the former is more frightening.
It threatened the protagonist with a fate worse than death
While death is often seen as the ultimate bad ending, there are fates far, far worse: Does spending decades as a limbless, blind, deaf, mute, and helpless living sex toy sound like fun to you? In any case, threatening a character with such a fate is a quick way to show that the antagonists aren’t messing around.
What could be done to improve the nightmare?
The bear could have had more characterization
The bear I encountered was a fascinating individual, as it was a single mother, had a house, and dressed in human clothes. Clearly, it was an intelligent being who was able to hold down a job and afford a house, but when it saw me and heard my pleas for help, it did nothing but stare at me with its stupid bear-face. The nightmare missed out on the chance to show what it would be like to interact with an intelligent, talking animal, but instead chose to do nothing. How lazy.
There was no explanation how time travel worked
In an otherwise rational, logical, and cruel world, there was no dwelling on the fact that time travel was real, or how it worked. There wasn’t even an attempt to explain how pressing the back button on an internet browser allowed me to reverse time and only have me be the one to realize it. What a disappointment.
Though there were some missed opportunities with regards to the bear’s characterization, and being able to time travel using the back button on an internet explorer was out of place in such an otherwise consistent and grim world, the nightmare did an amazing job showing how indifference can be terrifying, and how threatening ourselves and our loved ones with a fate worse than death is evil’s greatest and most powerful tool. That being said, I wouldn’t recommend revising this nightmare, as it really wasn’t fun to watch or experience. I’d recommend something like this instead.
There are a lot of great quotes about writing out there; these are some of the most insightful, thought-provoking, or ‘ah ha!’ ones I’ve come across.
‘Sigourney Weaver is such a great actress. I love how unlike some “women” (I used quotes because they don’t really seem that human , just “perfect”) in film, you really believe her terror but at the same time really see her in that adrenaline rush and just doing everything she can to survive. Those are my favorite types of characters in horror/thriller films in general. Their not made of stone with no sense of fear, but they also don’t sit around weeping and waiting for the killer to get them.These characters are terrified and can barely think or move, but they dig as deep as they can into their primal survival instincts and they just do what they need to do to survive.’
Not much to add here: This is one of the best summaries of survivor characters I’ve ever come across, and a reminder that even a character who is brave and works to save themselves can still be scared out of their minds.
Note: This post contains spoilers for the 2020 thriller, ‘Underwater’
The year is 2015, and the end credits have just started rolling on ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ I sit back in my seat, mulling over the first live-action Star Wars film in over a decade, my mind full of questions, so many questions, and few of them good:
*Where did the First Order come from? How did this group that’s supposed to be smaller than the Empire (and possessing a fraction of their resources) get more advanced ships, weapons, and a galaxy-killing planet?
*What’s the political state of the galaxy? How has it changed in the thirty years since the end of ‘The Return of the Jedi?’ Is the New Republic struggling? Has it been successful? Is it on the verge of becoming an empire itself?
*How did Maz somehow get a lightsaber that tumbled into a gas giant, ensuring that no one could possibly retrieve it?
*Why, when faced with a new fleet of space-Nazis, does the New Republic dispatch such a pitifully tiny group to fight it? What happened to all the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers we saw in ‘Return of the Jedi’? Shouldn’t a galactic government have the means to defend itself?
These questions left me frustrated because the film had no interest in answering them. Even more frustrating was that to get answers to many of these questions, I would had to buy tie-in novels, visual dictionaries, and encyclopedias to get answers that should have been in the movie in the first place.
Fast forward to 2020, and the end credits have just started rolling on ‘Underwater,’ an underwater horror-thriller (and the final film released by 20th Century Fox before being rebranded by Disney) in which drillers and researchers struggle to escape from the bottom of the Marianas trench while being attacked by fearsome underwater critters. While you won’t be able to remember the character’s names or any witty dialogue a week later, it’s still a satisfying and enjoyable way to spend 95 minutes. Later, I look online to satisfy my curiosity at any interesting behind-the-scenes trivia and read a few articles, including one promising a major revelation about the big monster who shows up at the end.
A few minutes later, and I’m blown away: It turns out that the big monster in ‘Underwater’ is none other than Cthulhu himself, the most famous character from HP Lovecraft’s fictional mythologies. In an instant, ‘Underwater’ goes from a generic creature flick to a movie about humanity’s first encounter with unspeakably powerful gods who could easily wipe humanity out without any effort.
Since reading that Cthulhu is the main monster of ‘Underwater,’ I’ve come to realize that the movie does one thing ‘The Force Awakens’ failed to do: use its expanded universe not to explain an incomplete story, but to enrich it.
For those who are unaware, expanded universe material is any secondary publication outside of a movie, television, book, or video game that further explores the world and characters of that story. Star Wars is the most famous example, with hundreds of novels, video games, and comics released over the decades that explores its fictional universe, but it’s now common for blockbusters and other big franchises to get expanded universe material of their own.
However, there’s one important thing to remember: Expanded Universe material is meant to enrich and enhance the franchise it’s a part of, not explain away problems that should have been addressed in the original movie, book, video game, comic, or TV show. ‘The Force Awakens,’ tells a story with a beginning, middle, and end, but there are substantial gaps (such as the ones mentioned earlier) that require reading said dictionaries and novels to understand.
Conversely, ‘Underwater,’ is a complete, self-contained movie that uses its expanded universe material to add another layer of depth that’s not in the film. The first time you see it, ‘Underwater’ is about scientists and drillers trying to escape underwater monsters. The second time you see it, it’s a movie about scientists and drillers trying to escape from a demigod, who’s just one of hundreds who have come from a place outside of time and space, all created by an insane god who could destroy everything if it wakes up. Our protagonists live in a world where gods are real, and none of them are our friends.
What does that mean for writers? When we write our stories, our audiences should get all the information they need from following our works instead of having to consult a wiki to understand what’s going on. While it’s fine to leave some mysteries and teases of a larger world in our stories, it’s important that those mysteries don’t come at the expense of the main story, and when a viewer has to do research to understand a story, that story needs help.
Try looking at it another way: Your story is a gourmet dish, and the expanded material is the sauce. If your dish is missing several ingredients, the sauce can’t salvage it. But if your dish is well-made, the sauce enriches and adds onto it, elevating the dish to something truly magnificent.
Once in a while, you come across a moment in a story that is so perfect that it stays in with you for years, or even a lifetime. These are moments that, in my opinion, are flawless; perfect gems of storytelling that cannot be improved in any way, and are a joy to treasure and revisit again and again.
Please note that this is the ending to the 2013 film, ‘Enemy,’ and will spoil it if you haven’t seen the film, even though it’s… well, I really can’t talk about this scene without giving anything away.
Why it’s Perfect
Has your heart slowed down? Good.
As an arachnophobe, seeing a room-sized spider made me jump back when I first saw this. Making it so photo-realistic didn’t help, and neither does the fact that this thing screeches. It’s a fear-based screech, yes, but it’s still a giant spider screeching and scrunching up like its about to pounce and staring at you with soulless eyes AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGG.
Okay… Well, giant-freaking spider aside, what I admire about this ending is that it’s a perfect jump scare. There’s no hints, none whatsoever, that Jake Gyllenhaal is about to encounter a room-sized tarantula that used to be his wife. There’s no creepy music, there’s no sudden silence, only a normal scene building up to what you think is going to be a tense conversation between Adam and his wife, and then BOOM BIG FREAKING SPIDER THAT’S ABOUT TO EAT YOU RUN RUN RUN SUPERMAN SAVE ME.
While jump scares don’t age well after you see them, the first time you watch them are some of the most intense and memorable moments of cinema. This spider certainly counts as one of the best.
Back in 1975, Steven Spielberg made a little movie called ‘Jaws’, creating not only the era of the summer blockbuster, but also the best shark movie of all time. Even after 45 years, no other shark film has managed to surpass it, and Hollywood, recognizing what a gem they had on their hands, wisely and respectfully allowed the franchise to end with just one movie.
Just kidding. This is Hollywood we’re talking about, so we got three sequels of increasingly lower quality, ending with one so reviled that Universal hasn’t tried to make a new ‘Jaws’ sequel in over thirty years. Perhaps no other film franchise in history has suffered so badly from the law of diminishing returns, going from one of the greatest horror/thrillers ever made to one of the most mocked. Yet, are ‘Jaws 2,’ ‘3D,’ and ‘The Revenge’ really that bad? Are they actually better than pop culture would have us remember?
No. No, they’re not. But the greatest learning comes from the greatest failures, and what better way to learn how to do unnecessary sequels than to study the mistakes and missteps of Jaws’ unloved children? Thus, throughout January, we’ll be taking a look at all four Jaws films to see what lessons they can offer writers on how to do sequels. But unlike my Sharknado series, or the Friday the 13th comparisons, I’ll be doing something differently this time around: Instead of focusing on what the films did wrong (too many characters, bad visual effects, roaring sharks who want revenge on the Brodys, etc.), I’ll instead be focusing on what each film does well, because, despite their reputation, the three Jaws sequels do have their merits. Today, we’ll kick things off with the one that started it all: 1975’s, ‘Jaws’
Do I really need to describe just how good ‘Jaws’ is? It succeeds at every aspect, from characters, story, suspension, and casting, to cinematography and visual effects. So, in order to avoid a Stephen King-length analysis of what the film does right, I’ll stick with the four things I think it does best. (If you’re looking for a much more in-depth look at how good the film’s story and characters are, I suggest reading this excellent article by Jabootu.net).
4. The Story Is Self Contained
It seems like every movie made these days is written as the start of a trilogy, with studios hoping to create franchise after franchise they can come back to time and time again for decades to come. But despite being followed by three sequels, ‘Jaws’ is refreshingly self-contained with no loose ends or hints of a sequel. By the end of the film, the shark has been blown up, the threat to Amity Island is ended, and Brody and Hooper are free to pick daisies, frolic through the meadows, and live happily ever after. It’s the logical end to the story, one that doesn’t need any follow-ups or sequels, and doesn’t leave us feeling like we’ve only seen a full-length ad for the next installment.
3. The Isolation
Isolation is a critical part of the horror genre: What’s more frightening then being far from civilization and cut off from help while facing something wants to kill you, or worse? It might not be obvious at first, but ‘Jaws’ thrives on this isolation, taking place entirely on an island and a boat at sea. Yet, there are still multiple examples of characters being isolated and alone when attacked:
The opening attack, where poor Chrissie is alone and helpless in the water, her friends too far away (or too drunk) to hear her screaming for help as she dies.
The two guys on the pier have no time to call for help when the shark goes after their bait, and then comes after them.
Ben Gardner and his mate were alone when he was attacked, and Brody and Hooper are equally isolated when they come across his boat in the dead of night.
Brody, Hooper, and Quint are isolated on a slowly-sinking boat and unable to call for help or get to shore without being eaten, and their only chance is to build a shark cage in a last-chance attempt to kill the beast.
The common thread in all these moments is that the characters are in the ocean with few to no tools or weapons they can use to fight back. The shark has all the advantages (speed, killing power, size, etc.), while the humans have only their wits and intelligence.
2. Everything In The Film Revolves Around The Shark
One thing that I admire about ‘Jaws’ is something that sounds so simple, yet is so hard for so many movies to get right: Everything in the film (with the exception of Brody’s introduction) revolves around the shark. Even when it’s not on-screen or killing anyone, everything the characters do revolve around the shark: A town hall meeting is held because of the shark’s attack on Chrissie; Brody and Hooper have dinner to discuss cutting open the caught tiger shark, despite Hooper believing that the real shark is still out there; Quint talking about the Indianapolis on his boat that he, Brody, and Hooper are on because the want to kill the shark, and so on.
Virtually every scene in the film happens because of the shark, or is influenced by its actions. It’s holding the entire island hostage, and the story and the characters react accordingly. So many other monster movies have scenes or subplots that don’t revolve around their respective beasts that they take away from the film, but ‘Jaws’ wisely avoids such a mistake.
1. The Unseen Is Scarier Than What’s Seen
If there’s one thing ‘Jaws’ does perfectly, it’s that it relies on not seeing the shark so much, forcing our imaginations fill in the blanks every time its presence is felt, making inanimate objects like a broken pier, a stick in the surf, or a splintered piece of wood on Ben Gardner’s boat, bone-chilling. Not seeing the monster makes it so much more horrifying, and this extends to the first time we get a glimpse of it without seeing its whole body. But even better, the film doesn’t go overboard once the shark fully appears when Brody and Co. are hunting it; there are still plenty of times it’s hidden, and uses those moments to imply its intelligence and cunning, before finally having it take center stage at the climax.
Like salt, ‘Jaws’ masterfully uses the shark sparingly, letting it appear just enough to satisfy out curiosity, but letting it stay hidden most of the time, marinating our fear and making its inevitable appearances all the more satisfying.
Tune in next week, where we’ll take a look at Jaws 2, one of the most unnecessary sequels of all time, but not necessarily a bad one.