Worst to First: Jaws

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-07-23 07:22
Horror franchises tend to have a familiar arc: there’s a seminal, ground-breaking original film, and, if we’re lucky, at least a couple of sequels that act as worthy follow-ups before the series eventually lapses into (usually unwitting) self-parody. It’s a tale as old as literally the first horror franchises at Universal, as audiences watched its iconic stable of Monsters continually resurrect, often to diminishing returns until finally crossing over with Abbott & Costello. It almost seems appropriate that one of our first modern horror series also found its home at Universal, which quickly set out to exploit its landscape-altering hit no matter how little sense it made to do so. As each follow-up became more ludicrous than the last, it’s little surprise that Jaws was swiftly run into the ground: where some franchises spawned in this era are still around in some form or another, it’s been dormant for nearly 30 years now.

Let that sink in for a moment: a billion-dollar franchise with an immediately recognizable brand name has gone unexploited for three decades now. That’s how toxic the Jaws sequels were, and we have indeed been left with a weird little collection of films—you can’t help but marvel at how quickly this series went from an all-time classic to an all-time “what the fuck were they thinking?” sequel. Now that the three sequels have finally arrived on Blu-ray, this fall from grace has been captured as vividly as ever on home video. It’s almost impossible to resist the siren song of an all-day Jaws marathon, something even I (the guy who has seen even Jaws: The Revenge an unhealthy number of times) had never attempted until now. Truthfully, I regret nothing: this is a lackluster series as a whole, but it’s not like I decided to watch The Howling franchise again. Besides, it’s interesting to chart its paths and consider the wider implications of this franchise, which ultimately succumbed to the same fate that swallowed so many others—well, except for the fact that it had the good sense to quit.

Honorable mention: Jaws 3, People 0

    Obviously, you can’t properly rank the unmade original pitch for Jaws 3, but it’s a too tantalizing “what if?” scenario to not acknowledge. A National Lampoon endorsed, Joe Dante helmed inside-baseball, meta-sequel satire that would have chronicled the fictional production of Jaws 3 had all the makings of a hoot, especially if Steven Spielberg himself would have appeared as the ill-fated director besieged by a troubled production. Perhaps understandably, producers and studio execs got cold feet about making a mockery out of their cash cow—“how could anyone take Jaws seriously after this?” they likely unwittingly asked, blissfully unaware of what was to come.

    Their fears proved to be prophetic in a different sense, of course, but for a brief moment, Jaws was poised to be innovative as hell. Could you imagine how bold it would have been for a series of this stature to take this direction? Who knows—imagine a parallel universe where both this happened and Halloween III proved to be successful. Would our perception of what a sequel can do be completely altered? Possibly. One thing is almost certain: this alternative couldn’t have been much worse than...

4. Jaws 3 (1983)

    The actual Jaws 3 is a franchise nadir. Conventional wisdom holds that this series went into a linear, downward spiral, with each entry somehow managing to be worse than the last. In reality (or at least my reality), it’s more like it kind of slowly rolled downhill, dropped off a cliff, then inexplicably levitated out of sheer force of batshit will. Jaws 3 is the part where it fell off the cliff, for the record. Easily the odd one out of a franchise that, quite frankly, probably should have never even been a conventional franchise, the third entry jets down to Sea World, where grown-up Mike Brody is now an engineer at Sea World (despite having been a bratty 17-year-old five years earlier in Jaws 2).

    So instead of a daring, biting satire, we have this, a sort of generic shark movie branded with the Jaws label, John Williams’s familiar theme music, and that tenuous Brody connection. It is perhaps proof that Universal would do anything possible to keep this franchise alive, so long as it wasn’t too far out there, I guess. While it’s true that Jaws 3 isn’t as obviously, outrageously awful as the film that followed, it’s more insidiously terrible in that it’s got that tacky early 80s stink, right down to its lame 3D gags. And when you’re not dreading every moment you spend with super earnest Bess Armstrong, you begin to realize what a bore this one is.

    That’s more unforgivable than being outlandishly terrible in my book, though I will give this one credit for upping the ante when it comes to disposing of the shark, something to which each sequel seemed committed. I can only imagine old man Brody’s prideful reaction upon hearing his son managed to detonate a grenade that was dangling from a corpse resting inside of a shark’s mouth. Christ, can you imagine the fish stories at the Brody dinner table?

3. Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

    Speaking of outrageous endings, Jaws: The Revenge was so committed to this that it features two totally unhinged climaxes. By now, the story’s familiar but worth repeating: when it was determined that Ellen Brody ramming a shark just wouldn’t cut it, Universal commissioned another ending for international audiences where the shark explodes for no fucking reason at all (and this is not to mention that Mario Van Peebles miraculously survives nearly being bitten in half).

    Determining which is “better” is a fool’s errand, for it requires one to commit way too much time to Jaws: The Revenge, widely hailed as one of the worst major sequels ever produced. I am not here to disavow you of that notion—it’s certainly as terrible as everyone hails it to be, and it’s almost amazing that Jaws degenerated to this in the space of twelve short years. I have a shitty old car that’s held up for longer than that. I, will, however advocate for The Revenge’s particular brand of insane badness, especially since it was somehow the product of a proud major studio.

    Soak this in: this is a movie headlined by Lorraine Gary, whose character has formed a telepathic link with a killer shark that is stalking her family. Could you imagine any modern major studio sequel going this nuts? It’s like someone at Universal realized they played it too safe with Jaws 3D and just decided to light a stack of money and watch it burn. Over the years, I have almost come to admire it for this, at least; no one can accuse it of being forgettable, that’s for sure.

2. Jaws 2 (1978)

    Let’s get one thing out of the way: Jaws 2 is a miracle. I don’t think this is acknowledged often enough: here was a film that probably should have never existed and had an infinitesimal chance of living up to its original to boot. Following up Jaws without Spielberg would be like trying to follow Mozart’s act with only a kazoo at your disposal. And yet, this sequel is the only one of the series that can be considered respectable; more than that, it’s better than it has any right to be.

    Proceeding from an unlikely premise that finds another shark descending upon Amity, it nonetheless entertains—sure, it’s pure schlock, but it’s a solidly helmed, oddly prophetic high seas slasher that foreshadowed where America’s theaters would soon be headed. Where the original film a film about grown-ups and ostensibly made for them, the sequel is a teenage blood feast, complete with high school drama and a bunch of kids being stalked one-by-one by a ruthless, silent killer. It’s a premise that would be thoroughly exhausted for the next decade—hell, slashers outlasted the Jaws franchise itself even though it certainly had a small hand in helping to propagate it.

    Jaws 2 can also be credited as one of the first modern horror sequels that had the audacity to follow a classic and manage to be good enough to justify the attempt. It’s one of those solidly entertaining follow-ups that doesn’t recapture the same sort of greatness as its predecessor, thus helping to establish a template for the likes of Halloween II, Psycho II, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, etc. It proved this could be a viable model going forward—one wonders what might have happened had Jaws 2 been a flop in the summer of 1978 instead of grossing nearly $78 million (in contrast, The Omen II opened a week earlier and went on to muster a third of that).

1. Jaws (1975)

    No one was thinking about sequels in 1975, when nervous execs at Universal prepped Jaws for release after what can be generously referred to as a disastrous production helmed by a relatively unknown Steven Spielberg. Its own story has become part of its legend: not only did it overcome its hurdles, but it also fundamentally altered everything from the art of blockbuster filmmaking to film marketing. But odds are you knew that already, just like you knew it’d inevitably land at the number one spot on this list. Jaws is a franchise where no debate exists about the best entry, though I would certainly love to hear an argument to the contrary.

    More than that, Jaws is a film that transcends its historical context and anecdotes: one needs only to watch it to be completely enraptured by its performances, characters, and its effortless directorial craft. This is one of the great American films, wherein clumsy, nigh-emasculated everyman battles government corruption before slaying a giant fucking beast. It’s no wonder the film resonated so much with post-Watergate audiences who were likely craving such a primal showdown between unquestionable good vs. natural evil. Even removed from this context, Jaws still thrills, just as I suspect it always will. Given its notoriously troublesome and, yes, fake-looking shark, it’s almost ironic that Jaws breathes with the sort of authentic life that most films can’t muster. As ridiculous and pulpy as it can be in theory, it’s grounded in a humanity that sings, a notion that quickly slipped right through the sequels’ fingers. Meanwhile, Spielberg went on to mount a career that thrived upon it.
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