‘Jaws’ – Looking Back at Steven Spielberg’s ‘Apocalypse Now’

By the time I finally got around to renting Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” on VHS, I already knew how it ended. Heck, everyone knew the ending of all the “Jaws” movies just as we did with “Rocky” and its endless sequels, and yet we still went in droves to the nearest theater playing them when they opened. But even while the great white shark’s final moment was never in doubt, it still provided to be one hell of an exciting movie. Much of this is thanks to Spielberg and actors Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw. Its landmark success has been noted for starting the trend of summer blockbusters as well as the collective phobia of what’s in the water. 45 years later, many of us still do not feel the least bit safe about going into the water.

Looking back at the making of “Jaws” reveals a very troubled production which almost didn’t make it to the silver screen. From what I have read, this movie was to Steven Spielberg what “Apocalypse Now” was to Francis Ford Coppola. Remember the picture of Coppola on the set of “Apocalypse Now” with a gun to his head? Steven had one of him resting in the shark’s mouth, and he looked like he was more than ready for the shark to eat him.

The story of a great white shark terrorizing a New England island originated as a novel of the same name written by Peter Benchley which itself was inspired by several real-life incidents of shark attacks including the ones on Jersey Shore back in 1916. After buying the rights to the novel, film producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown tried to get John Sturges who made “The Great Escape” to bring it to the screen. When this did not happen, they went to Dick Richards who ended up calling the shark the whale, so he didn’t last long. Zanuck and Brown finally brought on Spielberg to direct, and this was just before the release of his first theatrical film “The Sugarland Express.” In adapting the novel, Spielberg focused on its main concept and took out the various subplots such as the affair between Ellen Brody and Matt Hooper. In retrospect, this was an excellent call as it would have added more stories to a movie which did not need any extra baggage.

Hearing Dreyfuss describe his take on the whole production gives one idea of the mess Spielberg and Universal got themselves into:

“We started the film without a script, without a cast and without a shark.”

When he appeared on “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” Spielberg said he invited the actors to dinner and they ended up “spit balling” the entire movie or, in other words, they made it up. Pages of the script were apparently not available to anyone until the day they were actually shot. A lot of filmmakers still work like this today even though it makes far more sense to work with a finished screenplay.

Then there was the shark itself which Spielberg nicknamed “Bruce” after his lawyer, Bruce Raimer. Three mechanical sharks were built for the production: a whole shark to be used for underwater shots, one which moved from camera-left to right as to hide the other side which completely exposed its internal machinery, and an opposite model with the right side uncovered. But while these models were tested in a pool under controlled conditions before production began, making them work in the ocean was another story. Some of them accidently sank and a team of divers were forced to retrieve them. The main mechanical model endured various malfunctions throughout, and its operation was constantly hindered by the hydraulics being corroded by salt water. Spielberg even joked about Bruce’s maiden voyage and how he sank to the bottom of the sea:

“It was a terrible sight! The shark comes out of the water tail first, wagging like Flipper! The tail comes down into the water, and then it sinks. And then there’s another explosion of white water, and all these pneumatic blue cables come out like snakes everywhere flying around! And then that got quiet, and then there was one last belch of bubbles, and that was the last we saw of the shark for about three weeks.”

Dreyfuss described the frustration everyone had with these models, and those walkie talkies being used by the crew always had the same words coming out of them:

“(static) The shark is not working, (static) the shark is not working.”

Things got even worse from there as filming at sea resulted in many delays as it would with just about any other film. Uninvited sailboats kept drifting into shots, and the Orca ended up sinking while the actors were onboard. This apparently led Spielberg to yell out as it was sinking:

“Screw the actors! Save the sound equipment!”

The crew members had absolutely no reason to believe they were filming a classic, and they instead nicknamed the film “Flaws.” Brown commented how the budget was originally $4 million, and it ended up costing $9 million. While this may sound like chump change today, this was long before the days when movies came with budgets of at least $100 million. Filming was scheduled to last 55 days, but it ended up lasting 159. Spielberg was not yet the director we know him as today, so you have to understand what was going through his mind while he was enduring this trial by fire:

“I thought my career as a filmmaker was over. I heard rumors that I would never work again because no one had ever taken a film 100 days over schedule.”

Spielberg was not even on set for the final shot when the great white meets its maker, and it was mainly because he was under the suspicion the crew would throw him into the water. This has apparently become a tradition for Spielberg on the films that he directs; not being there for the shooting of the final scene. This is regardless of the fact not all his movies take place on the water.

As we all know now, the shark malfunctioning proved to be a blessing in disguise as it gave the “Jaws” a more suspenseful tone than it had already. By filming the dorsal fin as often as he could or using those yellow barrels to indicate the shark’s location, he was able to get away with not showing the whole thing through most of the movie. In fact, he had already told the producers he would agree to direct the movie on the condition he did not have to show the shark for the first hour. Spielberg went on to explain the logic behind this decision:

“I don’t know of anything more terrifying than off-camera violence, off-camera suspense. You have to give the audience credit; they bring with them to the movie theater probably collectively more imagination than any of us behind the scenes put together. And they come in there with their imaginations and implore us as filmmakers to use it.”

Looking back at the hell Spielberg went through to finish this, it is amazing any movie came out of it. You can only imagine what he was thinking before “Jaws” was even released. One of the funniest stories he ever told about it was when he went to a preview or test screening. As he stood in the back of the theater right near the exit, he was expecting the worst:

“Around the time that little boy was killed on the raft, a man got up and began to walk out of the theater. And I said ‘well, here’s our first walk out, the movie’s too violent. I shouldn’t have done this; I shouldn’t have made it that intense.’ The guy then starts running and I go ‘oh worst the walking out, he’s running out of the theater! He’s RACING out of the theater!’ He got right next to me, went to one knee and threw up all over the carpeting of the lobby. Went to the bathroom, came out five minutes later, walked back to his seat and I said ‘IT’S A HIT!’ “

“Jaws” ended up becoming the first movie in history to gross over $100 million at the box office, and it marked a watershed moment in how movies were distributed. Since its release, it has spawned several sequels, become a memorable part of the Universal Studios tour and has spawned lord knows how many VHS, laserdisc, and DVD reissues. And, of course, it was released on Blu-ray, and it has now been released on the format 4K Ultra HD. If there is to be another new format on the horizon, you can be sure “Jaws” will be released on it.

As for the sequels, “Jaws 2” had its moments, the only saving graces of “Jaws 3-D” was its 3D effects which look awful when viewed on your television, and for the beautiful appearances of Bess Armstrong and Lea Thompson. As for “Jaws: The Revenge,” it remains one of the worst movies ever made as it contains many unforgivably glaring errors. On the upside, “Jaws: The Revenge” did inspire one of the greatest movie reviews on “Siskel & Ebert” which still has me laughing whenever I watch it. Spielberg later said he felt bad about how the franchise turned out, but he couldn’t go back to it after the frustration he had with making the first. By the time “Jaws 2” came around, Spielberg and Dreyfuss were already busy making “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

After all these years, “Jaws” remains one of the all-time great movies as it effortlessly taps into those fears we all have of the unknown, or of what is underneath us in the water. You could watch it a dozen times and still be thrilled by it, and it made Spielberg into the director he is today. If you are about to watch it for the first time, and you will find that the shark is indeed still working.

Here are some other interesting tidbits about “Jaws”:

  • Spielberg originally offered the role of Brody to Robert Duvall, but he was more interested in playing Quint.
  • Charlton Heston expressed interest in playing Quint, but Spielberg felt he was too big a personality and would end up overshadowing what he saw as the film’s real star: the shark.
  • Spielberg was initially apprehensive about casting Scheider because he feared he would play a tough guy like he did in “The French Connection.”
  • The role of Quint was offered to Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden, but both turned it down.
  • The scene where Hooper discovers Ben Hooper’s body in the hull of his wrecked boat was actually added after an initial screening of the film. Spielberg said he was greedy for one more scream, and he ended up financing this moment with $3,000 of his own money since Universal Pictures denied him anymore financing at that point in the production.

‘Poltergeist III’ Shows Just How Unnecessary Certain Sequels Can Be

Poltergeist III poster

It’s only with an obscene amount of free time, combined with a morbid curiosity, which had me watching “Poltergeist III” on cable. My only real memories of it beforehand were a behind the scenes show detailing the special effects and Siskel & Ebert’s scathing review of it. By the time this sequel came out in 1988, the series had already worn out its welcome. I don’t remember anyone liking “Poltergeist II: The Other Side,” and it was said to have been one of 1986’s big losers at the box office. Nevertheless, the powers that be at MGM decided they could wring just a little more money out of this franchise with one more sequel.

Once again, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is at the center of the story which has her shipped off to Chicago to live with Aunt Pat (Nancy Allen) and her husband Bruce (Tom Skerritt) who manages the luxurious high rise building they reside in. However, it doesn’t take long before those evil spirits and Reverend Henry Kane find Carol Anne and start their nasty little tricks to get her to come to the other side.

Now I can’t help but wonder if Carol Anne’s parents just dumped her in Chicago so they could be rid of those evil spirits for good. What if this series continued on? Would Carol Anne have resided with a different family member in each successive sequel to where she would become the ultimate unwanted house guest? Just imagine what Aunt Pat’s conversations with the girl’s parents (played by Jo Beth Williams and Craig T. Nelson) were like. I mean, Pat at one point says all she heard was they were caught up in a land deal gone bad, but maybe it went more like this:

“Pat, we love our daughter, but this poltergeist problem is really just rubbing us the wrong way.”

“Oh come on, stop kidding around sis! Your daughter is being bothered by a poltergeist! You expect me to fall for that?”

“Oh yeah Pat? You think I’m joking?! C’mon! I dare you to let her stay with you! I double dare you!”

“Yeah right! So that the ghosts or spirits or whatever the hell they are can haunt me and my family?”

“What are you, chicken?”

“Pat, stop teasing me! You called me a chicken all the time when we were kids! I AM NO CHICKEN!!!”

“Alright, prove it!”

Now guess what happened after that…

Apparently, Carol Anne was told by her mommy and daddy she was to attend a school for “gifted children with emotional problems” in Chicago. Once there, she meets up with one of the dumbest psychiatrists in cinematic history, Dr. Seaton (Richard Fire). He’s the one who foolishly opens Pandora’s Box by getting Carol Anne to talk about her experiences from the first two movies. By doing so, a slimy hand bursts out of his desk and throws a coffee cup at him while an evil voice cackles away.

So, what’s Dr. Seaton’s explanation for this? He says Carol Anne is a manipulative child who has the power to create mass hysteria and perform mass hypnosis on people to make them think they see ghosts. What?! Are you serious?! People pay this guy money to say shit like that? Where’s this guy’s degree? Is he a legitimate psychiatrist, or is he like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “Catch Me If You Can,” faking his lifestyle while forging checks?

The character of Dr. Seaton basically exists for the audience to despise him whenever he opens his mouth. His disbelief in all the strange and bizarre things happening in the building is excruciating to sit through, and you just want these evil spirits to strangle him to death so he’ll shut up. Seriously, it says a lot about a movie when you start siding with evil spirits against the humans.

In fact, this is the big problem with “Poltergeist III;” you don’t care much for the majority of these characters. They exist merely as clichés instead of living breathing human beings, and seeing them suffer becomes more fun than fearing for their safety which all but kills the suspense. You have the teenage guy Scott (Kipley Wentz) who’s slobbering over his girlfriend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle of all people), and they look like they’ve come out of a thousand movies from this genre. Then there are Pat and Bruce’s hopelessly self-absorbed and shallow friends who are too interested in their own needs to notice signs of evil spirits invading the building. And where exactly are the cops in all of this?

Looking back at the Siskel & Ebert review, the one major complaint they had about this sequel, which I am in total agreement with, was all the characters kept incessantly crying out for one another:

“CAROL ANNE!!! CAROL ANNE!!!”

“SCOTT!!! SCOOOOOOOOOT!!!”

“BRUCE!!! BRUCE!!!”

“CAROL ANNE!!! CAROL ANNE!!! CAROL ANNNNNNNE!”

I swear, Carol Anne’s name is mentioned as many times as Al Pacino used the F-word in “Scarface.” It didn’t take long for me to figure out what Kane was saying to his fellow evil spirits as well as their quick reply:

“We must bring her to the other side!”

“Yes Reverend, but we also got to get this screaming bitch to shut the hell up!”

Remember the bottomless pit that opens up in the garage? Those slimy hands reaching out to grab the main characters look like those rubber gloves you buy at the supermarket but with extra makeup applied to them. The overall budget for “Poltergeist III” was just under $10 million, but it looks like it cost a lot less. While the other “Poltergeist” movies have state of the art special effects, the filmmakers here get short served and have to work with whatever’s available. Yes, some of those mirror scenes are cool as characters pass by without their reflections showing up on them, but that’s just an old trick.

Directing “Poltergeist III” is Gary Sherman who made “Dead & Buried” which has since become a cult classic. He also made the superb exploitation feature “Vice Squad” which featured one of the scariest and most vicious pimps ever played by Wings Hauser. A lot of Sherman’s skill isn’t evident here, and even he admits this is his least favorite film of the ones he made. Perhaps the studio played around with the sequel more than he liked, and with a franchise like this you know he’s never going to get complete control over the final product.

My hat is off, however, to Skerritt and Allen who came out of this movie relatively unscathed. They overcome the ridiculous material and manage to keep a straight face as the movie becomes increasingly laughable and confusing as it heads towards its unnecessarily reshot climax which leaves the fate of certain characters up in the air.

Aside from O’Rourke, the only other cast member to appear here from the previous “Poltergeist” movies is Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina. I find it funny how she received both Saturn and Razzie Nominations for her work here. I for one can’t figure out if she’s good or bad in this movie, but her mystical dialogue gets a bit ponderous with her overzealous delivery of it.

Of course, the lasting significance of “Poltergeist III” is the fact it was O’Rourke’s last movie before her tragic death at far too young an age. Her loss is inadvertently emphasized in the film’s final scene in which she is substituted with a body double. Since she passed away during post-production, you know it’s not her being held by Allen. For what it’s worth, she is very good here despite the cruddy material, and the film was dedicated to her memory.

Who knows what would have happened if O’Rourke lived to see another “Poltergeist” sequel. With Carol Anne quickly growing up, it would have been a kick to see her turn into an Ellen Ripley type of character who is prepared to go to war with these evil spirits. While others will be horribly terrified by them, she’ll see it as just another day at the office. I can just see her talking with girls her age:

“You think you have it rough? I got sucked into another dimension by evil spirits when I was five! Going through puberty was a piece of cake compared to that! Stop. complaining about the run in your nylons!!!”

I wonder what the tagline was for “Poltergeist III.” The tagline for the first one was:

“They’re here.”

With “Poltergeist II,” it was:

“They’re back.”

I guess the tagline for the third film was:

“I’m screwed!”

* ½ out of * * * *