This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
Compared with the heady days of the early 1970s, horror finally seems to be slowing down a little bit by the time we reach 1975. The insane output from Europe is beginning to ebb a bit—Hammer has just about run out of steam in the U.K., and giallo is beginning to lose a bit of its luster in Italy, although the genre will ebb and flow there in popularity well through the 1980s. There’s a few classics at the top of this list, but when looking at the whole field of honorable mentions, the lack of depth becomes much more apparent.
Jaws, obviously, is a major moment in populist film history—the coronation of Spielberg, and the birth of the idea of summer blockbuster season. Is it a horror film? Well, to the entire generation of bathers literally terrified to walk into the ocean past their ankles, it’s safe to say it was. It was so successful, in fact, at demonizing the great white shark that author Peter Benchley eventually came to rue his influence in world-wide shark-phobia, becoming a prominent marine conservation activist in the process.
The only film that can hold a candle to Jaws as an artistic accomplishment—certainly not at the box office, that’s for certain—would be Dario Argento’s Deep Red, a seminal giallo that catches the director at a perfect midpoint between his earlier proto-slashers and the supernatural horror he would soon unleash in the likes of Suspiria. This is a delightfully over-the-top murder mystery with numerous slasher elements and classic giallo style dressing, ‘ala the killer’s black leather gloves. It stands out largely for its kills, each of which are inventive and plain weird, focusing in on strangely intimate and painful details (like a man repeatedly having his mouth and teeth smashed against various household objects), which serves to make them that much more uncomfortable to watch. As he would on Suspiria, Argento collaborates with the art rock band Goblin for the film’s distinctive, electronically tinged soundtrack. Fun fact: The director discovered Goblin after failing to book none other than Pink Floyd for the job. Now that would have been something to hear.
Other prominent entries at our 1970s midpoint include the still-disgusting sexual sadism and torture seen in Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, along with the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers riff seen in The Stepford Wives, the actual Body Snatchers remake still being a couple of years away. We also have David Cronenberg making his genre debut with Shivers, and the well-remembered TV horror anthology Trilogy of Terror. The latter is mostly referenced for its final story starring Karen Black, in which a woman is terrorized by a living, African “Zuni fetish doll” with razor sharp teeth, the image of which splits the difference between “adorable” and “hideous.” To those who think Child’s Play was the first killer doll story, check this one out.
1975 Honorable Mentions:
Deep Red, Shivers, Trilogy of Terror, The Stepford Wives, Salò, Race With the Devil
The Film: Jaws
When you get right down to it, sharks hardly needed Steven Spielberg’s help to frighten the masses. Unlike vampires, or werewolves, or the bulbous-headed aliens of 1950s stock science fiction, a hungry shark represents a rational fear, should you somehow manage to encounter one on the open ocean. Moreover, sharks are frightening for the fact that, should you actually encounter one on its home turf, a human being is automatically at an absurd disadvantage in a face-to-jaws encounter. Their perfect symmetry—what Richard Dreyfuss refers to in this film as a “perfect eating machine”—highlights man’s own ill adaptation toward truly fighting his own battles. In this way, Jaws calls attention to our own species’ lack of guts—in the metaphorical sense, of course. We have plenty of guts, when it comes to being what Dreyfuss also described as “a hot lunch” in the same scene.
Of course, the presence of Steven Spielberg doesn’t hurt, either, when it comes to populating this tale with instantly memorable characters. And truly, Jaws is fully dependent on its wonderfully fleshed out characters. At the center there’s Brody—respected, empathetic, but occasionally indecisive, torn between the extremes of Hooper’s informed (but hyperbolic) prophesying and Mayor Vaughn’s arrogant, pigheaded (but financially sound) commitment toward keeping the beaches open. One side asks Brody to doom Amity Island’s economy. The other demands he place the townspeople in danger. And watching from the wings the whole time is Robert Shaw’s Quint, his face a perfect picture of disdain for everyone else on the island, waiting for Brody to finally give him leave to do what he knows needs to be done. The interplay between Brody, Hooper and Quint is particularly beautiful, as each approaches the island’s shark problem from a very different position of knowledge and empathy. It reaches its zenith in the much-quoted scene in the Orca’s cabin, where the three drunk men relate love stories and shark stories, culminating in Quint’s chilling recollection of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Few “horror” films are known for their powerful monologues—this is one of the exceptions.
The strength of Jaws’ characters was doubly important for the practical fact that the film’s animatronic shark bodies were so famously temperamental and perpetually on the fritz. As a result, the thought of the shark is always on the periphery of the audience’s attention, but until the final hunt we see its power only through the devastation it wreaks, whether it’s the ragdolled body of the swimmer in the opening scene or the massive bite marks in the sunken boat Hooper investigates. It manages to lull the audience into an expectation of never really seeing the shark in the flesh, which is gloriously shattered by its sudden appearance to Brody, making the shot one of cinema’s all-time jump scares. It’s the switch-throwing moment in Jaws—once the shark decides to make its presence known, displaying a disturbing degree of premeditated intelligence, we leave the brooding mystery of the film’s first half behind to focus entirely on a personal battle of man vs. nature.
And my, how effective is that shark, once we finally get to see it? It looms large in any kind of pantheon of cinematic “villains,” even if its behavior is simply meant to be predatory instinct—inaccurate to real life as that may be. Spielberg imbues the shark with a streak of malevolence that seems far more human than animal—there’s no good reason for it to be so hell-bent on destroying our protagonists, and yet it is anyway. It stands in for every aspect of life that would wish to see us dead. Has there ever been a more perfect metaphor for the inexorable slide toward our own personal demise, than Quint tumbling along the deck of the boat toward the gnashing mouth of the shark, kicking his feet in futility as the jaws clamp down on his legs and torso? It’s the moment when we lose all hope for the survival of Brody or Hooper—what can a mere human do against such a monstrous force of violence? The shark is like a god of the sea, punishing us for daring to even set foot in its domain.
As a template for the future of summer blockbusters, Jaws introduced less than ideal concepts to the industry as well—namely, a series of sequels that descend rapidly in quality, while being tied to whatever gimmicks are relevant at the time. Few film franchises ever illustrated sequel decay more effectively than Jaws, which starts sliding in Jaws 2 and only gets worse—much worse—from there. As for the original? It will never be challenged as the best “shark movie” of all time, but also stands as one of the greatest American films of the 1970s.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.