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Saturday 15 May 2010

The Best Films Inspired by Jaws

Jaws 2Image via Wikipedia

The film “Jaws” has gone down in celluloid history for many different reasons. It decisively put Steven Spielberg on the map as one of Hollywood’s master directors and it initiated the summer blockbuster. A great idea is bound to inspire imitators and “Jaws” has produced a massive legacy of films that transcend genres and continue to draw in audiences from lowbrow low budget eco-horror flicks to stylistic thrillers. It is perhaps worth noting that “Jaws” was also inspired in many ways by different classics. Based on Peter Benchley’s compelling thriller of the same name, “Jaws” is quite loyal to the novel, the ending being its most significant departure. Benchley’s own novel was inspired by true life incidents relating to shark attacks, the rogue shark theory and t
he 1851 classic “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville. The almost operatic use of a simplistic soundtrack is comparable to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Spielberg seems to have also taken notes from the Hitchcock school of suspense with his impeccable use of timing.

Jaws 2

This was never going to equal its predecessor, but “Jaws 2” was a hugely influential in its own right. Its tagline “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water” has been referenced and parodied numerous times. It was also the first sequel to have the title of the first film and then just a single number. “Quatermass II” (the Hammer film adaptation of the TV series of the same name) does not qualify as it only contains part of the original film’s name, “The Quatermass Experiment” and “The Godfather Part II” had been the first sequel to use “Part II”.

Aside from its effective marketing “Jaws 2” introduced the preferred way to continue a simplistic horror picture. It did re-tread much of the ground of the original complete with the same amoral mayor desperate to keep Amity Island’s beaches open and incredulous to the existence of another giant rogue great white, but there are enough new elements to keep us interested. The first “Jaws” had only revealed the shark in the final third of the film. However, director Jeannot Szwarc wisely realized that audiences were never going to be moved by the same trick twice. So, we get any early reveal in the iconic attack on the water-skier that results in an explosion. After this incident the gruesome scarring incurred by the explosion gives the shark a more menacing appearance throughout the rest of the film. If you add into this the different dynamic added by the teen element and the return of Roy Sheider as Police Chief Martin Brody, “Jaws 2” is a far better picture than any of the subsequent sequels and the vast majority of the original movie’s imitators.


The idea of a giant fish with a vendetta against a family seems like a ludicrous idea and having it as the basis for the plot of “Jaws: The Revenge” effectively left the franchise...well dead in the water. However, this was precisely the idea put across in “Orca”, the story of a vengeful killer whale. This is a film that has justifiably gained respect over the years. However, its roots and the initial critical reception it received were typical of a Jaws-type clone. It was conceived on the success of “Jaws” with the desire to find a marine animal that was “tougher and more terrible than a great white”. The obvious choice was the killer whale (or orca), which is the great white shark’s only known marine predator. This characteristic is represented early in the film when the orca dispatches a great white shark – a dig possibly acknowledged and repaid a year later in “Jaws 2” when a beached killer whale turns up bearing fatal shark injuries. The general response it received was largely negative as “Jaws” had set such a high precedent anything remotely resembling it was not going to get a fair deal. Before and around the same time of the release of “Orca” there had already been several rushed-to-production pictures made to capitalize on the phenomenal success of “Jaws”, not only in the US, but also around the globe. These B pictures ushered in the subgenre of the eco-terror horror picture and it is easy to see why critics at the time were ready to shoot down yet another film about an out of control oversized or mutated natural predator, especially one that dwelt in the sea.

Take another look at “Orca” though and you will see a great example of a film that took an idea and then went off in an interestingly new direction. This time the killer is not just a primal source of nature, but an intelligent animal we are invited to empathize with. This ain’t no “Free Willy” though, as the orca seeks uncompromising and bloody revenge for the deaths of mate and unborn offspring. In many ways it is more homage to “Moby Dick” the story that inspired “Jaws” than “Jaws” itself. This includes the film’s dark climax. The film also used the intelligence of the species as an additional threat to its victims. This would be something most memorably used again in “Deep Blue Sea”.


Three years after the release of “Jaws” and the shoal of imitators it was high time that the whole new eco-genre was parodied. Who better to produce this than the king of modern B-movie, Roger Corman and the man who would go onto helm “Gremlins”, Joe Dante. “Piranha” does what all good parodies do and turns much of the original concept on its head. The threat this time does come in the form of an oversized version of a frightening predator, but rather a more ferocious and adaptable version of some mini-terrors.

“Piranha” balances an exciting story about mutated carnivorous fish that are released onto an unsuspecting water park with a degree of tongue-in-cheek and slapstick comedy. It’s a fine line not to turn such a spectacle, which is low budget, from clever parody to outright spoof, but if there ever was a person to walk this line it is Joe Dante. The funny moments are genuinely funny and yet there is plenty of tension and genuine horror. The film had a sequel that launched James Cameron’s career and has been copied and remade twice, the latest coming out in 2010. It is iconic in its own right with a great trilling sound effect that evokes the approaching rapid attack of the lightening fast piranha.


“Alligator” took its premise from an urban legend about unwanted alligator babies being thrown down the toilet and ending up in an American sewer system. It then adds in a mutation element with the said alligator of the title having grown to 36 feet. Told with tongue firmly placed in cheek, this B movie classic actually has believable performances from the cast. Its self-awareness meant that it used effective horror in juxtaposition with its intended humour. Much of this was probably down to “Alligator” having the same writer as “Piranha”.

It has all the hallmarks of a “Jaws” clone. For example, there is the corrupt corporation whose actions are partly responsible for monster’s actions. In this instance the secretly disposed carcasses containing an experimental growth hormone that become part of the alligator’s diet and the reason for its immense growth. Like “Jaws” the hero of the picture is a policeman, and one who isn’t readily believed until matters really get out of control. Taking cues from “Jaws” and “Jaws 2” we get the slasher movie style monster’s eye-view during most of the first act. However, there is a steady reveal building towards the final third of the film, where all hell breaks loose as the alligator explodes out of the sewers to take his rampage onto the streets of Chicago. The scenes that follow here vary from funny, such as the alligator’s invasion of a high society party, to genuinely horrific such as the scene where a child playing “walk the plank” over a swimming pool falls into the monster’s jaws. Since “Alligator” there have been numerous other pictures featuring mutated crocodilians such as “Lake Placid”, “Rogue”, “Crocodile”, “Black Water” and “Primeval”.

Deep Blue Sea

Over two decades after “Jaws” and it was time to see what the CGI age could do with the eco-terror formula. Unfortunately this question would be answered in spades through an undesirable shoal of straight-to-DVD low budget entries. Spearheaded by “Shark Attack”, varied by some interesting ideas like “Crimson Tide” and then finally dredging as low as 2009’s “Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus”, the CGI low budgets not only delivered bad effects, but seemed even more cynical than the initial slew of “Jaws” copies. Nevertheless, “Deep Blue Sea” swam to the top both in terms of effects and direction. Unlike other good “Jaws” copies, “Deep Blue Sea” did not opt for hiding the menace and trying to get the balance right for the reveal. Instead it hit us full on with its effects as early on as possible.

The film uses the “Jaws” formula, but this time puts the “corrupt” corporation representative right in the thick of the action. Her character, despite being an anti-heroine at worst, was so disliked by preview you audiences that the ending was re-shot with her getting eaten by one of the sharks. “Deep Blue Sea” has the story’s main protagonists stranded in the middle of the sea on a marine research facility and at the mercy of genetically engineered mako sharks. I was particularly happy with the choice of the mako, which is a fascinating predator often overshadowed by the great white.

The film’s greatest sins lie in its bad science plus its unnecessary and weakly delivered antivivisection message. There something of the “Frankenstein” fable mixed into the film’s DNA that doesn’t really work.

Aside from this the film big on its action sequences, shocks, effective use of gore and also builds some great tension. It also doesn’t take itself too seriously and has plenty of dark humour. Samuel L Jackson’s mercilessly swift demise after delivering a typical longwinded pep talk, comparable to the Vietnam talk scene given by Fred Williamson’s character in “From Dusk till Dawn”, is a classic moment combining a superb shock moment with a wicked turn at comedy.

Open Water

If “Deep Blue Sea” went for broke on the effects front, then “Open Water” went for the other extreme. Taking the inspiration of a true story about a couple who were mistakenly left behind during an open water scuba diving event, the film focuses completely on the drama between the two main characters as matters get progressively worse.

Real sharks were used in the filming of this picture and everything was geared towards authenticity. We are treated pure drama the likes of which is usually reserved for plays, as Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis convey the entire film’s drama. The only other props used for 90 per cent of the film are the sea, the changing weather conditions and the occasional glimpses of the sharks. It is all the more horrifying for this and a triumph for low budget, well-acted and well-directed suspense filmmaking over cheap exploitation horror. “Open Water” spawned a worthy sequel “Adrift”, which did not feature sharks and focused more on the horror of simply being stranded albeit this time with a group of people. I think this second film speaks volumes for the standard of horror that “Open Water” was trying to aspire to. Unfortunately the sequel didn’t do very well at all and the original remains a cult classic – far better than “The Blair Witch Project” and the majority of other contemporary micro-budget “unseen horror” concepts.

The Ghost and the Darkness

“Jaws” type horror does not just prowl the seas, rivers and, er sewers. Non-amphibious beasties started springing up under the newly formed eco-horror subgenre before “Jaws” was barely a year old. “Grizzly” was an early example of this. However, few came as close in terms of style and story as “The Ghost in the Darkness”. Let’s not kid ourselves here; this film has aspirations far higher than as a normal imitator of “Jaws”. It boasts an impressive pedigree with two major movie stars of the time, Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas, and is directed by an ambitious and very versatile director in the form of Stephen Hopkins (“The Life and Death of Peter Sellers”, “24”). However, it is perhaps one of the closest copies of the original “Jaws”.

“The Ghost and the Darkness” is a heavily fictionalized account of the 1898 Tsarvo man-eating lions. During that year numerous railway workers were regularly picked off and eaten by two male lions. Many historians, including those who have used forensic methods of investigation on the lions’ corpses believe that the accounts of the numbers of deaths given by Col. John Henry Patterson were grossly exaggerated in the first place, so I guess critics can go a little easy on William Goldman and Michael Douglas for the liberties they took with the story. The resulting film is much like “Jaws” in many ways. Patterson, played by Val Kilmer, is the film’s version of Police Chief Martin Brody with Michael Douglas playing the fictional eccentric American hunter Charles Remington as the film’s version of shark hunter, Quint. Remington’s fate is also a little reminiscent of Quint’s during the struggle between man and beast. As the film progresses we get a slow reveal of the attacking lions with the tips of their tails appearing like the dorsal fin in “Jaws”. Likewise the main action is kept for the final act, where “Jaws” had the shark wreaking havoc through the shark-hunting boat “Ghost” has the final lion pursuing his quarry through his house and finally up a tree.


“Alien” is considered by many film buffs to be one of the greatest horror films ever made. Using the outward appearance of a science fiction film, it is a film designed to illicit terror at its very core. A classic in its own right and easily on a par with any other horror picture ever made, there is still a lot of it that makes it “Jaws in Space”. In fact, it is easy to forget that some sources say that “Alien” was pitched to studios executives with that exact tagline. Whereas hack writers and opportunistic producers had seen the potential capitalizing on the whole eco-terror subgenre that “Jaws” had popularized and inspired, the more imaginative artists were inspired by the basic horror template.

Rather than having a predator assault a seaside resort and then battle it out on high seas with its intended vanquisher, “Alien” puts the horror on the ship so to speak. If “Jaws” produced a siege-like situation, there was simply no place to hide with “Alien”. It kept the “Jaws” formula of having an unseen menace that only really revealed itself in the final act. It also brought in extra obstacles from the “power that be”. Whereas “Jaws” had the town mayor using his influence to keep the beaches open at the expense of swimmers’ lives, “Alien” has an android programmed by its corporate owners to ship back the alien predator alive even at the expense of the crew. All good straight horror is sparing on the number of horrific scenes. With a stylistically extravagant director like Ridley Scott on board you would expect this to be a challenge, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Nostromo, the spaceship of “Alien”, proves to be a dark, understated and claustrophobic symbol of industrialization in the future that provides the perfect tool to build-up tension and create paranoia. In the tradition of “Jaws” the film has a select few money shots that ensured its place in cinema history. As with “Jaws”, where the decapitated head bobs into view at a perfectly timed moment to provide the film’s first major shock, “Alien” has its chest-bursting sequence, where the alien creature emerges in its juvenile form from the live body of its host (John Hurt). Spielberg said that his audiences never trusted him again after the head bob and that he lost a little of the edge during his second major shock moment, when the shark first appears. Similarly “Alien” doesn’t have a scene as memorable as its first shocker, but after this sequence audience anticipation remains wary and few are disappointed with the eventual dramatic reveal of adult alien.

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is in some ways comparable to Chief Brody. Both are loyally disciplined to the job role they have been given and then find themselves at odds with the establishment for being inflexible. However, Ripley is clearly less of a sympathetic character early on when she refuses to let crew members back on the ship after they have visited an alien planet due to quarantine restrictions, although subsequent events would prove that she was right to observe the protocol.

“Alien” influenced at least as many films as “Jaws”. Just about any horror film featuring aliens after Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece would have to endure comparisons.


“Predator” took the “Alien” concept and turned it on its head. Okay, so we had man in space at the mercy of an alien predator. How about we take an alien threat to Earth and have it stalk its prey there. The monster in “Alien” a la “Jaws” was a naturally occurring super-predator that was more than a match for man’s advanced technology. The predator in “Predator” has the jump on man in everyway, especially on the technology front, and is only lacking in numbers. In a reverse of “Jaws” the alien menace goes specifically out into human territory to track and kill them.

Putting an extra spin on the unseen menace template, the alien in “Predator” has a type of hi-tech camouflage device that makes it virtually invisible. We also get a new take on the predator’s eye-view that was used throughout “Jaws”. The alien predator in this film has enhanced vision among its collection of hunting devices and we get see it zero in on its targets. To be fair the heat sensor vision idea is a little reminiscent of the werewolf film “Wolfen” and films like “The Terminator” and “Robocop” showed us through the eyes of a computerized view device. However, “Predator” couples this with the “Jaws” type horror of slowly tracking down individuals who little realize just what they are up against. In the end, the lone survivor is left to using primitive methodology and his own animal cunning to upend his opponent, using the very primal instincts the victims in “Jaws” faced.

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