Jaws 2 (Jeannot Szwarc, 1978)
It’s only been a few years since bleary-eyed yet good-hearted Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider, back again) and his white-picket fence Amity Island community had to fend off that first big man-eating fish (with the help of that little pipsqueak of a privileged oceanographer and his natural antithesis, the mythic old salt-crusted legendary fisherman, that are now firmly cemented into modern cinematic history, both of whom aren’t returning in this go ‘round – with only one of them for good reason, namely having ended up in the belly of the Great White itself) and they just can’t catch a break, with yet another, as luck would have it, massively large Carcharodon Carcharias setting up its human feeding grounds right off-shore…
It’s hard not to recognize, as the events of this sequel unfold, how entirely absurd a premise it is that a second whopper of a shark would somehow start attacking Amity Island again, either by pure coincidence or, I don’t know, perhaps maybe as a vengeful ghost of the first one (though I will hand it to Hank Searls’ Jaws 2 novelization, which is a far more enjoyable read than the original novel with all of Peter Benchley’s relatively plodding prose, that, along with adding some land-bound Mafia subplots that actually manage to work, the journeyman author tries to at least make some amends for this way-too-hard-to-believe coincidence in having this current monstrous incarnation being an offspring of the original man-eater – which led to one of the most fascinating and alternately grotesque literal interpretations of procreation this inexperienced adolescent boy had ever tried to envision – namely, ‘he inserted his salami-shaped claspers in her twin vents’ – leading the shark to be drawn to the waters where it was born).
But that was far from the only red flag attached to the film.
A popcorn genre film propelled to pure cinematic greatness (the Hollywood blockbuster may have disintegrated over the years into its current state, as ultimate corporate/military propaganda designed to infantilize an entire culture, but, man, did Spielberg get the whole thing rolling with a joyously inspired bang)… by a director who wasn’t interested in returning for the sequel (I mean, this certainly wasn’t gonna be Francis Ford Coppola continuing the Godfather saga). A director (John Let’s Scare Jessica to Death Hancock) being unceremoniously fired during production. An absolutely miserable star in the form of the eternally well-tanned Scheider who was so unhappy at returning to the role that he not only got into a knock-down drag out fight with the director Szwarc but acted contemptuously to every cast and crew member around him (for an actor who manages to elicit such empathy in his performances it’s quite amazing to learn how cantankerous and nasty the now late thesp could be – though I got a taste myself when I got him on the phone once when I was in my early 20’s excitedly asking what it was like to work with as brilliant a filmmaker as William Friedkin on The French Connection and Sorcerer, only to get the angry response ‘I have no interest in ever talking about that prick!’ and having him hang up on me).
While having the first victims being a couple of scuba diving underwater photographers getting it while checking out the wreckage of the sunken ‘Orca’ ship from the first film is a nice tie-in to the original, the attacks themselves are played out as throwaway kills to get the narrative started (as well as provide some clues, with that handy camera flashing photos as it drops to the ocean floor) and don’t provide a particularly inspired start (especially when comparing with the opening attack in the first film, a scene that spoke to the greatest of an exploitation mind, managing to merge naughty little boy desire with an intense attack).
Well, talk about defying the odds. With all that — iffy start, troubled production, absurd premise – Jaws 2 settles quite quickly into a far more effective and enjoyable ride than it has any right to be; a near-classic one, in fact (though all you have to do is think about the original Jaws and be reminded how it doesn’t quite measure up to that rarified air status). There may be no iconic supporting characters on the level of Richard Dreyfus’ Hooper or Robert Shaw’s Quint for Scheider’s inexperienced – and aquaphobic — Brody to play off of and immortalize the proceedings, but a lot of the familiar faces (with most of them in their by far career defining roles) dotting the small island town landscape show back up again, including Ellen Brody (Loraine Gray, who also apparently despised Scheider for his antics on the film), the likeable but more than a tad dunder-headed Deputy Hendricks (Jeffrey Kramer), the town’s morally-shady Mayor Vaughan (the supreme character actor Murray Hamilton, whose brilliant career went far beyond this role, as great as it is) whose never beyond letting money and political influence guide his decision-making and the perfectly cast recurring town council folk who are eternally annoyed with Brody always yelling ‘Shark!’ just in time to muck up the lucrative Holiday beach tourist season (though to be fair in this case, who wouldn’t have thought that the Sheriff had lost his mind, seeing another marauding shark out there), and, with their help (as well as the engaging cast of teen newcomers), Szwarc does a fantastic job bringing the entire sea-side community back to life.
Gotta hand it to the guy, from his righteous speech about seeing a shark up close, to his drunken self-misery after getting fired, to his heroic yet bumbling efforts out at sea to save the teens, as miserable as Scheider might have been making the film, it never shows through in the all-in performance he delivers.
From maximizing the sea-side surroundings in wide shots, to other simple shots such as the large fin arising unseen in the harbor announcing its arrival to the audience, Jaws 2 is stunningly and quite beautifully shot, as well as the first film, in fact (and that’s saying something) which is another thing that helps elevate the film way above the level of a cash-in. The producers might have decided to settle on re-telling the first story again, but at least they wanted to make sure it was done in style.
While never veering far from the structure of the original (the first half setting up the attacks, with Brody fighting off the stubbornly resistant town council that a predatory fish has set up camp off their island, and the second half being an exciting voyage out to sea where it’s men against shark, though in this case, it’s much less “Moby Dick’ style adventure and more deliberately harrowing and horror film-style, with the unaware teens on their sailboats out for a good time having no idea what they’re getting into), Szwarc manages to create some really great, (again, I have to say ‘near-‘) classic images and scenes.
The chomped up killer whale washed up on the beach (mirroring the young teen eaten by crabs that began the cycle for Brody and the town in the first film) that horny teen lovers Tina (Ann Dusenberry) and Eddie (Gary Dubin) stumble across along the beach (a role this couple plays throughout the film, before meeting their own fate, that is), the attack on the girl skiing, as well as on the ski-boat itself (which unfortunately led to the ill-advised massive burn on the side of the too-often scene shark’s face that ends up making it not look more menacing as the filmmakers intended, but that much more mechanical and unreal) with the onlookers from shore watching in horror as the boat explodes (including, of course, Tina and Eddie nekking in the dunes), the entire last forty minute or so intense siege on the kids and some really powerfully executed attack scenes almost make us forgot some of the more absurd moments (such as the overdone attack on the helicopter which I can only imagine was an example of upping the ante just once step too far).
The final fate of the aforementioned Eddie as Tina watches in helpless horror (including her later shrieks of ‘sssshhh…. Shark!! SHARK!!’), Brody’s son Sean (Marc Gilpin), who is of course in danger in the second half, along with brother Mike (Mark Gruner) getting saved from the water just in time to turn around and watch his saviour Marge (Martha Swatek) get swallowed whole (in a moment of perverse emotional trauma on a child that would have gotten Lucio Fulci hard) and the perfectly captured nail-biting moment of the knocked out Mike being pulled from the water… just … before… the… shark… all reveal Szwarc as (okay, maybe not on the level of a Spielberg, but) certainly more than just a journeyman director taking the helms of a producer-driven franchise, but someone clearly taking the material seriously and knowing how to maximize its impact (hell, he even manages to make the whole silly conclusion with the shark getting barbecued from a high voltage cable work through a lot of visual and aural filmmaking panache and exciting editing).
When you tally up this monster-shark sequel that managed to be effective even as it fought of the majesty of the first film (it only goes downhill from here) with his dark, sweaty mutant cockroach feature film oddity Bug (1975), the time-travelling romance Somewhere in Time (1980) and his engagingly oddball Supergirl (1984), then sprinkle in some of his television work (nineteen episodes of Rod Serling’s 1970’s Night Gallery and two of the not-all-that-bad 1980’s The Twilight Zone), I’d say it’s time to heap some praise on Jeannot Szwarc as a top genre craftsman… and even a bit of a Master of Horror.
Hell, Mick Garris, I think it’s time to start inviting him to some of those annual dinners!