Steven Spielbeg’s Jaws is a masterpiece of a certain very familiar horror-picture genre: Nature becomes unnatural and threatens humans. Hitchcock’s The Birds would have those feathery creatures suddenly attack humans en masse. King Kong defies all constraints on the size of apes and monstrously assaults humans, albeit considerably provoked to do so. Frank Darabont’s TV series about zombies, The Walking Dead, exemplifies the tradition with the dead walkers menacing us owing to post nuclear war effects, a gambit seen as well in Godzilla movies.
More examples abound.
Carl Sagan once observed that Homo sapiens in modern times often fears reptiles out of a lingering mental echo of dread and terror persisting from early mammalian times in the age of dinosaurs.
Hollywood and moviemakers in general love this story set-up. It has been most lucrative for them. And as Hitchcck apparently once said, Getting Scared is good for you and, once you grant the unreality of the premise of an Unnatural Horror, fun. Probably Nature doesn’t mind some scary experiences founded on a sort of grim surrealism: keeps you in survival shape, so to speak. A kind of psycho-cognitive exercising not the least harmful to the vital defensive terror in a real situation.
I would say that the supreme example of this genre is Jaws. Spielberg and Jaws novelist Peter Benchley collaborated on a magnificent epic of Getting Us Scared. For years later, many of us felt some unease about wading out into ocean surf. My daughter, Lorraine, who worked in production in Hollywood for a time, and I have long seen Robert Shaw’s account in Jaws of the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis in the mid 1940s to be one of the great pieces of acting in the Scary genres. Spielberg reinforces the unnatural dread–a Great White who implausibly recognizes his arch enemy, Captain Quint the shark killer (Shaw), and knowingly pursues him to the death. The shark knows.
Of course, this is nonsense. But here is how Spielberg enhances the terror, not to mention the foreshadowing of The End of Jaws, with one of the most brilliant pieces of acting in the movies. He mixes up the unnatural with the natural; he combines Fantasy with History.
What a performance by Shaw! Lorraine tells me that the word in Hollywood is that Dreyfus and Scheider are not acting in the scene. They were spellbound.
NOTE: Set the YouTube presentation below to the starting point; it linked to the review when it was about halfway finished.https://www.youtube.com/embed/u9S41Kplsbs?version=3&rel=1&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&fs=1&hl=en-US&autohide=2&start=150&wmode=transparent