Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talking your ear off about why I love it so much.
No sequel, or installment in a franchise, or whatever, is further from the original film acclaim-wise and quality-wise than 1987’s Jaws: The Revenge. Whereas the original is seen not just as one of the greatest horror films of all time but one of the greatest films in any genre (not to mention the origin of the summer blockbuster phenomenon), the fourth and final entry in the franchise is largely regarded as one of the worst films of all time. Steven Spielberg took a story about a killer shark menacing a seaside town and turned it into something transcendental; a story of the Everyman rising up in the face of monstrous adversity. Jaws: The Revenge is a baffling horrible film even by the standards of the prior two sequels, which are…watchable, I suppose. You can go here for a list of things wrong with it; in fact, if you’re looking for an article that’s just trashing the movie, go there. Also, I should confess this article was inspired by the homey Al White and his crew of weirdos over at Geeks who just did an awesome series on the Jaws franchise. It was their episode on Jaws: The Revenge that got me thinking about this movie.
I love Jaws. It’s easily in my top ten favorite films of all time, I will watch it any time it’s on, I watch it anyway every July 4th, and I think it’s objectively a masterpiece. Robert Shaw’s monologue about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis gives me chills every time I watch it. Lee Fierro’s quiet and restrained confrontation with Roy Scheider after her son’s funeral is emotionally crushing. I could go on and on, but I won’t because this is about how I feel, personally and emotionally, about the rightfully maligned but tragically misguided third sequel to my beloved fish movie.
What makes the fourth film in the franchise even more disappointing to me is how close it comes to being legitimately great. I mean that unironically. There are moments in this film when there are hints of a great horror film and a really compelling human story. Ultimately, it’s all drowned out in bullshit, and ends up being a mess of a film, but I want to talk about some of the things about this film that have always affected me in a way this film shouldn’t be able to do, not just in how close it comes to being good, but also the events around the film that make it all the more grim to me. And for the record I’ll be referring to the initial theatrical release of the film, not the bizarre recut version that we’ve all seen.
First off, the kills in this are pound for pound the best in the franchise. The opening scene of Jaws is iconic and terrifying, but it lacks the pop of the most memorable death in this film: Quint’s. Robert Shaw’s death in the first film is gruesome, extremely graphic, and very painful looking. It’s entirely believable that we’re witnessing a man being devoured alive by a shark. All the deaths in this film are on par with that when it comes to theatrics, gore, and most importantly the way the victims are reacting. I don’t enjoy watching people suffer, and honestly the sight and sound of someone in terror and agony makes sick to my stomach, but when it comes to a horror film about a giant man-eating shark, you have to bring your A-game. I think this film brings it.
The opening scene of Jaws: The Revenge features the death of Sean Brody, the youngest son of Chief Martin Brody. What makes it so visceral is how Mitchell Anderson sells it. Sure, it’s extremely obvious his arm is just tucked under the jacket beneath a torn sleeve and some fake blood. And yeah, literally nothing else about this scene in any way makes any sense. Visually, it’s largely incomprehensible: a mess of quick cuts and baffling editing that is almost indecipherable. But…Anderson’s performance is gut-wrenching. The look of utter horror that dawns on his face when he realizes he’s lost an arm and the increasing panic in his cries is unsettlingly genuine, as his continued screaming for help as he’s pulled beneath the water. It’s an emotionally jarring scene, even if its execution is shaky at best. And the fact that Sean Brody was the second choice when it came to characters to kill off to the first choice of Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider apparently joked he would be in the film if he was killed off in the opening scene and yet still refused to be in it when informed that’s exactly what the filmmakers had in mind) actually works in favor of the movie when it comes to casting a grim light on the film as a whole. In addition to Anderson’s performance, let’s not forget who Sean Brody is. We’re witnessing the horrifying death of this character. As bad as the film is, this opening scene has effectively made one of the sweetest and most endearing scenes in cinematic history bittersweet and tragic in retrospect.
The other deaths in the film are just as effective. Much, much later on in the film, Thea Brody, the daughter of Mike Brody and granddaughter of Ellen and Martin Brody, is out on a banana boat with some friends when the shark attacks it. It misses her, but grabs the woman who was behind her on the boat. And not in just a quick snatch and grab and boop she’s gone way; it’s in hokey melodramatic slow motion where the shark rears up and grabs her and you see her reaction as its teeth sink into her leg and she’s dragged off the boat; the water crimson with her blood. As the deflated banana boat speeds away with its burden of now-traumatized children, the camera cuts back to a shot of the women feebly hitting the shark in the face, and the last shot we see of her is her lifeless body floating in a blood-slicked patch of ocean as the shark drags her underwater. It’s fucking gruesome, prolonged, and, again, looks as if we are seeing someone genuinely fighting for their life against a monster shark and failing. On top of this, we get to see Carla Brody, Thea’s mother and Mike’s wife, screaming from the shallows as her the boat her daughter is on is savaged by a shark. Her reaction is striking. Unlike Lance Guest’s performance when Mario Van Peebles is killed, Karen Young gives a very convincing performance as a woman seeing her daughter in mortal danger, screaming hoarsely and wordlessly like someone on the brink of madness. Which is exactly how someone in this situation would act. It’s a truly shocking scene; far more graphic than the scene in the first film in which a fisherman is devoured in front of Mike Brody.
The death of Jake, Mario Van Peebles’ character, is one that would be undone with the edited version that most people are probably familiar with, in which Van Peebles emerges from the water after they kill the shark making jokes about being hard to eat or whatever. Which, given how violent his death scene in the original theatrical cut is, would be like Quint popping up after Hooper asks Brody about him in the first film and making a joke about swimming with bowlegged women. But in that original version, we witness a character that despite the goofy fake accent was pretty well-liked meet his bloody demise. Jake is bitten while on the mast of the ship, there’s blood everywhere, we see him struggling at the surface as he’s dragged under, and the last thing we see of him is again him struggling underwater as the shark dives down. Mind you, this is witnessed by Mike Brody, who has at this point in his life seen numerous people eaten alive by sharks and has lost a brother to this same shark. Yes, Lance Guest’s prolonged scream is more than a touch melodramatic, almost to the point of unintentional comical, but if you go out on a limb and do the work and put yourself in that character’s shoes, it’s an extremely traumatic scene. Which leads me to my next point: the nature of trauma.
This garbled mess of a movie starts out as an examination of PTSD and trauma. Yes, it’s somewhat silly how it’s handled, but it’s quite clear that Ellen Brody is suffering from PTSD not just as a result of her son dying but also from years of living in the shadow of inexplicable shark attacks. Even if her husband’s offscreen heart attack wasn’t caused by fear of the shark, and even if the shark isn’t stalking her family (which it almost certainly is), she believes it to be so, and this belief is strong enough to manifest in nightmares and constant anxiety. It gets a little wonky when the idea of her having a psychic link to the shark is implied, and that the shark is actively seeking revenge on her family (hence the title), but I think the intent that the film has early on of exploring PTSD is an interesting choice, even if it is quickly abandoned. One could make the argument the shark represents reoccurring trauma, of the inescapable nature of PTSD and how it affects the rest of a family
The final aspect of this film that has always darkened it for me has nothing to do with any of choices the filmmakers made. Rather, it has to do with the murder of the actor who played Thea Brody. Judy Barsi had started out doing bit roles and commercials and would go on after her role in this film to star in classics such as The Land Before Time, in which she played Ducky, a young duckbilled dinosaur who’s catchphrase “yup yup yup!” is the most memorable of the film. Her final film was the Don Bluth feature All Dogs Go To Heaven, in which her performance was praised by Bluth himself who said she was one of the most talented actors he’d ever worked with. In July of 1988, she and her mother were murdered by her father, an unstable and abusive alcoholic who feared his wife was about to divorce him and take away his cash cow, as the royalties from Judy’s work were in the six-figures territory. To make the story even more heartbreaking, Lance Guest, who played her father in Jaws: The Revenge, was a pallbearer at her funeral. Personally, I loved The Land Before Time as a kid, but that movie is now impossible for me to watch because of Judy’s death, which still casts a shadow over every scene she’s in.
Jaws: The Revenge is not a good movie. It’s not even an okay movie. It’s watchable, and it’s probably fun in the right setting, but given its pedigree it should’ve been a lot better. Nonetheless, there’s a darkness in it that I find disturbing. The filmmakers obviously knew how to create a real sense of terror, and yet spent much of the film in a muddled quagmire of family drama. It had real aspirations but failed to really see any of them through. It still affects me in a way a lot of movies don’t, including the original Jaws. Even if it is a combination of a few great moments clothed in behind the scenes tragedy, I still think this film is much darker than most people give it credit for.