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Analyse the Ways That the Director Builds Suspense and Scares the Audience in the Film Jaws

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Set in the beautiful seaside resort of Amityville, a picturesque island off the east coast of America, in the mid 1970’s, Jaws was a film with a difference. Directed by Spielberg, it broke box office records across the western world following the theme of ‘man versus beast’. We follow the story of how an underwater killing machine affects the island and the challenge to kill it. Starting in the build up to the 4th of July, American Independence Day, the biggest day of business for the town, fears that the shark may strike are high. This sense of fear heightens throughout the film, changing the nature of the film, and by the end of the film we are looking at a full on war against the shark.

Sound and moving pictures have gone hand in hand for nearly a century, a film without sound in this day and age would seem incomplete, seeming to take us back to the days of one dimensional silent movies.

The Jaws ‘shark theme tune’ is one of the most recognisable and distinctive in the history of action/thrillers. Combined with the clever underwater camera shots in the opening sequence, it creates an eerie, chilling atmosphere.

The ‘shark’ theme-tune beings very quietly and slowly, building suspense- setting a menacing scene. It is said that the music is an imitation of the human heart beat, as the scene gets darker the music builds up and gets louder and faster. This seems to reflect the way the human pulse gets faster and louder in moments of fear, due to adrenaline. The way in which the volume of the theme becomes louder and louder possibly could indicate the distance of the shark…or the shark’s energy becoming more and more intent to kill as it strikes its victim.

Skilful use of this adds to the tension and makes us aware that something sinister might happen, as the music starting indicates the presence of the shark, sometimes the music starts of, and then fades away…indicated that the shark is still around.

During the first shark attack, the visuals take great precedence over the music. There is nothing complex about the camera work, using a limited number of angles, seemingly manages to create have the desired effect.

The main shots used are: the panoramic shots often across open sea and beaches, the eerie underwater shots and the sea level shots.

The panoramic shots start off showing a beautiful sunrise on a beach with a young woman ‘frolicking’ in the water. This seems to issue a sense of peace and calm, a jovial atmosphere arising following a hopelessly drunk young man falling over in the sand in the struggle to take his jeans off.

We see some above water shots of the girl swimming further off the beach, stopping to attempt cajole her young friend into the water, treading water to stay afloat. It is then that we switch to underwater shots, seeing a pair of flailing legs. Zooming in on the legs and getting closer, this is the ‘shark’s eye’ view, looking upwards from the murky deep.

Cutting back to the scene above the water, the girl is evidently unaware of the growing danger. Shooting back to the slumped out boy on the beach, this shows contrast between the shots, him on the safety of the beach…her in danger- but not yet aware of this. This could alert the audience to the growing change in the atmosphere.

Now we know there is something in the water, unbeknown to the swimmer- the beast is circling. When the creature does go in for attack, this is also played out by the music. When the shark has gone in for the first bite, we see a look of silent shock on the victims face; we continue to see low angle shots, slight camera sinking, perhaps to tie in with the girl being pulled under the water. Through this attack we only seem to see merely the consequences of the shark, I feel that this if for three possible reasons, the first being that it would change the genre of the film, to a more horror/gore type.

Secondly showing graphic scenes could heighten the certification, limiting the size of the audience. I feel the more obvious reason is that Spielberg did this rather to suggest the power of the shark rather than bluntly state it, which can heighten the suspense for future shark attacks. As all we see is the girl being dragged under after some thrashing and screaming, this provokes questions in the audiences heads such as ‘ what does this beast look like if it is able to cause so much destruction ‘ for example.

From the point of the attack and the girl possibly being dismembered beneath the surface of the water, the panoramic shots return, showing a calm sea and the drunken boy. This brings in the idea of contrast again, his safety on the beach while she has been killed in the now calm looking sea. The feeling that ‘all has returned to calm’ seems to describe the situation best, returning to a somewhat feeling of normality, the action is over for the meantime. This scene to aims to shock and excite the audience-taking them from watching a jovial beach scene which is all fun and games, to witnessing scenes of a shark attack then returning to scenes or normality again.

Spielberg possibly had three main reasons for not revealing the complete image as the victims were mauled by the beast, a prominent reason was the fact if he showed a brutally visual attack, and this would damage the marketing of the film as a higher certification would mean that less people would be able to view the film. The film was intended to have a feel good ending, possibly after the bad times felt by America in the loss of the Vietnam War, too much blood and gore would dampen this and also change the genre of the film.

I feel the most important reason for not actually showing the attack, is that the unseen, the suggested has always been far more effective on the human imagination than the obvious. Often, not seeing something can increase our fear as our imaginations can go into overdrive. Spielberg seems to play on this, putting across most of the effect of the shark through the reactions of the characters.

Some of the reactions are of mass groups of people, for example the crowds running away from the beach. Then we have more personal cases, such as the reaction of chief Brody when he doesn’t want his son in the water. The fear of the shark seems to take over Brody’s mind, leading to seemingly paranoid incidents, he cant concentrate on anything but the shark, for example leading him to become distracted during a conversation on the beach. He is constantly looking around, seemingly twitchy, thinking that he can see some form of shark activity, but he is in fact misinterpreting what the people in the sea are doing.

Camera shots emphasise his feelings, switching quickly between shots of playful screaming people and swimming people, portraying his nervous and on edge feelings.

Another example of the shark taking over characters heads is toward the end of the film where Quint acts almost as if the shark possesses his head, willing the shark to come and try and beat him. He seems to take control of the situation, and doesn’t seem to want anyone else involved in the actual killing of the shark, suggesting that he has moved on from the money side of the task and has now focused on the challenge of killing the biggest shark he has ever encountered.

Spielberg is seemingly able to frighten the audience with just the effects of its sheer power. In some cases we see severed limbs, and at one point, a head! This allows the audiences imagination to conceive their own ideas which are probably more horrific than reality, such as gory images of decapitation.

Chief Brodys personal fear is increased when he researches just what sharks are actually capable of doing, seeing disturbing images shocks him into realising the true extent of the islands problem.

As we progress through the film, the shark seems to increase in strength, every attack becoming increasingly more horrific. This comes to a head when the shark destroys steel, so called ‘shark proof’ cage, smashes up the boat then swallows up Quint, coming back for Brody. In the beginning of the film, we see the shark attack one person at a time, in these final scenes he has taken on three people. Also the victims of his attacks seem to become more powerful figures as the first attack to place on a young woman and then a small boy, which are relatively helpless when compared with the three fully grown men he attempts to pick off at the end.

As the film draws towards its climax, much emphasise is made on the sheer smallness of the boat and the increasing powerlessness of the men. The panoramic sea shots highlight the point that they are out on a huge empty sea, alone. Silence is utilised to create a chilling atmosphere.

Looking back throughout the film, we can see the role of false alarms in the film, lulling the audience into false security, creating greater reactions when the event takes place. These events seem to come one after another, leaving some large gaps in between the action scenes. The film oscillates between times of tension and times of none, using contrast to entertain the audience. For example in the final boat scenes, there are times where the atmosphere is jovial and light, during a relaxed drinking session, then shooting back into the action when water pours into the boat.

The first attack being so close to the beginning sets the tone for the rest of the film, to be full of action, after this we have a delay in the action, getting more involved with the characters and their lives. This helps the audience feel more involved with the storyline.

The shark threatens the livelihood of the town with a worry of attack on the biggest business day of the year, Independence Day which is one of the most important days for the people of the town. The shark’s threat on this particular day is strategically placed as it would cause the most disruption. The fact that it threatens one of the biggest days of the year seems to make Brody & Co more intent on bringing the shark to its end.

To conclude I would like to bring to attention the certification of the film, which as a PG is rather low, considering this would enable a six year old to view scenes which I feel are highly unsuitable, as they depict shark attacks in gory detail, especially toward the end of the film. I would personally be worried about the effect this film may have on a six year child, not old enough to understand that this is fiction. Personally, at nearly ten years over 6 I still found this film scary and at certain moments to horrific to watch! I think that this should be rated either as a twelve or a fifteen as it is in Ireland.

The reason why this was certificated so low I feel was to keep the audience figures as large as possible, as if this film was rated higher this would limit the amount of viewers which would in turn limit the profit.

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