May 31st, 2014
These will be irregular posts (aren’t they all) about some of my favourite film posters. Not necessarily my favourite films, but the images used to promote them that I find alluring, striking and resonant.
Jaws 2 is, by a significant stretch, vastly inferior to it’s iconic predecessor. Spielberg’s original is lean, efficient and thrilling. An atmospheric, perfectly judged rollercoaster with a nasty streak that taps into a collective deep rooted fear of what lurks beneath. It’s a film that marries the naturalistic, character-driven style of the 1970′s new-Hollywood school with old school thrills, scares and special effects At it’s core is one of the most terrifying nemeses to appear in films. A remorseless, streamlined killer with cold black eyes like the void and a ragged mouth full of razor-like teeth ready to rip you apart.
Jaws 2 on the other hand is a soulless rehash of the first film that manages to be tedious, cheap and amateurish, without even having the decency to be trashily entertaining. It was the first in a series of very bad sequels that culminated in the woeful Jaws: the Revenge which featured a great white in the Bahamas, Michael Caine in a career slump, and a roaring shark that explodes when it’s rammed by a boat. Jaws 2 was one of the earliest examples of a high profile, big budget sequel that was conceived entirely for the purposes of making money, cashing in on it’s predecessor’s impeccable reputation. It was a depressing indicator of the way that Hollywood was set to configure itself in the coming decade and beyond. It is, let’s be clear here, a very shit film.
But that poster. I absolutely love that poster.
To me that poster is all about potential. When I look at that I think of a time when seeing a film sequel advertised didn’t immediately trigger the assumption that it was going to be terrible, cynical hackwork. Everything about the Jaws 2 poster offer the promise of more. More scary than the first film. More atmospheric. More blood. More shark. How could more ever be a bad thing?
Let’s look at that image some more. One of the most chilling sequences of the first film was the opening sequence, wherein a free-spirited girl pays an awful price for a late night skinny dip. Setting aside the proto-slasher prudism on display (and isn’t it such a symbolic moment, the hippie girl torn apart by the cold efficiency of the coming Reagan era?), it’s a brilliantly executed piece of cinematic tension. The idea of something you cannot see hunting you, is simply terrifying and Spielberg milks it for every drop of suspense. The slow build of the hunt; the explosive discordant assault and animal cries of shock and pain from the victim; the return to calm and silence, marred only by the mournful tolling of the buoy. Every second is burned into my retinas. It’s a scene that has sullied my relationship with the sea forever. I love swimming; I love swimming in wild water, pools, lakes, anywhere. But I can never shake that underlying fear of what could be beneath me, and when I’m on my own it just takes the slightest flicker of thought about the opening scene in Jaws for me to get a full on panic going. It’s irrational; of course it is. But it’s there.
The poster for Jaws 2 builds on this fear to brilliant effect. The original film’s poster excplicitly showed the giant shark powering up to the surface, about to bissect an unsuspecting swimmer. It’s iconic but slightly artless. Jaws 2 instead elects to hide the shark, with only the tell-tale fin breaking the surface. Jaws did such a good job of making the shark an instant cinematic icon, that one gimpse of the this dorsal fin is enough to send shivers down the spine, and this poster knows that. The deep red sky as the sun sets suggests blood, terror and death. We know that this is the last chance we will have to see the fin coming, to get out of the water safely. Once that sun has set, and night falls, we’re back with the girl in the water, and the cold black depths beneath. I love the movement of colour through the image, from the red sky and vibrancy of the sunlight reflected on the surface fading into the black of the foreground. It’s a beautifully composed image. Simple, richly textured and ripe with menace. It’s fantastic example of commerical art done right. Photrealistic but impressionistic in it’s vibrant colour palette. Restrained but bursting with implied threat.
When I was young my older brother had an Action annual, featuring the comic’s tentpole character on the cover, Hookjaw. This was 1979 so the comic had already been neutered following the tablod controversy whipped up around it’s casual brutality and gleeful disrespect of authority. But the cover image of that annual haunted my dreams as a child, and compounded the fear of sharks that Spielberg and co had already ignited.
This is a pretty boilerplate piece of art to be honest – anatomically wonky, slightly stiff and pretty pedestrian. Nonetheless it did a total number on me as a kid. I couldn’t stop staring at it, or thinking of the imminent awful fate of those two fishermen caught perpetually in a moment of freefall terror, soon to be mincemeat in the grinding jaws of the world’s second most pissed off shark. I think that the thing that stuck with me was not the gaping jagged maw of Hookjaw, or the fear on the faces of it’s victims. No, it was the glimpse of the shoreline and the twinkle of lights indicating life, domesticity and safety. Tantalisingly within reach but so far away. These foolish night fishermen with their tiny fragile boat and anoraks were never going to make it back there, and that filled me with a chilling despair I’ve never been able to shake.
In the Jaws 2 poster we get a slight twist on this. Here the shark is heading inland as the sun drops, seeking out carefree kids and feckless fishermen to snack on. The sprawl of the ocean behind it is a reminder of the endless, unknowable otherworld beneath the waves. The shark is coming inland, and the water will always be dangerous.
Which brings me to the strapline, a masterpiece of minimal effectiveness.
“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water”.
Those words, so pregant with menace and threat, hang above the surface to reinforce everything already suggested by the image. It reminds you of how scared you were by the first film and suggests that this time round it’ll be much worse. It’s a brilliantly simple bit of copywriting.
Again, it’s all about potential. Before you know that this film is actually a pile of dogshit, there’s the possibility that it might in fact be even better, even more terrifying than Jaws. Why not? Why shouldn’t it be? The poster certainly understands the basic mechanics of what made the first film so effective. The fact that the film-makers squandered this with the film itself is irrelevent. At this point the idea of the film is enough – there’s a secret Jaws 2 that is the quintessential shark movie, a sleek existential depiction of the unknown terror that waits for all of us below the surface. It’s not in the celluloid, it’s there in the poster; it’s on the cover of Action Annual 1979; in the untapped potential of a really, truly scary film about the red tooth of nature, and man’s powerlessness in the face of something that can’t be reasoned with or stopped. Something that has one purpose – to destroy you.
It’s ultimately just a killer image; vibrant, pulpy and effective. It’s everything the actual film isn’t. Depsite the early rush of dissappointment I felt when I finally got to see Jaws 2, the poster remains unsullied. No amount of rubber jawed animatronic shark and ham-acting teenagers can sully the simple perfection of that image and the better cinematic world it suggests. Perhaps it’s best to stay there, bobbing on the surface not knowing what’s really waiting for you.
Just when you thought it was safe.