Welcome to Cutting It Close, a monthly column that tackles one of the most popular subgenres in horror: slashers. Alas, there’s a catch—we won’t be discussing the likes of Freddy Krueger, Ghostface, Jason Voorhees, or Michael Myers. No, this series will only look at those slasher movies that aren’t as iconic, yet they can hold their own for various reasons. They may not be top-tier or even popular, but, as the column title suggests, they cut it close.
As recognized as its tagline is — “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water” — Jaws 2 is not a respected sequel. It has been openly dismissed by audiences and critics alike since its release in 1978. The other films in the franchise impress with their sheer ineptitude, whereas Jeannot Szwarc’s direct continuation is unjustly tossed back into the water, time and time again. Now, after all these years, has the tide finally turned for one of the most slandered sequels in movie history?
There is no denying Jaws 2 is a different beast from its predecessor; this was essentially the first blockbuster sequel. Universal wanted to capitalize on the original, but neither its lead actor or director wanted any part of it. Steven Spielberg called the notion a “cheap carny trick.” Roy Schneider, on the other hand, agreed to reprise his role in a bid to free himself from a three-picture contract with Universal. Early on in the sequel’s long and difficult production, John D. Hancock (Let’s Scare Jessica to Death) was behind the ship’s wheel. On top of backroom drama, the producers felt the director wasn’t up to the job and ultimately replaced him.
Even with Hancock gone and a rewrite on hand, there was no smooth sailing ahead on the set of Jaws 2. From technical issues to inclement weather, new director Szwarc was not prepared for what he had signed up for. In fact, he only agreed to do the film in exchange for “a favor.” That favor being a passion project down the line called Somewhere in Time. Despite all the setbacks Szwarc and his crew endured, they still managed to put out a notable sequel. One that so many people were, and still are, against even existing.
It seems as if time has frozen on Amity Island. Toasted skin, picturesque sands and water, a man-eating great white lurking in the bay—it’s like that summer never ended. Around three years have passed since the notorious shark attacks that befell this coastal community. While everyone else appears to have moved on, it’s clear Chief Martin Brody still bears the emotional wounds of his near-fatal confrontation with a certain toothy predator. What begins as a jejune summer, quickly turns into a season of doubt and taunting for our hero. Terror has returned to Amity in the form of a skulking shadow just beneath the waves.
Among the wreckage of the late Quint‘s boat, the Orca, two unsuspecting divers fail to realize they’re being hunted. As per tradition in these films’ cold opens, unaware characters come face to face with the sea’s darkside. Left behind is a camera that contains the truth about what really happened. Unlike in the previous movie, audiences catch a glimpse of the great white in the opening. Szwarc and everyone else agreed there was no point in concealing the shark until near the end. Spielberg‘s famed reveal was lightning in a bottle.
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With the shark out of the bag, we see it — or really, we see her, as clarified in Hank Searls’ novelization — soon enough. School’s out on Amity Island and the beaches are filling with locals and tourists. Chief Brody‘s first son Mike (Mark Gruner) is 17-years old now, and he’s taken to boating like all of his friends. On one particular day as Mike and his peers are out on the water, a random water skier is seized by the shark elsewhere. The beast then returns for the boat’s driver, who unintentionally douses herself in gasoline before firing a flare gun at her attacker. This results in a skyrocketing explosion that catches onlookers’ attention. Of course, none of the witnesses realize the incident was the work of a shark.
The inclusion of teenage characters as fish fodder predates the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th. Both of those films already owe some credit to Spielberg; he helped hone the unmistakable killer’s POV shot that would become ubiquitous throughout horror. Piling the movie with adolescents sounds like a ploy to attract a certain demographic. Yet, the original script’s young cast was far larger before it was dwindled down to Mike and a few of his friends. The revision allows them more screen time, especially in the last act.
As the police wait on the bodies of the ‘accident’ to wash ashore, a grisly discovery is made on the beach—a half-eaten killer whale with discernible bite marks is found by two teens. Chief Brody is quick to say a great white is behind this, but the examiner, as well as other authority figures in the movie, refute his theory. This is when it becomes clear our hero is still dealing with what happened to him on that boat. Roy Schneider was transparent about his reluctance to be in the sequel, but his performance is far from being phoned in. Over the span of Jaws 2, Martin is infrequently caught in a daze. Communal memory about the first shark is spotty, and no one around him acknowledges what Martin did for Amity Island. He’s had to bottle up his emotions about the ordeal and remain stoic so not to scare anyone. This being the 1970s, post-traumatic stress disorder was a fairly new thing, and it was hardly dignified with proper attention in the movies coming out at the time either. Still, Chief Brody‘s palpable trauma is akin to shell shock. His erratic behavior — namely openly shooting at a school of fish on a crowded beach — is not the action of a mad man, as everyone assumes. Instead, this is his long overdue coping mechanism. The original shark may have died, but it still haunts Martin Brody.
The consequences of Chief Brody‘s conduct leads to his immediate dismissal as the chief of police. He subsequently licks his wounds by getting blotto and pouring some of his heart out to his wife (Lorraine Gary). It’s an incredibly authentic moment where one’s guards are all down. In consideration of his history and what is really happening under everyone’s noses, viewers cannot help but be upset. The man they looked to in 1975 as the one to make the waters safe again, was essentially broken. Even so, the pathos in these scenes is superbly realized.
What follows is a prelude to one of the movie’s distinguished setpieces. Firstly, Mike sneaks out with his younger brother, Sean (Marc Gilpin), after being forbidden to go into the water by his father. He and his oblivious friends are en route to the lighthouse. Somewhere else, a young couple seen earlier in the film is overtaken by the shark. The girlfriend, Tina (Ann Dusenberry), is emotionally paralyzed as she watches this sea monster devour her beloved. As disposable as these two characters are, Szwarc delivers an eerie glimpse at what it’s like to survive in these fictional situations.
By now, the Brody parents have learned of their sons’ disappearing act and are heading for the lighthouse. Martin puts aside his understandable aversion to boats and hurries to find his children. In their search, the grownups come upon what appears to be an empty sailboat. Upon further inspection, they find Tina, in a state of shock, hiding inside the bow. Her unforgettable scream of “Shark” confirms what Martin has known all this time.
As the adults continue looking for the children, the shark finds its way to them first. This is where the movie takes on a more plot-driven direction. Acting more like an insatiable spree killer than an animal, the oversized fish — who wears its recent facial burn like an improvised mask — toys with her prey. The movie has met its objective of showing the shark as much as possible. This naturally strips the film of any mystery, leaving behind what can only be best described as an adventurous slasher movie with a shark in place of a human villain. The crux of what made Spielberg’s film so effective was the big reveal that supplied the famous line of “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” There’s none of that here as Jaws 2 transforms into a glorified theme park ride where imagination isn’t required.
Be that as it may, everything leading up to the finale is never dull. The boats have been mangled and are in no condition to be steered towards safety. The survivors are left to float aimlessly in hopes of being rescued before their finned aggressor reappears. The movie’s entire body count is already low, but the script goes for quality rather than quantity. The highlight of the conclusion is undoubtedly Martin‘s urgent return to form as a savior. Seeing Schneider’s wiry frame dangle from an exposed, underwater power line so that he can fry up some great white—it is as silly as it is spectacular.
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One will be hard-pressed to find anyone who totes Jaws 2 as the best in the quadrilogy. That does not mean they have to shun it altogether. There is enough here to enjoy without forsaking the movie along with the misbegotten third and fourth entries. What the film lacks in intrigue, it makes up for in character development and excitement. The studio wanted something fun, and, anyone who’s open to the idea, will certainly find that in Szwarc’s offering. While it might not be safe to go back in the water just yet, it’s safe to say Jaws 2 is better than people remember it being.