If you are a Jaws fan please give them a read and stop back here to join the discussion.
Now, unfortunately, as certain as an awkward breakfast follows a drunken one-night stand, we must mention the unmentionable. Finally, it is time to discuss the fourth movie in a franchise of greatly reducing qualitative returns — Jaws: The Revenge.
This Time It’s Personal
Not only is it the worst movie in the franchise, but one of the worst movies of all time.
It remains one of a select group of movies to achieve a 0% score on Rotten Tomatoes. A film so generally inept it killed a franchise stone-dead for more than 30 years. Where the best thing to come out of it is a standup comedy routine:
And a quote. Michael Caine, when asked about his role in this movie replied:
“I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However I have seen the house it built, and it’s terrific!”
And he is correct. It is awful. However, like a lot of movies, it is not 100% awful.
There are some small glimmers, some flashes of an effort to make a good movie. And just like we discussed in our Jaws 2 article, this sequel was also originally going to be a very, very different picture.
The story behind its making is interesting but largely unknown. Hopefully, we can let you see inside that process and understand why the results were, to be generous, sub-optimal.
The key reason can be summed up in one word:
This was quite simply the fastest movie production anyone on the cast and crew had ever been involved in. Against the timetable set by the studio, even the decent talent assembled had little chance of producing something of quality. Jaws: The Revenge was willed into existence on the back of total disaster.
Universal’s slate of films from the summer of 1986 was the absolute pits — a state of critical and box office failure.
First out of the blocks was Legal Eagles from director Ivan Reitman. A comedy that even the star power of Robert Redford, Daryl Hannah and Debra Winger couldn’t save. While the film made almost $100m globally, at a $40m budget it cost an extraordinary amount of money for the genre. The critical response was savage.
But that was nothing compared the main horror show that summer: Howard The Duck. Also in the $40m budget range, Universal thought they had a winner. With a central character with built-in comic book history, expensive special effects and George Lucas still flush from Star Wars success, the film was expected to hit big.
What Universal got instead was a lame duck at the box office. The press piled in and Universal’s bosses realised with horror that they had yet another disaster on their hands.
This made them turn on each other. A legendary Hollywood rumour is that Sid Sheinberg and Universal President Frank Price blamed each other for greenlighting Howard The Duck and a heated argument turned into a full-blown fist fight.
Sheinberg denies this but Price exited the studio not long afterward.
With Universal in a death spiral, Legal Eagles and Howard The Duck ripping the heart out of their 1986 summer box office, they became desperate. Sheinberg was President of Universal when Jaws broke all records in 1975 so he returned to his last success.
Across town, Fox was enjoying great box office and reviews for Aliens, a horror sequel with a female lead. Universal wanted some of that action.
So, in September 1986 a decision was made — Sheinberg wanted another Jaws movie. He wanted Taking Of Pelham 1-2-3 Director Joseph Sargent in the chair. And he wanted it now! Sheinberg pledged to give Sargent creative freedom and made him a producer as well as director. He also gave him total control over putting the creative team together.
That freedom did come with a catch. It was now heading into October 1986 and Sheinberg wanted the film ready for the summer of 1987. Even if Sargent had begun shooting that very day with everything in place this still left him with just over nine months to film and edit the movie. From this point, things started to go wrong.
For comparison, Steven Spielberg took about six months on principal photography alone when he made the original Jaws. In an interview with Starlog shortly after he started on the project, Sargent said:
“This is probably the quickest gestation of any project, I think, in film history. This movie is such a departure from the two previous Jaws that we’re dealing with more of an emotional base where you can more easily empathise with the characters, which is why we’ve all responded so enthusiastically.”
With time being short, Sargent pulled in a writer from TV, including Spielberg’s own Amazing Stories, and together they started working on a script with a working title of Jaws 87.
There Was A Script?
The biggest challenge facing them was how to create a catalyst for the shark and the cast to come into contact. Sargent told Starlog:
“We had very little to go on to begin with, so we began to pile ‘bricks’ one on top of the other, until all of these lovely disconnected elements began to take on a form and a shape.”
One foundation was to be Sheriff Brody, who’d only appeared in Jaws 2 because actor Roy Scheider was contractually obliged. The plan was to use him in the same way Hitchcock used Janet Leigh in Psycho.
Reintroduced to Brody a decade on from Jaws 2, he was to be out on routine patrol in his police boat when a shark appears and kills him. Brody’s now widowed wife, Ellen, becomes convinced that her family’s being targeted by a shark.
“With Jaws: The Revenge, the audience can expect a much more terrifying and spectacular shark doing rather spectacular things, and they can expect a very identifiable and heartwarming emotional story since it deals with a woman whose whole family seems to be deteriorating, and her obsessive belief that there is a vendetta against them on the part of the great white shark. The people content is what turns me on.”
Sargent and Michael de Guzman completed the screenplay for Jaws: The Revenge in just five weeks.
Scheider turned down the role, bored of Jaws and less than impressed with the cameo appearance. Therefore the script was tweaked for it to be one of the Brody boys who met their end in the opening scene.
Likewise, Dreyfuss declined the opportunity to return. Dreyfuss would have literally phoned his performance in since the script simply required him to call Ellen Brody and offer his condolences for her husband’s death.
Lorraine Gary, Sid Sheinberg’s wife, returned to the role that made her famous. Lance Guest, fresh from Halloween 2 and The Last Starfighter, signed on to play Mike Brody, replacing Dennis Quaid from Jaws 3D. Mario Van Peebles duly accepted the role of Jake after declining it twice. Finally, £1.5m and seven weeks in the Bahamas persuaded Michael Caine. And just like that, less than three months after the initial phone call from Sheinberg to Sargent, they were in production.
Chaos And Carnage
Journalists questioned how this movie was going to be made, or why Universal was insisting on this timescale for what should have been a two-year production. Even Frank Baur, the film’s associate producer, admitted to the Chicago Tribune:
“We’re doing the impossible. This will be the fastest I have ever seen a major film planned and executed in all of my 35 years as a production manager.”
Sargent continued to talk a good game:
“It’s one of the finest crews I’ve ever worked with.”
However, as the stress began to take its toll he did admit to the Boston Herald that the movie was:
“…a ticking bomb waiting to go off. Sid Sheinberg expects a miracle — and we’re going to make it happen.”
The opening scenes on Amity Island, again shot in Martha’s Vineyard, were completed in just seven days flat. Then the production relocated to Nassau in the Bahamas for a scheduled 38 days.
Sets were built in record time included an entire village of wooden huts and a sandy beach. Four complete shark models were flown over from the US where they had been hastily designed and built. These were each 25 feet long. There was also a dorsal fin, a head/mouth, and an underside-view miniature model.
Just like in the original movie, these sharks were less than reliable. An already pushed schedule kept getting tighter and tighter. Scenes were cut and hasty rewrites actioned to allow the movie to proceed.
Initial photography finished in May 1987, including many water scenes shot in a tank on the Universal lot. The special effects photography continued in the Bahamas right up until the 4th of June. This meant there were six weeks to get the movie edited and into theatres. At this point, even the internally optimistic Sargent was flagging. In a Chicago Times interview he admitted:
“Spielberg said Jaws should never have been made, It was an impossible effort. Now sometimes I wonder if he was right.”
One Final Push
The knives were already out for the production in the press. With the shortened timeline, by now, quite famous, it was going to be an uphill struggle to convince anyone the movie was a thing of quality. Though they hit the deadline and released the movie to US audiences in July 1987, there was more trouble ahead.
Audiences were turning out, but at a steady rather than blockbuster rate. Movie-goers responded very negatively to the gory death of Mario Van Peebles’ character, Jake, as well as the method of dispatching the shark, where Ellen Brody harpoons the shark with the bowsprit of her boat.
A team was therefore scrambled back to the Universal backlot to shoot a new conclusion in the trusty tank. Van Peebles character is to be bitten but not killed, while the shark abruptly explodes after its side is pierced, for reasons that remain unclear to this day.
This was not ready in time for the US release, but this is the version that was in the worldwide releases and subsequently tacked onto home video releases. A hurried and less than competent piece of filmmaking born out of desperation. The famously derided roaring shark somehow remained in the cut.
When The Dust Settles
In a cinema season that included Beverly Hills Cop II and The Untouchables, Universal was in trouble yet again. They had a disaster on their hands. Critically mauled, the $23m budget yielded a return of $52m so it turned a small profit. But the aura of a legendarily bad movie had begun to stick.
Commentators lined up to detail how Jaws: The Revenge was a perfect example of a duff movie, doomed from its very start. A cast and crew reeled in by big pay cheques and creative freedom. A studio in the grip of mania, hungry for a hit, so throwing money around and forgetting to do anything in the way of planning.
The lack of time to think, reshoot, edit, rewrite and consider what works means the movie is a mash-up of bad dialogue, nonsensical editing, and terrible special effects. In several scenes, the hydraulic controls used to control the shark can clearly be seen. The difficulty in shooting a number of written sequences in the timeframe allowed resulted in several shark attacks being cut.
And to this day, Michael Caine has still never watched it!
Look At What You Could Have Won
As we mentioned earlier, there are some glimmers in this movie that give a tantalising glimpse of what might have been had the studio not been so pushy. All the way through the process Sargent talked about his desire to make a character driven movie. He understood that the characters were what made the first Jaws movie work so well.
Here, too, there are moments. The aftermath of Sean’s death is convincing. Understated cameos from Mrs. Kintner and the Amity selectwoman who doesn’t “think it’s funny at all” give a sense of continuity. Mike’s walk on the beaches of his youth with his wife, Carla, provides a strong moment. This coupled with quite an effective opening attack, with the strains of Christmas carols drifting over the icy and dark bay as Sean meets his end, gives an opening that holds some promise.
It just quickly, and spectacularly, falls apart so completely after this opening ten minutes.
The Book Was Better
To understand the original plans, with some grand ambitions, you have to return to very early versions of the script or the novelisation based on the first draft. As with Jaws 2, it is again written by Hank Searls and provides a tantalising glimpse into what might have been. It is a very entertaining yarn, far superior to the finished product.
While the general structure and main story beats remain it is a very different take. The shark’s journey from Amity to the Bahamas is chronicled through an attack on an injured sperm whale in the Atlantic, and an encounter with an alcoholic sports fisherman off Miami.
Mike and Jake first encounter the shark in the Bahamas. Keeping with the themes from other entries into the series, they are paid by the same Ministry who is paying them to study the conch to tag and track the shark. This is to ensure it stays away from tourist areas and to inform them when this very rare visitor has traveled away from the islands. Mike does not tell Ellen what he is doing as he believes she is on the verge of a breakdown with her conviction that a shark targeted Sean and will come for her family again.
That whole elephant in the room, the sheer ridiculousness of a shark seeking revenge on a family, is dealt with in the novel in an unexpected way. In a timeline back before the novel starts, Mike Brody has found a local witchdoctor, Papa Jacques, earning money from superstitious locals. Angrily ejecting him from a sick employees house, Papa Jacques has sworn revenge on Brody and it is hinted that he has used his voodoo powers to summon his Loa in the form of a shark.
Ridiculous as the premise is, it’s handled ambiguously with a light touch in the novelisation and just somehow works. The voodoo sequences are not heavy-handed and have an ethereal quality that suits the tone. A scene where a sleepwalking Thea is stalked through the shallows by the shark on the other side of the reef in the dead of night is tense and effective.
This scene and this entire plotline involving voodoo were cut from subsequent versions of the script. It works in the novel but you can imagine how hard it would be to make the suggestion of a voodoo shark work on screen.
Also cut was the entire backstory involving Michael Caine’s character Hoagie Newcombe. In the novel, he is a shady character. Mike disapproves Ellen’s closeness to Hoagie because he thinks Hoagie is flying drugs. In fact, Hoagie is on a personal mission of revenge and is involved with the drug traffickers in this part of the world to facilitate that.
This brings all the leading players into contact with Rico Lomas. Keeping up the themes of organised crime from Brenchley’s original novel and the early Jaws 2 scripts, Lomas is the leader of the local drug cartel and a nasty piece of work. He too has an encounter with the shark that leads to him having a hysterical breakdown in front of his men and damages his ruthless reputation.
There are a number of other attacks that didn’t make it into the finished movie. A windsurfer on his way to a race and a drug trafficker who is deemed to have betrayed the cartel are among them. As with his earlier work with Jaws 2, Searls weaves a much more complete story with believable characters behaving in believable ways. Even the unbelievable, the voodoo angle, is handled in a skillful way.
Would we have got a movie closer to this if they hadn’t have compressed the timescale?
We will never know!
Has Jaws: The Revenge killed the franchise forever? That’s a more interesting question!