A retro review of one of the worst movies ever made? Have we lost our tiny little Outpost minds? Well, yes, probably. Some time ago too. However every so often one must bask in the awfulness to truly appreciate how good we have it today with movies. Sure, there are some movies that are great and some that are not so great. Yet down in the depths lurks a movie that is beneath even those. Part IV of a franchise that started so well. Jaws: The Revenge. Let’s do this!
This Time It’s Personal
Not only is it the worst movie in the franchise by quite some distance, but it is also 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. It is in such esteemed company as Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever and Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2.
It took one of Universal’s most profitable franchises and killed it dead. There may have been numerous VHS releases of the earlier movies, books, behind-the-scenes diaries, toys, and even a ride at Universal Studios. That didn’t matter. This killed it all. How? How does it manage to be that bad? Strangely it started OK, with one of the few truly effective sequences in the movie.
After a spin on the standard Jaws opening titles trope, which this time features the shark spyhopping and weaving around pilings as it explores Amity Harbor we are quickly re-introduced to the Brody family and given the lay of the land. Ellen Brody is now widowed. Sean Brody is a policeman like his father and Michael and his family is elsewhere. Sean is engaged and it is Christmas time on Amity.
When a piling has tangled on a channel marker in the harbor, Sean’s job means he has to go and dislodge it. Unfortunately, that does not end well for him.
This scene is about as good as it gets in this movie. The sense of inevitable dread. The shark being represented by a simple smash-cut split second of exploding water, teeth, and thrashing. Ripping sounds. Screams of pain. The juxtaposition of the horror of the attack over the Christmas carols sung by children drifting across the water, the happy occasion of Christmas drowning out Sean’s anguished screams for help. Resisting the urge to recreate the Chrissie Watkins attack, with more dragging and thrashing, Sean simply appears once, twice, and then is gone forever. The police boat sinks beneath the black water as the bell on the buoy clangs mournfully.
Damn! It is simple, effective, and pretty terrifying. So far so good. If the entire movie followed this pattern, style and feeling then we could be on to a winner.
For the next few minutes of run-time, the movie does actually manage to keep it up. Mike and the family arrive in Amity to support Ellen in grieving. We see the “I don’t think that’s funny at all!” selectwoman and Mrs. Kintner from the first movie supporting Ellen. Realistic scenes of a family in mourning and some nice character development with Mike and his wife on the beach as he decries the fact his brother died over a “shitty piece of wood!”
So far, so good. This movie is actually doing OK! So, of course, what happens? Well, it kind of poops all over itself and then sits there rocking back and forth in its own poop, while dribbling, and hitting itself in the face. Repeatedly.
What you are about to witness, for the remaining hour of the mercifully short 1 hour and 32-minute runtime, is a movie that basically commits suicide. It does the cinematic equivalent of pulling out a gun, putting it to its own head, and pulling the trigger. A genuinely strong start devolves into a movie so inept that it inadvertently led to one of the greatest movie quotes of all time.
When asked about his role in this movie Michael Caine 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!”
So how does it achieve it? How does a shark movie jump the shark (pun intended) so spectacularly that it ends up on the list of one of the worst movies of all time? Well, read on.
A Change Of Scenery
Ellen starts babbling about the shark coming for Sean. That it waited specifically for him. After everything that has happened involving her family and sharks, she is convinced the animal attacked him deliberately.
OK. She’s grieving. She’s just about had enough of sharks. She’s mentally fragile after what happened. Probably on edge. It’s understandable. A movie that featured Ellen finally losing her mind, against the background of another shark off Amity may have worked.
So what does this movie do? It takes her crazy premise and actually runs with it. The first of many true “WTF” moments. When the movie thinks it is being clever, like a lingering shot of the wood that led to Sean’s death on the beach as the Amity ferry passes, these moments don’t really go anywhere.
Even a shot of the rubbery protagonist seemingly cruising away from Amity after the Brody family has left doesn’t really seal the deal. So in effect, Ellen is left to try and pad out this entirely lunatic proposition – that a shark really did target Sean and now wants the rest of the family – herself. The result is that she spends the whole rest of the movie acting like some kind of deranged Basil Exposition.
Mike is working in the Bahamas as a Marine Biologist. He is married to Karen, a sculptor, and they have a daughter Thea. Ellen joins the family down there and in the process meets local pilot Hoagie Newcombe.
Hoagie must have a thing for grieving women with lunatic delusions of vengeful sharks as, in yet another of about three subplots that eventually goes absolutely nowhere, some kind of romance develops between Hoagie and Ellen.
Meanwhile, surprise surprise, the shark has actually arrived in the Bahamas. Was Ellen right? We don’t know. It is never expressly dealt with. You are left to make up your own mind. Is it all just a staggering coincidence or not? So having presented something so completely ludicrous, the movie doesn’t even have the courage of its own convictions to follow through with it.
At one point it looks like the shark has had its final revenge on Ellen. This must be for the crime of having the temerity to have once been married to Martin Brody. HIM. The destroyer of sharks, the oncoming storm that mummy sharks tell baby sharks about to make them behave like good little sharks (or something). It hasn’t though. Yes, it was all a dream.
Oh For God’s Sake!
Anyway, while all this stuff is going on the shark is singularly ineffective as despite the best efforts of Mike and his comedy island sidekick Jake, the shark fails to actually eat anyone else until an ineptly staged attack on a banana boat reveals its presence.
This sets up a finale that makes no sense, no matter how much you suspend your disbelief. Sharks roar, camera flashes become weapons, shirts instantly dry in amateur continuity howlers. Eventually, after seeing Ellen have flashbacks to events she wasn’t even present at, even the shark decides it has had enough of this shit.
In its shame, it stands on its tail and commits shark seppuku on the jagged bowsprit of a boat. Possibly forever escaping the threat of being made to appear in a sequel.
Unbelievably the ending was actually made even worse, deliberately.
Audiences in the US responded very negatively to the gory death of Mario Van Peebles’ character, Jake. It was decided to hastily reshoot the ending so that Jake somehow survived.
Reshoots were rushed into production in the tank on the Universal backlot. In the new version, Van Peebles’ character is bitten but not killed. For some bizarre reason, the shark’s demise was also reshot so when speared by the bowsprit of the boat it explodes.
Footage from the original Jaws was inserted showing the dead shark sinking, replacing one of the few decent shots in the original in which we see the shark sink to the bottom dead, still impaled on the bow of the boat. Here are the two versions for comparison and hilarity:
The exam question around this whole movie remains. How did this happen? How do you take a movie franchise like Jaws, get back some original cast members, secure Michael Caine, cast up-and-coming talent like Lance Guest from The Last Starfighter, throw in the director of The Taking Of Pelham 123 Joseph Sargent, and make such a total mess of it?
If you are thinking that the studio was in trouble and Jaws The Revenge was a desperate throw of the dice, you would be correct. Universal was a mess.
Summer 1986 had nearly killed them. The Ivan Reitman comedy Legal Eagles may have boasted the star power of Robert Redford, Daryl Hannah and Debra Winger but it bombed hard.
That was followed up with the notorious Howard The Duck. Universal bet the house on it. How could a comic adaption from the creator of Star Wars go wrong? When the extent of the disaster was revealed, according to Hollywood legend, studio head Sid Sheinberg and Universal President Frank Price blamed each other for greenlighting Howard The Duck and a heated argument turned into a full-blown fistfight at the studio between the two of them.
In desperation, they turned to their old, reliable franchise, and Jaws The Revenge was ordered. The catch? They wanted it, needed it, now! It must be ready to go by next summer. Even the decent talent assembled was up against it from day one with the odds not in their favor.
Fox was enjoying great box office and reviews for Aliens, a horror sequel with a female lead. Universal wanted some of that action. Sid Sheinberg’s wife was Lorraine Gary, Ellen Brody herself. So the decision was made – she would become the star of Jaws The Revenge. The movie received a green light in September 1986 and a release date just 10 months away was locked.
By the time they actually mobilized there were less than nine months to film and edit the movie. From this point, things started to go wrong, very wrong. 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.”
Originally Sheriff Brody, who’d only appeared in Jaws 2 because actor Roy Scheider was contractually obliged, was to be involved. He was to be out on routine patrol in his police boat when a shark appears and kills him. This was to serve as the catalyst. According to Sargent:
“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.”
After completing the script in less than five weeks featuring this start, Scheider turned down the role. Therefore the script was tweaked for it to be one of the Brody boys who met their end in the opening scene.
Finally, £1.5m and seven weeks in the Bahamas persuaded Michael Caine to join the party. Less than 3 months after Sheinberg first called Sargent with the idea they were off and shooting.
Fast, Cheap, Good – Pick One
And boy does this speed show. An undertaking like Jaws The Revenge would be a two-year project at any other time, at any other studio. The fact they couldn’t re-write and had no opportunity to reshoot is evident on screen.
Sub-plots go nowhere. Narrative choices make no sense. The special effects are so shoddy that you can literally see the inner working of the robotic shark hanging out of its belly in a number of scenes. In one scene you can glimpse the scuba divers guiding the shark.
During production 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 himself admitted 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 entirety of the opening scenes, the only part of the movie that actually works, were shot on Martha’s Vineyard in seven days flat. Four complete shark models were created in weeks based upon 12-year-old technology from the first movie and flown to the Bahamas where production lasted weeks, not months.
As they were based on the old technology, the sharks had the same problems experienced by Spielberg years before. As a result, decisions had to be made on the fly and a tight schedule was compressed further. Scenes were cut to accommodate delays. This shows in the finished movie with the feeling that half a movie is missing somewhere.
So what was cut? What was planned vs. what was shot and eventually released? Well in order to understand that you either need to get your hands on a first draft of the script, or pick up the novelization based on the first draft. You can get this second hand for cents and it is worth a read, mainly for the sake of curiosity.
As with Jaws 2, it is again written by Hank Searls and, just like with Jaws 2, the book is far superior to the finished film.
The central story remains the same but the whole thing is far more fleshed out. The shark doesn’t just miraculously arrive in the Bahamas. It is covered in the novel via an attack on an injured sperm whale in the Atlantic, and a sighting by an alcoholic sports fisherman off Miami.
Mike and Jake are paid to tag and track the shark by the same Ministry paying them to study the conch. Their job is to make it stays away from tourist areas. They, and the ministry, know this is a very rare occurrence that a Great White would be in these waters. Mike and Jake do not tell anyone under orders from the Ministry, putting them in the same position as Mayor Vaughan.
The completely ridiculous premise of a shark supposedly targeting the Brody family is no less ridiculous in the book. However, it is made to somehow work.
Mike Brody has found a local witchdoctor, Papa Jacques, earning money from superstitious locals. After Mike angrily ejects him from a sick employee’s 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. It still sounds ludicrous, but in written form, it is handled in such a way that the voodoo scenes have an ethereal quality that suits the tone.
One scene set in the dead of night when a sleepwalking Thea Brody walks into the sea while, on the other side of the reef, the share stalks her but is unable to reach her, is incredibly tense. This scene and this entire plotline involving voodoo were cut from subsequent versions of the script. Therefore you are presented with the ridiculous without any attempt at an explanation.
Also cut was the entire backstory involving Michael Caine’s character Hoagie. In the novel, he is a shady character linked to the local drug trade. This brings in the character of Rico Lomas, leader of the local drug cartel. There are also a number of attacks that did not make it into the movie such as a windsurfer on his way to a race and a drug trafficker who is deemed to have betrayed the cartel.
With the novel offering a view of what could have been, it is impossible to not lay the blame for this whole debacle squarely at the doors of Universal. It seems that the sheer idiocy of Hollywood suits has been a constant for many years.
As a result of this stupidity one of the greatest moves of all time, Jaws, never got to close out the franchise in the manner it deserved. 34 years later the franchise remains in mothballs killed not by an electrical cable or a swallowed hand grenade, but by its own masters.
Given the appalling quality of the last outing, maybe it is best if it stays dead.