Ginger Nuts of Horror
I know what you’re thinking.
That old 70s movie they used to show on TV all the time with the painfully fake mechanical shark and starring those three actors that nobody’s ever heard of?
Yeah. That’s the film I’m talking about.
This summer, Jaws will be forty years old.
And kids, let me tell you, forty years ago the world was a different place.
You lot, you’ve grown up with a smorgasbord of TV channels to choose from, and you’ve got Youtube, Netflix, big screen HDTVs, surround sound, 40k definition, 3D, CGI, Playstations, Xboxs, iPads and some stuff I have probably forgotten right now, but which no doubt has 300 gazillion pixels of colour, is ultrafast, ultra ultra high def, and interactive too
Back in 1975 we had three TV channels, delivered through an analog signal. If you were lucky you owned a colour television, and if you were posh the screen size was a huge 21 inches.
And that was it.
Back then going to the cinema was a whole different experience. It was an event. People had to actually queue to buy a ticket, and if the film was a particularly popular one, you might even end up queueing outside and around the block. And then, horror of horrors, by the time you got to the ticket desk, all the tickets may well have sold out for that performance.
Back then, people could smoke in the cinema.
Back then, there was an intermission roughly around the halfway point, and a lady with an illuminated tray hanging from her neck walked down the aisle to front of the auditorium, where she sold ice creams and drinks.
And if you arrived late, and the film had already started, you just stayed in your seat until the next showing and watched up until the point where you came in.
Cinema going was different back then.
I was ten years old when my best mate’s mum took us both to the local cinema to see Jaws.
The hit movie of the summer, audience members were supposedly not only screaming, but fainting and throwing up too.
And, remarkably, it was an A certificate.
Ah yes, the old BBFC film classification. A was equal to today’s PG, whilst our 15 certificate was the mysterious AA, and most exciting of all, 18 certificate films used to be given the scary and exotic X.
Film classification was a lot more dramatic back then.
So, we arrived at the cinema, and, although I can’t remember this particular aspect of the experience, I assume we must have queued. Probably around the block.
Because, I tell you, that cinema was full. Have you ever been to the cinema and watched a film in a full auditorium? I’m talking full, as in every possible seat is taken. As in, if people could have been allowed to stand at the back to get the chance to watch the film, they would have done.
My guess is, probably not.
Not unless you’re of a certain age, or you have been to a specialist screening.
The last time I remember it happening was 1998, when I travelled to the British Film Institute in London with my wife, to see a screening of William Friedkin’s 1977 remake of The Wages of Fear, mysteriously titled Sorcerer.
Anyway, back to 1975, a packed cinema, and my ten year old self, who had heard so many whisperings about this movie, (the gore, the scares, the mass audience screaming) that I was practically wetting my pants before the film even started.
You all know the story of the making of the film by now, right? How the shark wouldn’t work properly, so Spielberg resorted to keeping it unseen for the first half of the movie, building the tension and the suspense, until its first reveal. Of course he had a few shocks for us before then. The trauma of the first attack at night, Alex Kintner suddenly disappearing from his lilo on a summers day in a fountain of red, Ben Gardner’s head popping into view in the underwater sequence which had everyone leaping from their seats and screaming, and the severed leg floating to the seabed.
By the time we had our first proper look at that rubbery shark, we were ready to believe it was real.
But there was something else going on, which will always hamper anyone’s perception of this movie who comes to it fresh today.
Back in ye olden days of horse drawn carts (yes, I remember the rag and bone man passing our house in his horse drawn cart, so don’t go trying to accuse me of exaggeration for dramatic effect, okay) no one had the slightest experience of aquatic life. Possibly we had seen an episode of The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau, with some grainy footage of sea life in it. Other than that, apart from the occasional Friday night cod and chips from the corner chip shop, nothing.
So, how were we to know that a real shark wasn’t going to look and act like that?
As far as my ten year old self was concerned (and every other person sitting in that cinema no matter what their age) that shark was bloody real.
And when you’re sitting in a huge room full of people who are screaming and laughing and gasping along with you, when you’re having a shared experience of terror and drama and tension relieving laughter, well, that only heightens the effect.
Thinking back on it now, I wish somebody could have photographed me watching that film, as I am sure my eyes must have been as wide as saucers. I was drawn into that film like no other before or since. I am sure that my love of movies comes from me constantly trying to recreate that experience of watching Jaws for the first time. But more of that in a moment, because the best was still to come.
Have you seen it? Try and picture the movie in your mind. Our hero, normal, everyday, working class Chief Brody, played by Roy Scheider with those soulful, sad eyes of his, is scared of the water. Somehow he has ended up living on an island, and as the stranglehold of small town red tape and petty politics closes in on him, so too his horizons begin shrinking, until he is finally left clinging to the mast of a sinking boat, whilst that hungry great white circles him.
You’ve seen the film, haven’t you? You remember the climax (SPOILER ALERT!!), the pressurised tank shoved in the shark’s mouth, the rifle, that line: Smile, you son of a--, the explosion and the victory cry.
The audience exploded too.
As one we leapt to our feet, drowning out the film’s soundtrack with a huge cheer. No not a cheer, a roar, a deafening, throat searing, ear popping, gut wrenching, shout of delight. And thunderous applause. And stamping of feet. It was as though what we had just seen was real, that we had been clinging to the mast of the sinking boat, that we had been firing that rifle in a last ditch attempt at escaping being devoured by a hungry, man-eating shark.
And then we sank back into our seats, and watched Brody and Hooper swimming for shore, and we sat through the credits, and then, finally, we left the cinema, exhausted but satisfied.
And, although I had no idea at the time, I walked back out of that cinema a different ten year old boy than the one that had entered it.
So yes. Without a shadow of a doubt.
Jaws is the film that made me.
Growing up, Ken Preston never wanted a proper job, and now he sits in his converted cellar, telling lies for a living, whilst being distracted by his two cats, Lily and Luther.
He is the author of a wide range of genre novels, from zombie/cowboy mash-up Population:DEAD! to his YA pirate adventure, The Devil and Edward Teach, and contemporary horror serial, Joe Coffin.
He also writes a series of romantic thrillers, but don't tell anyone.
Pop over to his website to check out more books and for news on the latest releases, or just to say "Hi!", and find out how you could be getting free short stories delivered to your inbox every month.