I’m not ready for autumn. In late September and early October, as the days grow short and the nights cool off sharply, horror fiends’ pulses quicken as Halloween lurches ever closer; I’m just not in the mindset yet. July and August are great to celebrate all things sun and surf, but I like to use early autumn to bid adieu to summer—I’m not quite ready for autumnal bliss. (I also don’t like pumpkin spice anything, but I’m a misanthrope.) I don’t like watching summery movies in the height of summer: Blame my age, climate change, or a cantankerous spirit, but I don’t enjoy watching characters frolicking in the summer heat while I’m sweating through my second Grumpire t-shirt of the day. Jaws is my favorite movie, but as many cinephiles celebrate Steven Spielberg’s big-budget B-movie on the Fourth of July, I abstain respectfully. The town of Amity seems like a lovely place to escape the chaos of the big city, but after the summer tourists have been eaten. (“Amity, as you know, means ‘friendship,’” Mayor Larry Vaughn is fond of saying, offering a bland amuse bouche before the Great White gorges on a human smorgasbord of sunburnt limbs and Tropicana-slicked torsos.) If I’m not in the mood for Jaws, but still want some aquatic-horror goodness, I’ll watch Jaws 2. Before Bruce the shark went 3-D and made things personal with the surviving Brody clan in The Bahamas, there was contractually obligated Roy Scheider going it alone without Quint (eaten) or Hooper (offshore on the research vessel Aurora). While the first sequel is by no means as stellar as Jaws, it offers plenty of kills, highlights the infamous aquatic killer in multiple scenes, and focuses on an engaging group of gawky Hollywood teens masquerading as experienced sailboat enthusiasts—what’s not to enjoy?
Sequels exist to make money. Jaws 2 is the product of a Hollywood studio, Universal, having looked at the box office receipts of Jaws (which had surpassed previous record-holders The Godfather and The Exorcist by a considerable margin), and were very eager to commission a sequel. Jaws producers, Richard Zanuck and David Brown, were also eager to return to the town of Amity, but director Steven Spielberg was adamantly opposed to coming back to direct a sequel. (Though he would do so for the one prequel and two sequels to Raiders of the Lost Ark and the first sequel to Jurassic Park.) Roy Scheider, desperate to get out of his three-picture contract with the studio–having left picture #2, The Deer Hunter, in pre-production–agreed to return for a sequel in exchange for having his contract deemed fulfilled without a third film. Jaws screenwriter Carl Gotlieb returned to conjure new aquatic deaths and acclaimed director John D. Hancock (Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Bang the Drum Slowly) was hired as director. Unfortunately for Hancock, he was fired after four weeks of filming, replaced by veteran director Jeannot Szwarc (Somewhere in Time, Supergirl). Whether Hancock was a victim of inexperience with a major Hollywood production (there’s apparently much more to the behind-the-scenes goings-on, as indicated in the book Jaws 2: The Making of the Hollywood Sequel, by Michael A. Smith, but I have yet to pick up a copy) Szwarc’s cinematic eye would prove to be no match for Spielberg, but again, sequels aren’t made primarily for artistic reasons.
One of the greatest aspects of Jaws is the tension created by an invisible presence lurking in the ocean depths. The sight of a dorsal fin breaching the surface, accompanied by John Williams’ famous score, is all the viewer ever sees until near the end of the film when Scheider’s Brody is chumming aboard the Orca. For a terrifying moment, a glimpse of the aquatic antagonist is seen, prompting one of the most famous lines in cinema: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Jaws 2 doesn’t have many memorable lines (unless one counts Brody’s “C’mon, open up wide! SAY AAAAAAH!” in the film’s climax, introducing the shark to a last meal of an underwater electrical cable), but it knows what the audience wants: Plenty of shark! There are still scenes of the dorsal fin emerging for the kill, but Szwarc decides to showcase Bruce the shark whenever possible, even if it’s obscured slightly in a memorable dusk-set shot of its entire length swimming near the shore. The mystery of what lies beneath has already been revealed, so Szwarc shows the viewer how massive the new shark is, whether it’s eating a water skier and her friend’s boat (and getting visibly scarred from the subsequent explosion), or swallowing one unlucky teen in a satisfyingly-sick crunch. (Kudos to the foley artists!) Maybe it’s overkill to show Bruce so many times, but with all the problems the mechanical shark gave the film crews of Jaws and Jaws 2, why not put all that effort onto the screen? Oh, I bristle when I hear young squirts say the shark looks fake—I’ll run and bring out shark reference books to show them the error of their CGI-spoilt brains—but it’s a remarkable testament to technicians and artists that we’re still talking about a 46-year-old mechanical shark. The visible terror and anxiety displayed by the sailing teens in the latter half of the film prove the shark is a very credible threat—he eats far more people here than in Jaws. I think Bruce looks very menacing with its “lifeless doll’s eyes” (you were a poet and didn’t know it, Quint) and if you don’t agree, that’s fine, but keep an eye out for the pint of beer I’m going to throw in your face.
Roy Scheider may have been obligated to star in Jaws 2 as everyman hero Chief Brody again, but one would never know it based on his performance–he’s still as assured and acerbic as he was in the previous film, but now there’s a touch of paranoia added. When the photographs from the ill-fated drivers seen at the beginning of the film are developed, nobody believes Brody’s theory that another shark has made its way to Amity’s waters, including the how-did-he-stay-in-power mayor himself, Larry Vaughn. He’s convinced there’s a new shark, so much so that he sits in his office and adds cyanide to his police revolver’s bullets. He butts heads with real estate developer (and wife Ellen’s boss), Len Peterson (Joseph Mascolo, best known to soap fans as Stefano DiMarco for decades on Days of Our Lives) over the veracity of his claim, culminating in a thrilling beach scene in which Brody, sitting in a shark observation tower (surely built after the first shark was dispatched), thinks he spots the shark and proceeds to “shoot up the damn beach,” as Peterson puts it later in an emergency town meeting. Brody is fired, gets drunk, commiserates with his former deputy-now-newly-installed-chief Hendricks, and passes out in his wife’s arms as a defeated man. The fact that Brody survived Jaws, despite his fear of water, and crawls along an electrical cable (replete in short shorts and those signature Scheider-approved tanned, muscular legs) mere feet above the water and the shark is a testament to the character’s growth and Scheider’s acting. He refuses to sleepwalk through an acting role like a bored, spoiled movie star, and it’s to the film’s benefit, especially without the scene-stealing likes of Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw.
One of the best things about Jaws 2 is its continuity with its progenitor. Many of the same townspeople in Jaws are back in Amity for the sequel, a stock company of Martha’s Vineyard locals who welcomed back Hollywood (albeit begrudgingly) after Jaws’ success contributed to a massive increase of local tourism, often at the expense of the townies. The aforementioned “Mayor of Shark City,” Murray Hamilton, is back, this time a bit more sympathetic, as is Lorraine Gary as Brody’s better half, though, sadly, she doesn’t get drunk and fool around with her husband in this installment. (She’d have to wait nearly a decade before partying with Michael Caine in the Bahamas while another shark stalks her in the execrable Jaws the Revenge.) Composer John Williams builds upon his Jaws score, creating jaunty new themes for the teen sailing arc and the shark attacks and it’s some of his best work. The helicopter attack scene, though farfetched, works primarily because Williams’ nerve-wracking, frenetic score personifies the shark’s ferocity and without it, we’d be left with a poor Jaws knockoff. Having Amity as the main setting again with the return of the Brodys is a mixed blessing: It’s fantastic to see the locals again, but it also amplifies the questionable logic of yet another supernatural Great White terrorizing the same island. My critical faculties gnaw at me about this plot point every time I watch Jaws 2, but I feel the emotional resonance of having the Brody clan return anchors the film, avoiding a lifeless sequel that uses new characters and settings in uninteresting ways. I’d rather hang out with the good people of Amity and sit through their high school marching band’s cover of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” than sit through another viewing of Jaws 3-D and Jaws the Revenge.
But what about those groovy, sailing teens? A lot of online reviews dismiss them as forgettable stock characters, but I don’t agree. When I was a wee lad, Miss Amity herself, Tina Wilcox (Anne Dusenberry), made a profound impression on me. She’s a sweet teen who just wants to hang out with her boyfriend Eddie–she suffers what is likely to be decades-long PTSD when her sailboat is attacked by the shark and Eddie is killed rather gruesomely. She made enough of an impression that I followed her in roles in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Magnum PI, and obscure 1985 sex comedy, Basic Training, but I’d better digress. Dressed to Kill and Christine star and future filmmaker Keith Gordon nerds it up as a year-round Amity islander who doesn’t score with any of the chicks, and even Mayor Vaughn’s smug son, Larry Jr. (David Elliott) opines rudely that one teen girl has “tits like a sparrow” (I always remembered this line because ABC broadcasts always used an obvious dub, replacing “tits” with “body”, but again, I digress) before the shark attack makes him focus on the group’s survival. The teens of Jaws 2 predate ‘80s slasher films, but they’re interesting enough as characters to feel sympathy as they’re devoured one by one by the shark.
Jaws 2 is the sequel that shouldn’t work but succeeds despite its crassly-commercial origin. Though the film lacks Spielberg’s vision and pacing, Jeannot Szwarc creates enough style and action to justify nearly its entire running time. Roy Scheider proves why he was one of the biggest acting talents of the ‘70s and early ‘80s and it’s delightful to see much of the supporting cast of Jaws return for the sequel, though I admit I miss Mayor Vaughn’s powder blue anchor suit. It’s a sequel that knows it cannot match the awesome power of its predecessor but provides plenty of thrills as a well-made, aquatic-horror diversion. I still won’t watch Jaws 2 in the summer, but I treasure it as an early autumnal appetizer before I’m ready to consume mediocre grocery-store pumpkin pie and seasonal horror movies. ★