On June 20, 1975, the release of Jaw revolutionized the way Hollywood sold movies to the American public. Its marketing innovations have been fully documented that most film history students can recite. Jaw was the first film to benefit from a television advertising campaign. The film opened in simultaneous theaters in 465 theaters, countering the historic strategy of slow, targeted release, and the fact it invented the summer blockbuster, breaking box office records at a time when people weren’t watching. We often think of late June as the dead zone for cinemas.
Steven Spielberg’s first masterpiece ushered in the golden era of mainstream filmmaking. It also opens the door to a landslide of blatant plagiarism, from major studios as well as underground producers. A special trilogy from that initial post-production waveJaw characteristics of aquatic creatures – 1977’s Orca1978 Piranhaand the 1980s Crocodile – poured a lot of blood into the country, but they also carried out more alien, subversive ambitions. All of them are available to watch at home and they are all worth your time, decades later.
When producer Dino De Laurentiis saw Jawhe told screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni (Good, bad and bad) to “find a fish harder and more terrible than the Great White.” Vincenzoni is back with Orca, a scenario in which a killer whale destroys a great white shark in the opening sequence. That makes for a flashy metaphor, but any notion of demeaning Jaw is a dream – Orca was a critical laugh and a notorious box office failure for Paramount. With the benefit of 45 years of reappraisal, it is clear that its greatest sin is that it has not meticulously recreated its primary inspiration. Directed by Michael Anderson, the beginning of the success of 1976 Logan’s Run, Orca owes Herman Melville as much as Spielberg. Sometimes it’s like a repeating adaptation of Moby-Dick, led by someone who reads only SparkNotes.
Orca A super-shrewd killer whale goes up against Captain Nolan (Richard Harris), a fisherman who accidentally killed the whale’s pregnant mate while trying to poach her to sell to an aquarium. . The surviving Orca spends the middle of the film trying to bring Nolan into battle at sea by destroying ships, blowing up buildings, and biting off Bo Derek’s leg. Nolan is a reluctant Ahab, but he eventually accepts the whale’s challenge, chasing it up the Canadian coast and confronting it in a climactic battle near the Arctic Circle. If the inherent ridiculousness of that synopsis suggests a winking, self-aware thriller, think again. Anderson and his cast take Vincenzoni’s script very seriously, and the movie is the best of all.
In addition to Harris, who describes Nolan’s origins becoming a blood and thunder frenzy with amusement, Orca gave us two more excellent performances. The mysterious Charlotte Rampling plays Rachel Bedford, a marine biologist who begins the film warning Nolan not to try to capture the orca and ends it begging him to shoot it. Actor Muscogee Will Sampson (Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) was given the role of Jacob Umilak in the stereotype of the “wise Indian”, but he made a meal out of it, getting the character sucked into his effortless charisma. That trio of performances could be Orcaspiritual ties closest to Jaw; Harris, Rampling and Sampson are giving Anderson little by little as Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss gave to Spielberg. Judging the whole thing is the criminally underrated Ennio Morricone score, one of the Maestro’s best. (Its moody, underwater atmosphere can be heard as a kind of precursor to the water-based music of ’90s video games.) Orca walk like that Ecco the Dolphin was able to swim.)
Most striking today is the film’s very modern view of animal rights. The entire plot revolves around the orcas’ exceptional intelligence and the ruthlessness and futility of trying to imprison them. The harm Nolan inflicted on the whale paid off in kind, and he never showed any more sympathy than the animal, even when he detailed his pain. The first SeaWorld parks opened in the United States by Orcawas released in 1977, but concerns about the treatment of killer whales in captivity would not become mainstream until decades later. However, here we have the actual Charlotte Rampling providing PETA talking points directly to the camera in one Jaw detached. Orca not an overwhelming political drama, but it does raise some of the same issues as documentaries like 2013 Black fish will eventually turn into real political change.
Orca available to rent or buy digitally on the VOD platform.
A year later, Roger Corman’s New World Pictures produced Piranhaone Jaw riff is more politically sly and ridiculously entertaining than Orca. Corman and De Laurentiis are one-of-a-kind souls in the world of genre cinema, but as De Laurentiis had bigger financial swings, Corman felt more comfortable with the films he could make. quickly, cheaply and for a small profit. However, he had his eye on top talent, and directors from the New World settled in regularly catching them making big Hollywood movies after leaving Corman. Such a person in the end is Gremlins master Joe Dante, who made his solo directorial debut with Piranha. Dante was already an anarchist genius, and Piranha loaded with his own idiosyncratic touches.
An early clue that Dante knows exactly what kind of movie he’s making appears in a scene at a rental car office, where Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) is shown playing the infamous villain. Shark’s jaw video game machine. The game is developed as a Jaw binding, but when Atari failed to secure a license from Universal, the publisher released it anyway, adding “Shark” in funny small font next to the giant “JAWS” logo. (It is worth mentioning here that Universal has also considered the discontinuation order Piranha.) The characters in the scene don’t comment on the game at all, but it’s easy to picture Dante sneer at its inclusion.
At Corman’s orders, a lot of beats in Piranha there is a direct analogue in Jaw. Dante is happy to put his personality into it with them. His camera is kinetic, his joke land, his special effects look great and his pacing is masterful. When a strange little moving fish monster glides across the frame, or Paul Bartel munching on the scene appearing to bark commands at the summer campers, it’s clear that Dante is having a good time. Impressively, he always integrates those touches into the overall tone of the project.
Other important ingredients in Piranha is its script, written by the future Matewan Director and trusted left-wing tyrant John Sayles. In Sayles’ scenario, mutant piranhas enter American waters after a secret project during the Vietnam War called Operation: Razorteeth goes haywire. Military scientists have genetically engineered a strain of piranha that can survive and reproduce in cold water with the aim of knocking down Vietnam’s river system. The project was abandoned, but a rogue researcher continued to experiment with fish in the US, eventually watching in horror as they were accidentally released into the river.
In 1978, Vietnam’s failures still hurt American audiences, and Sayles shot straight to the heart. The distrust and disgust for power that permeated his entire career blossomed in his debut script, and no one was spared – the military, the police, the public officials, the Greedy capitalists, even Bartel’s cynical camp counselor are painted as a madman, buffoonish, or both. What Sayles and Dante both understand is that even goofy, bloody fun can make sense. That’s why Piranha works very well and why are cheap products competitive like The Last Shark and Tintorera doesn’t work at all.
Piranha available to watch on Shudder, AMC+ and Peacock, free with a library card on Hoopla or Kanopy, or free with ads on Tubi, Plex, Freevee and Pluto TV.
Sayles’ politics also infiltrate his script for the 1980s Crocodile. The Lewis Teague-directed film is based on the urban legend of crocodiles getting into the sewers, but Sayles took that starting point and turned it into an effective puzzle piece. The alligator may have gone down the drain from being flushed down the toilet, but it has become an immeasurable 50-foot threat by ingesting growth hormones injected into it by a pharmaceutical company. An arrogant corporate scientist, a slimy CEO, and a fearsome mayor are all tied in a conspiracy to experiment on dogs and dump their carcasses down the drain, where the end is. with the crocodile eating them.
In Crocodile, Big Pharma is as corrupt as any other powerhouse. (It’s a bit of a surprise that a cop played by Robert Forster is the main character and moral center of the film.) Unbridled capitalism in any form is clearly on Sayles’ mind when he write a script; Just as the crocodile found its way into the city pond, a cottage industry of people selling rubber reptiles and illegal pets appeared. When Detective Madison of Forster shuts down a street vendor, he accuses him of being a communist and an enemy of free enterprise. One person imagines Sayles was called worse.
Beneath its smoldering political fury, Crocodile probably the most crowd-pleasing trilogy in this loose post-production trilogyJaw flicker. It has a bit of a special flavor, as Detective Madison spends the film locked in a mind battle with a criminal who always tries to stay one step ahead of him. (The criminal happens to be an alligator.) There is a boat explosion, an amazingly large game hunter being strangled to death in a dark alleyway, and a memorable scene involving a pool at a party. a child’s birthday. The scenes with a real crocodile on the miniature set look amazing and the climactic garden party scene allows Sayles to take his belief in “eating the rich” literally. It was a complete explosion, and it closed the golden age of Jaw copy a very interesting note.
It wouldn’t be surprising when Jaw is a fertile launchpad for these other films. Spielberg’s film is also political – try to find a better piece of American art about organizations raising capital to protect capital from imminent peril. It’s also rigorously independent in spirit and execution, alive with the feeling of a talented young director creating it as he goes along. That sense of discovery permeated the next decade of cinema, in the big studios and underground. Orca, Piranhaand Crocodile got cash Jaw mania, yes, but they are also fully realized visions.
Crocodile available to watch on Shudder and AMC+, or free with ads on Shout! Factory TV.