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June 12, 2004

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Before Jaws...Star Trek: The Doomsday Machine!

Remember this one?  How did they know the girl in Jaws had dandruff?

Answer: They found her head and shoulders on the beach.

Ah, the seventies.  But then, we thought dead baby jokes were the height of hysterics too.  We were young.  Truth is, though, I was too young to see Jaws in the theater when it first came out in 1975.  But, man, do I remember the night my sisters came home afterward.  I listened in youthful goggle-eyed horror as they described how Robert Shaw was eaten a bit at a time...on the deck of his own ship yet!  Years later, I finally got a chance to watch it for myself and, I'll tell you, as bad as Shaw's death was, it wasn't nearly as bad as I had imagined it.  Nothing could have been that bad!

You may be wondering why the heck I'm talking about a twenty-nine year old flick in this editorial that is supposed to be at least marginally about the Pulps.  Well, recently I happened across a website devoted to the film that gave the phrase "sea food" a whole other resonance and I thought to myself, "Jaws was basically a pulp film.  And, even if it wasn't, I don't have anything else to talk about.  Let the mortals yammer all they want, it's my webzine damnit!"

Anyway, this Jaws site had a section devoted to Jaws rip-offs -- films which, in one way or t'other, seemed to be inspired by the original.  Of course, there were the usual suspects: the sequels Jaws 2, Jaws 3D, Jaws 4: The Revenge.  And there were such obvious creature features as Jurassic Park, Deep Blue Sea and Lake Placid.  (Strangely, Anaconda was missed.  How could they miss Anaconda?  Are they insane?)  They even included Steven Spielberg and Richard Matheson's truck movie, Duel, even though it came out long before Jaws.

One film I think they should have included but didn't was a little seen time-waster called The Car, starring James Brolin, about a sleek black devil car which terrorizes a small American town but whose driver is never seen on account of the fact that The Car has black tinted windows.  I don't think The Car is very highly regarded by critics but it scared me shirtless (yes, that's right, shirt-less...this is a family friendly zine, you know) as a kid and, when I saw it again about ten years ago, lo if it didn't turn the trick again.  The filmmakers did a terrific job of treating The Car not as a machine with a driver but as a monster in its own right -- a sort of big, black shark on land...with tinted windows. 

One of the best scenes, which will forever stick with me, has one of the characters sitting in their living room talking on the phone.  While they are talking we notice, behind them, distant headlights seen through the window and we can just barely hear The Car's trademark Beeeee-bee-bee-beeeee!  The character doesn't notice and just goes on talking, blissfully unaware.  Slowly the headlights grow brighter and brighter.  Beeeee-bee-bee-beeeeee!  The character goes right on talking on the phone even as the headlights gradually fill the window, the engine roars and...crash!  The Car comes right through the window, through the living room and, presumably, out the other side, as smoothly as a hot knife through butter.  Scratch one character.

That scene worked so well because, up until then, we had assumed everyone was safe when they were indoors.  Well, not anymore.  In that way, it was kind of similar to the scene in Jaws when the shark leaps up onto the deck of the boat to make a Hot-Pocket of Robert Shaw.

The whole way The Car is portrayed seems inspired by Jaws, but I think the smoking gun lies in the scene where the townspeople decide to hold a race, even though they know The Car is lurking around.  In the middle of a desert, they set up a guy to watch for The Car, stationing him in a tower that looks for all the world like a shark tower on a beach.  You can't help but see that guy in his tower and not think...ah hah....Jaws.

Thinking about Jaws-inspired films reminds me of a little cinematic curio which I suspect is mere coincidence but which is worth talking about all the same.  In this case, it isn't a film inspired by Jaws, because it came out years before Jaws.  Nor is there any evidence that Spielberg or Benchley or anyone else associated with Jaws had seen it and were influence by it.  But, still...I wonder.

I am speaking of the original Star Trek episode, The Doomsday Machine.  (If you've read a few of my Rants and Raves you will have noticed I have a disconcerting tendency to sooner or later bring the conversation around to talking about Star Trek.  Well, yeah?  You want to make something of it?)  In this episode, William Windom plays the commander of a starship whose entire crew was "eaten" by a giant outerspace "doomsday machine".  Windom made the mistake of beaming his crew down to a planet, thinking they would be safe, only to discover that was the last thing he should have done, since the machine literally devoured planets for food.  As the commander, Windom had bravely stayed on board his ship until the last...with the result that he alone survived.

Now, at first blush you may be wondering how I can compare The Doomsday Machine to Jaws.  But watch it with that thought in mind.  You'll see what I mean.

First off, there's the doomsday machine itself.  It looks like the shark from Jaws.  It also looks like a Doomsday Machinegreat big blue waffle cone turned on its side, complete with an open end.  Still, you can't help but think of a shark's gaping jaws and tapering body.  Since the characters repeatedly refer to the machine as literally "eating" planets for "food", it's more than likely that the special effects team purposely modeled the machine after a shark.

Then there is the "attack" music.  John William's theme for Jaws is legendary.  With its repeating rhythm, steadily building, it makes us picture an oncoming train chug-chugging closer and closer.  But listen to the music in The Doomsday Machine whenever the machine is moving in for the kill.  Tell me that isn't the same basic concept, the same repeating pulse, like an on-coming train.  Remember this was a decade before Jaws.  Uncanny.

(After writing this editorial, I belatedly thought to check on the web to see if anyone else had noticed the similarities.  I found several sites which commented on the remarkable similarity between the two musical themes, as well as one which noted that both Jaws and The Doomsday Machine have a kind of Ahab versus Moby Dick thing going.  And now, back to our program...)

Want more?  How about the scene where Windom describes how he made the mistake of beaming down his entire crew, only to see them eaten by the machine?  For my money, that scene reminds me a lot of the scene in Jaws when Robert Shaw tells the story of the USS Indianapolis -- how, hit by a torpedo, the entire crew went into the water with life-jackets, thinking they would be safe.  But no distress call had been made and it took a week for help to arrive...a week in which the majority of men were eaten by sharks.  Shaw's final line is unforgettable.  "I'll never put on a life-jacket again." (Well, actually, his final line was "Augh!" but you know what I mean.)

Finally, there is the way in which our heroes defeat their respective monsters.  In Jaws, Roy Scheider   rams a pressurized respirator tank into the shark's mouth and shoots the tank with a bullet causing it to explode from the inside.  In The Doomsday Machine, William Shatner flies a starship into the machine's "mouth" and detonates the anti-matter engines causing it to explode from the inside.

In fact, come to think of it, both scenes are strikingly similar in conception.  In Jaws, Roy Scheider basically uses himself as bait, perching on the mast of the sinking ship, firing shot after shot at the on-coming shark, destroying the shark only at the very final second when he's literally staring down its throat.  In The Doomsday Machine, William Shatner acts as bait and, because of the usual malfunctioning transporter, is forced to practically ride the starship down the machine's "throat" before escaping at the final moment, as the starship explodes.

Coincidence?  Between the shark-like shape of the machine, the music, Windom's speech and the way Shatner dispatches the thing, I think those are an awful lot of coincidences.  To quote the immortal  Auric Goldfinger (immortal, that is, until he got slurped out an airplane window at 30,000 feet, at which point...not so much): "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it's enemy action."  And it certainly isn't impossible that Spielberg or Benchley might have seen The Doomsday Machine years before and either consciously or unconsciously imitiated it.  Since most of these things weren't in Benchley's original novel, I would guess it was likely Spielberg. Although the USS Indianapolis monologue is famously attributed to John Milius, and the music was by John Williams, Spielberg might have pushed them in certain directions.  Could happen, couldn't it?

Well?  Couldn't it?

Anyway, what's the difference between a truckload of dead babies and a truckload of bowling balls?

Answer: You can't unload bowling balls with a pitchfork.

Ah, the seventies...

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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