June 12, 2004
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,
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
Anyway, this Jaws site had
a section devoted to Jaws
rip-offs -- films which, in one way or t'other, seemed to be inspired
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
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
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
great 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
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,
rams a pressurized respirator tank into the shark's mouth and shoots
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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