Bruce the shark returns for one last whimper in one of the worst sequels ever made.
Steven Spielberg’s Jaws has been a favorite of mine ever since I was first introduced to cinema, and along with the Star Wars films and Spielberg’s other early work, I would re-watch Jaws so often in the mid-1980s that it would rival a thirty-something’s time spent on his Xbox. Jaws 2 (1978) was frequented and Jaws 3 (1983) largely dismissed, because even as a child I understood that the greatness in Jaws was in the human characters and storytelling, and not because it had a great big shark! As the series of unnecessary sequels grew worse, the shark grew larger and featured more prominently until, in 1987’s Jaws: The Revenge, it seemed as though “Bruce” had more screentime than star Michael Caine!
So, what went wrong with The Revenge? How could it be even worse than the dreadful Jaws 3D and beat Superman IV: The Quest for Peace to the 1988 Razzie Award for Worst Special Effects?!
The film plays out in a simple three-act structure and ignores the events of Jaws 3. We join Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) at home on Amity Island with her youngest son Sean (Mitchell Anderson) during the Christmas season. It is established early on that Roy Scheider’s Martin Brody, Chief of Police from the first film, has passed away. Eldest son Michael (Lance Guest) has his own family and left Amity to become a marine biologist, and youngest Sean is engaged to be married and has followed in his late father’s footsteps to become a deputy with the Amity P.D. Sean is then called out late at night to free a buoy from a piece of drift wood. As Sean carries out the routine task, he is attacked and killed by a large Great White shark. Devastated by the news of her son’s death, Ellen becomes paranoid to the point that she believes the predator has a vendetta against the Brody family, also blaming her husband’s fatal heart attack on fear of the shark’s return. Yep.
Michael then persuades his mother to stay with him in the Bahamas with wife Carla (Karen Young) and five-year-old daughter Thea (Judith Barsi). Ellen accepts the offer but is still plagued with nightmarish visions of razor-toothed attacks and foresees further tragedy if Michael continues to work in the ocean. Later, whilst studying sea snails, Michael along with friend and colleague Jake (Mario Van Peebles) encounter the same Great White that killed Sean days earlier, and after a narrow escape that coincides with yet another of Ellen’s visions, they decide to study the shark due to the rarity of such a sighting in warm waters. But when another attack occurs – this time on granddaughter Thea during a beech ceremony – Ellen goes after the fishy menace to put an end to the blood feud once and for all.
Sid Sheinberg, head of Universal Pictures, reached out to veteran Joseph Sargent to direct, and with none of the original producers including Richard D. Zanuck, David Brown and collaborator Joe Alves involved, Sargent was offered both directing and producing duties. Like original Jaws director Spielberg, Sargent had cut his teeth on television with 1960s classics The Invaders, The Man from U.N.C.L.E and Star Trek, and there’s a definite made-for-TV vibe throughout Jaws 4 with a script provided by novice Michael De Guzman. The film plays like a soap opera. That being said, apart from the clichèd opening credit sequence, the first fifteen-minutes of Jaws: The Revenge are actually not that bad. We are back in the familiar setting of Amity and there are small cameos from several of the original film’s cast, such as Chief Brody’s secretary Polly (Edna Billotto) and Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fierro) showing up to make it feel like Jaws has come home. The film then suddenly deteriorates oddly with the arrival of the best actor in the production, as Caine’s jabbering cockney pilot Hoagie flies the Brodys to the Bahamas. Caine stated that it was the idea of being in he Jaws universe that was the appeal, but it was the handsome paycheck that lured him in, even missing his own Academy Award win for Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). Caine’s character is there to provide some comic relief (as if it was needed), a love interest for Gary, and possible shark bait, although he does deliver a couple of memorable one-liners (“Cor.. the breath on that thing!”).
The casting on the whole is dreadful. Gary was guaranteed a starring role, not just because she appeared in two of the previous three films, but because she was married to chief exec Sheinberg. Gary plays the role of wife and confidant well, but elevating her to chief protagonist was not a good idea. This is Ellen Brody, not Ellen Ripley! Anderson as Sean was actually okay while he lasted, and was hired again by Sargent for his TV biopic The Karen Carpenter Story in 1989. Van Peebles as Jake was irritating throughout and is mainly remembered for being killed in the video release but surviving on TV! Guest, who previously appeared in The Last Starfighter (1984), was cast in the “duel” protagonist role as Michael Brody. This is somebody who saw a man chomped down in front of him as a kid, a guy who witnessed several of his friends attacked and killed as a teenager, and whose little brother was eaten alive a week earlier! Yet he can’t wait to study the latest killer shark?! Surely it would have been more believable to write Michael as a vengeful and disturbed character like a cross between Quint and Rambo. Guest delivers a flat performance and also appears to be a clear foot taller than many of his co-stars, meaning his scenes are shot sitting down, crouching or swimming. One rare shot of him standing upright makes his silhouette look like a cameo for Chewbacca! Finally, the choice to give nine-year-old Judith Barsi a large amount of dialogue as Thea Brody would seem like a bad one, but Barsi actually shows more levels of emotion than her adult colleagues at times, in a confident performance that helped her land a role in animated classic The Land Before Time (1988). Unfortunately, Barsi was unable to realise her full potential as she was murdered by her abusive father aged just ten.
One main gripe that often gets mentioned is the suggested bond between Ellen and the new shark, which has seemingly and purposely followed her for thousands of miles. It was actually head honcho Sheinberg who suggested that a supernatural element be added as a major plot device. This harks back to a scene in a previous film when Chief Brody queries if sharks inherently connect with each other, seeking revenge if one is destroyed. That theory was dismissed in Jaws 2 but here it appears the filmmakers intended to convey that connection through several visions, dream sequences and impossible flashbacks featuring clips from the original film which Ellen never witnessed. These scenes and the “final showdown” are similar to those seen later in Halloween H20 (1998) and Alien 3 (1992) with other long-suffering female protagonists, and this looks like a failed attempt to send the Jaws franchise in the direction of the “creature feature.” Interestingly, the psychic bond as well as other loose-ends in Jaws: The Revenge are explained in the novelisation by Hank Searls, which suggests that the shark is acting under the influence of a vengeful voodoo witch doctor!
The choice to move production to the Bahamas was an odd one and reduces Amity Island’s involvement to a cameo. The sudden switch in locations is jarring and the apparent lack of preparation with special effects makes you wonder if it was planned at all. With Martha’s Vineyard, the location used as Amity, hit by freak snow storms that white-washed the island for a considerable amount of time, it was most likely a decision made out of desperation. The warmer and clearer waters were needed to make the best use of the new mechanical shark. You would think they would have learned from the original film’s production maxim “the shark is not working” actually helping the final piece, but it is clear that the beast this time around was competing with the likes of Freddy Krueger in the horror stakes.
Indeed, it is the special effects which always raise the most eyebrows with Jaws: The Revenge, from its fake hand-painted backdrops to the shark gymnastics! It’s unbelievable that this film cost $10 million more than RoboCop which was released in the same week. It also took the heat off of the equally-terrible effects in Canon’s Superman IV. The original film’s shark was provided by Bob Mattey who was known for creating the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Here, the Great White looks more like something from Jim Henson’s creature workshop, with strange facial movements and a wobbly nose as it passes through the frame on clearly visible wires and machinery. This upgrade provided by special effects man Henry Miller can breach the water to balance on its tail like a dolphin, roars like a lion and can stay completely dry. Miller cannot be blamed for this, however, as that’s all down to director Sargent. The same can be said for the appalling rush-job finish that was actually shot after the film was already in US theatres, thus creating the infamous alternate ending. The original US version has Ellen sail her ship directly into the beast, impaling it through the neck with the broken bowsprit. The ship’s front end then cracks off under the weight of the shark and it sinks to its death. The European release is the same until the bowsprit makes contact and then, suddenly, the shark pops like a dynamite-filled balloon! And footage from the original 1975 film is re-used to show the carcass sinking. Then, just for the hell of it, a half-eaten Mario Van Peebles bobs back up to the surface fit enough to deliver a wisecrack! This ridiculous denouement was actually the preferred version by the studio, and if played back frame-by-frame, it’s quite hilarious what you see. The original and better ending would often be shown on TV by the BBC in the late 80s and early 90s, and would feature whole sequences with ropes, pulleys and technical crew operating the shark in full view! Although the later DVD releases and television showings have been improved by re-cropping the footage.
Jaws: The Revenge could well be the worst sequel ever made and looks to have been a franchise killer. Its badly written, directed, acted, and just badly executed on every level, but what would have happened if there had been further sequels? Would we have seen the series evolve further into the ridiculous? There has been well over twenty killer shark films made since the last outing for Jaws. From Deep Blue Sea (1999) to the Shark Attack series (1999-2002), could the tropes of these films clearly influenced by Peter Benchley’s creation be woven into the fabric of the Jaws universe? Could Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (2009) or Sharknado (2013) be Jaws sequels? Based on The Revenge, perhaps the Jaws 19 joke featured in 1989’s Back to the Future: Part II wasn’t so far off afterall.
- Roy Scheider was offered a cameo, but declined. Reportedly, if Scheider had accepted the bit part, the shark would’ve killed his character at the start of the movie.
- The original script features a cameo for Richard Dreyfuss’s character from the original Jaws, marine biologist Matt Hooper. In Hooper’s scene, he calls the Brodys and is greeted on the phone by Thea, who knows him as “Uncle Matt.” Hooper is established as being close to Michael and Carla, who calls him “my second favorite marine biologist”, and he gives them his condolences about Sean’s death. Hooper and Michael discuss their careers, the late Martin Brody, and Hooper’s once spending Christmas with the family with Martin dressed as Santa Claus. The scene ends when Michael heads off to summon Ellen to the phone to talk to Hooper.
- Comedian Richard Jeni considered this the worst movie of all time, and built a substantial portion of his stand-up comedy act around it.