There’s a young woman flaunting herself in the center of the movie screen, and the frame is creeping up on her at the pace of a well-practiced stalker. First we realize that this shot is coming from a point of view. And then we realize that this point of view belongs to a killer. It sounds like the opening of a slasher movie, and in one sense, it is. Jaws  was made when that horror subgenre was still in its nascent stage—Black Christmas  had passed by, but Halloween  was still many calendars away, and Blow Out  wouldn’t satirize the first-person opening-sequence conceit until the next decade—yet it embodies most of the slasher hallmarks anyway. Victims are brutally killed in gory set pieces that are crafted to elicit maximum tension. The killer quickly emerges as a spectre or an entity, as its visage remains hidden behind shrouded compositions. And the crew of potential saviors gets whittled down one by one at the villain’s will, until just one upstanding protagonist is left to fire the death blow. Jaws had a long-term impact on the distribution methods of the American film industry, and that’s been very well documented. But it also left behind a separate lineage in the short-term—a whole forgotten wave of slasher-adjacent creature features wherein oversized predators creep up on their human prey. The directors of these films, usually working with extremely low budgets, often hid their killers the same way that Spielberg did. Do we still call it “first person” if the eyes don’t belong to a human being?
The post-Jaws animal-slasher new wave featured killers both at sea (Piranha , Orca , Great White ) and on land (Razorback , Grizzly , The Swarm ). We’re writing about them now because somebody has called for a reunion. The perpetually viral Boston Yeti is co-programming and co-presenting the midnight movies at the Coolidge Corner Theatre during the month of August, and he’s dedicated the program to the offspring of Jaws. His series, “Nature’s Revenge,”1 already began with Razorback, and continues over the next three weekends with Alligator , Grizzly, and Piranha 2: The Spawning . It’s safe to assume that the connection these films share with Spielberg’s seminal chomper picture are not lost on the programmer. The Yeti revealed his identity to the Improper Bostonian last year, outing himself as John Campopiano, a 30-year-old archivist based in Somerville. Campopiano had been profiled months earlier by Boston.com, with no mentions of the Yeti persona involved. Instead they were documenting one of his other notable hobbies—he’s an extremely prolific collector of Jaws memorabilia.
Each of the films being screened could be a piece in his collection. They imitate the story, the structure, the characters, the compositions, and the kills of Spielberg’s original, they’re forgotten mementos of its short-term impact. In Jaws—which will get its own theatrical run this week, with shows at the Somerville Theatre from August 12-14—an oft-emasculated police chief (Roy Schieder, terrified of the sea) aims to defend his domain against the entry of a predator (a great white) that’s picking off lone swimmers. In Razorback, an oft-emasculated widower (Gregory Harrison, introduced wearing a kitchen apron) aims to defend his late wife’s honor by killing the predator (a wild boar) who picked her off. In Grizzly, an oft-emasculated park ranger (Christopher George, constantly belittled by his political superior, another nod to the Jaws mythos) aims to defend his domain against the entry of a predator (a prehistoric grizzly bear) that’s picking off lone campers. And in Alligator, an oft-emasculated police officer (Robert Forster, giving the most convincingly weary performance seen in any of these movies, Jaws included, sorry Roy) aims to defend his city against the entry of a predator (a mutated sewer alligator) that’s picking off lone vagrants. A certain aesthetic is also shared among them: slow first-person creeping, close-ups of animal eyes and primal roars, the clear sight of bloody results left behind after deliberately obfuscated attack scenes. The settings and the species might change, but the rhythm and technique of these movies is just one step removed from Amity Island.
That step is a large one. Jaws helped to shape some genre formulas, but it hardly adhered to any itself. Contrary to its reputation as the prototypical American blockbuster, Spielberg’s film has a concept and a structure that’s borderline-inimitable. Playing out in two divergent acts, Jaws plots the intersection of one uncaring machine (a great white) with another (free market economics,) gleefully aestheticizing the carnage that results from the crash. Half one, littered with Hitchcockian suspense sequences, records the lengths to which the middle-class characters would go to keep their storefronts open an extra day. Half two, instead loaded with Hawksian dialogue sequences, produces action from three expert workers who try to break this unsustainable cycle (shark defeats capitalism, men defeat shark, capitalism defeats men.) First Spielberg dramatizes the systems—the food chains, animal and economic—then he looks at the flesh-and-blood that keeps them running.
The horror of Jaws comes from the associations you have with the images it presents, which represent an unrelenting parade of working-class anxieties made visual: young bodies returning from the warzone of the water short limbs and lives, laborers put out by an act of nature, older bureaucrats creating greater risk—economic and physical—because the numbers said so, the uneducated sent into the fray at a rate higher than most, all while death itself bites away at anyone disposable enough to have been dangled in front of its teeth. Jaws is not a simple film. But exploitation cinema requires a formula to riff from, and so the animal-slasher pictures at the Coolidge operate on the more simple principles of small-scale sin-and-punishment2. Razorback punishes ignorant journalists, vengeful people, apparent weaklings, and big game hunters; Alligator chomps down on people who experiment on animals, inexperienced cops, apparent weaklings, and big game hunters; Grizzly takes out unprepared campers, slow-witted park rangers, apparent weaklings, and big game hunters; and all at the same rate that a Friday the 13th  movie punishes teenagers at.
The children of Jaws failed to inherit its concept—they preferred the low budgets allowed by its first-person kill scenes—but this comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the production methods of off-brand knock-off’s. The exploitation cinema has always thrived on reducing an original work into a repeatable formula3, which is okay, because conceptual works are not what you went to the grindhouse4 for. Instead we go to see craftsmen and crewmembers distinguishing themselves amongst the borrowed DNA. Piranha 2 was partially directed by a young James Cameron (!) whose authorship is felt in its deliberately garish and cartoonish visualization, as well as in its sprinter’s pace. Razorback and Grizzly are both notable for their expressive cinematography; the former was lensed by Dean Semler of Mad Max 2 , who continued to render the Outback as a asphyxiating desert in the daytime and as a hallucinogenic light show at night; the latter was shot by William L. Asman, who looks at the film’s national park setting with a green-heavy palette that creates strong contrast alongside the bloodshed that follows. And among the whole lineup of performances in the program, the peak is Robert Forster’s understated work in Alligator, where he plays a hero-cop who’s really, really tired. He gets through the cliches borrowed from Dirty Harry by barely articulating them, and passes through the action sequences with cement in his steps, all while wearing the brunt of the character’s melancholy in the passive droop of his brow. He may be peddling goods stolen from better movies, but you never once catch him being insincere. And that’s worth going to the theater for. Jaws might sit at the top of the food chain, but in the cinema of derivatives, there are pleasures to be found all the way down the line.
1On the Coolidge’s website, the Yeti has provided a collection of cheeky program notes for the series. Sample excerpt: “Whereas I address conflicts by growling them out, the alligator in this [film] instead opts to chew on his problems. It’s not how I would handle things, but then again who am I to judge?”
2It gets you wondering if Jaws is due more credit than it gets for helping to bring the slasher movie forward from the generation of Psycho  and Peeping Tom —the Wikipedia page for the subgenre, to wit, makes no mention of it—but then you remember that Jaws gets enough credit already, so you stop caring.
3My favorite such story relates to the production of Fighting Mad , which was directed by Jonathan Demme, and featured Peter Fonda. The producer was exploitation-cinema legend Roger Corman, who had deduced that a trio of recent hits—Billy Jack, Walking Tall, and Dirty Mary. Crazy Larry—all shared three primary traits: each featured off-kilter choices in terms of sidekicks, vehicles, and weaponry. Demme was asked to adhere to this formula. In Fighting Mad, Fonda rides a motorcycle, uses a crossbow, and is accompanied by a toddler.
4Today we call it the VOD menu, and The Shallows will be available there shortly.
ALLIGATOR. FRI 8.12 AND SAT 8.13. COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE. 290 HARVARD AVE., BROOKLINE. MIDNIGHT. RATED R. $11.25. 35MM.
GRIZZLY. FRI 8.19 AND SAT 8.20. COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE. 290 HARVARD AVE., BROOKLINE. MIDNIGHT. RATED PG. $11.25. 35MM.
PIRANHA 2: THE SPAWNING. FRI 8.26 AND SAT 8.27. COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE. 290 HARVARD AVE., BROOKLINE. MIDNIGHT. RATED R. $11.25. 35MM.
JAWS. FRI 8.12 THROUGH SUN 8.14. SOMERVILLE THEATRE. 55 DAVIS SQUARE, SOMERVILLE. SEE SOMERVILLETHEATRE.COM FOR SHOWTIMES. RATED PG. $10. 35MM.