It’s rare that a film is unanimously considered one of the worst of all time, but almost every bottom ten list manages to find room for the fourth entry in the Jaws franchise. Be it the ambiguous nature of the title (who, exactly, is taking revenge?), the wooden performances or the rubber monster haunting the cast on two different coasts, very little of Jaws: The Revenge isn’t awful or incomprehensible. So often mentioned as a trainwreck of a film, it barely seems worth discussing, let alone focusing a whole piece about.
But here we go for the, thankfully, final bout with the legendary monster. Jeannot Swarc, director of Jaws 2, said that the title of his film in his homeland of France translated to “shit.” If only language translation worked the way it should, the French would have reserved that literal translation for two films later.
The plot, for the fourth time around, focuses on the Brody family. Young Sean Brody is now the Sheriff of Amity Island, the site of the original attacks. His father, Martin, died of a heart attack years earlier. We know this because his picture (i.e. headshot from the Jaws) hangs on the office wall. Roy Scheider, who played Martin in the first two films, was very much alive during the filming of Revenge. Reportedly, he had no interest in doing any of the sequels and was disappointed in the second entry. He appears here repeatedly, in sepia-tone flashbacks that are supposed to mirror events onscreen that fuel his widow’s, dare I say, revenge? Or grief? Or both? We’ve entered murky water here.
So Sheriff Sean heads out onto a boat to move an obstruction and, because boats and Brodys always end well, loses an arm from an unknown, underwater assailant (bad joke about going out on a limb here). At his funeral, his paranoid mother (Lorraine Gary, reprising her role from the first two films) reunites with her other son, Michael (Lance Guest), a marine biologist doing research in the Bahamas on conch shells. This is the only continuity followed through since the last film, since in 3D, both Michael and his brother were marine biologists at Sea World. And though conch shell research may sound like the dullest form of marine biology (this is a series that had already once villainized coral thieves, mind you), it’s far more interesting than anything happening onscreen. Michael convinces his distraught mother to come with him and his family to the Bahamas for a vacation (“Hey, ma, I know you feel you’ve lost your whole family to the water but I have a solution to brighten your spirits: More water!”)
But Lorraine Gary’s shark sense starts tingling once they arrive. Turns out the homicidal shark has followed the Brodys from Amity to the Bahamas. Because a shark’s victimology is much like a killer’s on Criminal Minds, they…oh, to hell with it. It makes no sense.
But if your answer to making Revenge comprehensible includes voodoo and a DEA subplot, then congratulations, you are novelizationalist Hank Searles.
Searles adapted Jaws: The Revenge, as well as Jaws 2, from their original screenplays to coincide with respective release dates. Like many novelizations taken from original screenplays, Revenge includes subplots deleted from the finished film, tonal shifts that play out differently on paper than on film and the writer’s own personal touches. Like other novelizations with non-human characters in key roles, Searles has several chapters that attempt to anthropomorphize the shark – possibly an attempt to ape Peter Benchley’s original book. If so, it’s bizarre to take anything from the original novel, stylistically or otherwise, considering the differences between the original novel and film (including the fate of Richard Dreyfuss’ character and a lousy, Moby Dick rip-off ending).
The biggest change is the role of Michael Caine’s character Hoagie as a charter pilot who courts Gary. In the book, it’s explicit that he makes heroin drops with his plane late at night to a local gangster. The only reference to this is the film is possibly the most absurd non-sequitir ever uttered by Michael Caine. When asked what he does when he’s not flying, he replies smugly, “I deliver laundry.”
Ah, but Hoagie isn’t all bad. In fact, he’s an undercover DEA agent out to avenge the death of his daughter. So…that’s the revenge from the title? That wholly deleted subplot?
There’s more revenge to come in the novel, though, and this time…it’s preposterous. Seems young Michael Brody and his family have a fued with a local witch doctor who casts a spell on them that summons the shark. Not a shark. The shark.
Like the first novel, the shark’s death differs from the film. Well, that depends on which cut of the film you’re watching. In the novel, Gary impales the shark with the bow of a boat. The same thing happens in the movie, though in some versions, the shark inexplicably explodes. Also left in question, depending on the cut of the film, is the fate of Michael’s zany rastafarian conch shell enthusiast side-kick, played by Mario Van Peebles (son of Melvin). Van Peebles improvised most of his lines, something that any sane actor would leave off his CV. He plays it like something out of a Yop commercial. Though in both cuts, he is taken down by the revenge-seeking Great White, in one he is seen alive but wounded later, and in the other he’s not. The novelization clarifies that he most definitely died.
And hey, shark, what exactly did Mario Van Peebles do to you? In fact, most of the shark’s victims throughout both the film and book are hapless bystanders. One scene features Gary’s granddaughter on a large floating banana during a parade. Rather than go straight for the Brody, the shark devours the poor woman sitting behind her.
It’s flabbergasting how incompetently made Jaws: The Revenge was made. It was directed by Joseph Sargent, who made the excellent and tense thriller The Taking of Pelham 123 in 1974. There are continuity errors, non-sequitirs the goofiest of errors (after climbing out of the water at one point, Caine is completely dry). Mostly, both the novel and the film are just kind of a bore, with the shark acting as more of a distraction than a threat. Mostly, it’s just Caine and Gary dating for 80 minutes.
When Caine won an Oscar for his performance in Hannah and Her Sisters, he was unable to accept it in person, as he was filming this mess. He later famously said of the film, “I haven’t seen it, but by all accounts, it’s awful. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it’s fantastic.”
So what’s better?
They’re both equally silly, but the novelization at least tries, however ineptly, to create some tension with Gary’s shark sense tingling and ludicrous, unrelated subplots. Absurd subplots aren’t new to Jaws novels either; Benchley’s original has a dull affair between Gary and Dreyfuss’s characters and a left-field mafia/corruption scandal. So perhaps Searles’ heart was in the right place.
Also, in the film, the shark roars. It actually roars. More than once. That alone puts Searles’ novelization on a pedestal.
It’s interesting to note that, of all the Jaws films, Revenge had the most market tie-ins. The notoriously bad video game company LJN licensed a game simply called “Jaws” in which, while you may look like a minuscule pixelated Richard Dreyfuss, your object is to collect conch shells and impale the shark with a bow at the end. All Jaws-themed games, actually, have taken their cues from the worst sequels. “Jaws Unleashed” features a Brody son as opposed to Roy Scheider’s character and opens with the shark at an aquatic theme park.
And with that, it is now safe to go back into the water.
— Kenny Hedges