Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black-and-white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition.
Despite its reputation as one of the scariest movies ever made, audiences still argue about whether or not Steven Spielberg’s JAWS is technically a horror film. Despite the character-driven drama that some use to discredit the film’s horror credentials, JAWS is still the quintessential American monster movie. Moments of brutal gore, nudity and unbearable suspense are coupled with the technical skill of the burgeoning Spielberg, who navigates JAWS through the narrative structure of a classic horror tale. Even its iconic John Williams score is reminiscent of the bombastic and grandiose monster movie scores of horror past.
With the 4th of July upon us, it only made sense to revisit this groundbreaking creature feature in black-and-white, allowing Shadowvision to view the 1975 classic quite literally in a new light. Technically speaking, there should be little to almost no adjustment in terms of contrast or brightness. Considering the amount of scenes lit by daylight, most of the shadowing appears naturally throughout the film and therefore doesn’t require any further enhancement.
But before we get into the black-and-white examination of JAWS, let’s talk a little about the color of the film. One of the reasons JAWS is so effective is its voyeuristic color palette, evoking potential childhood beachgoing memories with a soft, paint-like texture. Even those who’ve never been to the beach could feel the terror as its dreamlike presentation is turned nightmare via suspense and our own imaginations. The contrasts of blue-and-white throughout the film not only evoke the Great White shark itself, but also the running disparate relationship between land and sea. Therefore, when our three leads find themselves engulfed in the blue sea in the second half, there’s a visual correlation to the complete lack of security within the narrative.
From its first moment in black-and-white, JAWS plays almost completely differently. The opening scene, now with striking shadows against a sea of grey, feels more terrifying and disorienting. From there on, the film takes the form of an old-fashioned monster movie, complete with the know-it-all scientist, the hard-jawed police officer, the weaselly politician and even the over-the-top monster hunter. Even the shark takes on a more B-movie twist, as it acts with almost omniscient knowledge of Chief Brody’s whereabouts and at points stalks him literally.
Tonally speaking, JAWS still retains its masterful balance of suspense and humor, yet the more fantastic elements of its narrative and Spielberg’s ever-moving camera are more emphasized in black-and-white. In that regard, scenes such as the late night boat excavation and the shark’s penultimate attack feel less grounded and more horror-based in their execution. And while the pulpy dialogue adds an additional element of humanity to the original film, it somehow feels atypical of colorful genre rapport when seen in black-and-white. Moreover, the dynamic between complete chaos and tension as often seen in the earliest works of narrative cinema is much more apparent in black-and-white to the engaged viewer.
In the absence of color however, there are pivotal elements to JAWS that are lost in the translation. Most noticeably, the element of blood, used in the color version to punctuate the horror of the shark attacks, loses its power altogether once seen as dark grey streaks. Similarly, without the realistic blue sea as a backdrop, the Great White shark loses much of the terror built up in the first act once revealed in full. Lastly, the beautiful sky in the Orca scenes are now muted, which takes away the incredible, natural atmosphere.
Of course, one of the reasons JAWS is such a classic is because of Bill Butler’s incredible cinematography and Spielberg’s inimitable vision. While Spielberg uses his technical knowledge informed by Sergei Eisenstein and Orson Welles, both of which carry blatant visual cues in black-and-white, his narrative inspiration comes from classic horror film structures that he experimented with in DUEL. And Butler’s immersive cinematography, while now understated thanks to the lack of color, is still remarkably constructed.
Even though the nostalgic elements and voyeuristic visuals are excised, the B-movie elements of a black-and-white JAWS create an entirely new, worthy experience. While the original version is still, and will always be, the best incarnation, JAWS is more fun, scarier and slightly sillier here. It may not be the perfect translation, but JAWS sure leaves a mark even without color.
Recommended for Black and White Consumption?: Yes.