It’s an oft-repeated adage that nobody sets out to make a bad movie, but Jaws: The Revenge is so legendarily, comically bad that it almost looks like an inside job. The fishy sequel, released in 1987 to scathing reviews, famously stars a rubbery shark that growls when its head rears out of the water; it has Michael Caine spouting bizarre dialogue; and there are some of the most glaring continuity errors this side of an Ed Wood movie.
What separates Jaws: The Revenge from the usual bad movie crowd is its otherwise decent pedigree. It was the product of a major Hollywood studio. The budget was generous. The director, Joseph Sargent, was far from a hack – a veteran of TV and film, he’d previously made the classic thriller The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three and the cult sci-fi item Clonus: The Forbin Project. The cast, though not exactly star-studded, was perfectly respectable, and Caine’s career seemed to be back on the front foot again towards the end of the ’80s thanks to his performance in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters.
So bearing all this in mind, how did Jaws: The Revenge, even when compared to its increasingly threadbare sequels Jaws 2 and Jaws 3D, go so horrendously awry? The short answer to that question is simple: a lack of time. The longer answer is more complex, and very, very strange.
The Phone Call
“At first mention of Jaws 3, 4, or whatever, you tend to feel like you’re dealing with used clothing.” – Joseph Sargent
Jaws: The Revenge owes its existence in large part to a single phone call. That call took place in either late September or early October of 1986, depending on whose account you read, but the upshot was this: Universal’s chief executive Sid Sheinberg wanted a Jaws sequel, and he wanted Joseph Sargent to direct it.
Sargent initially scoffed at the thought of taking the helm of a shark movie, particularly given the grim fate of Jaws 3D, directed by Joe Alves and released in 1983. The film had made a profit, sure, but the effects were horrible and the reviews were derisive. Taking on a Jaws sequel hardly seemed like a wise career move, but Sheinberg knew how to hook in talent; he told Sargent that Universal wanted a film of the caliber of the first movie, not the schlocky third one.
“We want a quality people picture,” Sheinberg said, “not a shark picture.”
Sheinberg pledged to give Sargent plenty of creative freedom, making him one of the sequel’s producers as well as its director and allowing him carte blanche to assemble the creative team he wanted. That freedom did come with a catch, however: Sheinberg wanted the film ready for the summer of 1987; even if Sargent had begun shooting that very day with a completed script and a handpicked cast, he’d still have less than a year to film and edit the movie.
Bear in mind that Steven Spielberg took about six months on principal photography alone when he made the original Jaws, and it becomes clear just how compressed the time schedule was on the third sequel.
“This is probably the quickest gestation of any project, I think, in film history,” Sargent told Starlog Magazine at the time. Nevertheless, Sargent appeared to be upbeat about the film’s chances. “This movie is such a departure from the two previous Jaws that we’re dealing with more of an emotional base where you can more easily empathise with the characters, which is why we’ve all responded so enthusiastically.”
With time of the essence, Sargent hired Michael de Guzman, a screenwriter whose previous work had included TV dramas and a few episodes of Steven Spielberg’s adventure series, Amazing Stories. Together, they began work on a screenplay with the early title Jaws 87.
“I’m sure somewhere down the line somebody will say there’s demand for another one” – Sid Sheinberg
By now, you might be wondering why there was such a spectacular rush to make another Jaws movie, particularly given the reception to Jaws 3D. Hollywood trade papers certainly treated the announcement, in late 1986, of a fourth Jaws film with a certain amount of bemusement. One clipping from the period, originally posted at Jaws Collector, snarkily floats the possibility that Sheinberg had set the picture up as a vehicle for his actress wife Lorraine Gary, who’d played hero Sheriff Brody’s wife in the original Jaws.
There is, however, a less far-fetched possibility for Jaws: The Revenge‘s existence, which can be found by taking a quick look at Universal’s slate of films from the summer of 1986.
That period was, to use a term often bandied about in Hollywood, a total disaster. First came Legal Eagles, an Ivan Reitman-directed comedy starring Robert Redford, Daryl Hannah, and Debra Winger. While the film made a profit, it cost an extraordinary amount of money for what it was – about $40 million, which is even more than a comedy like Bridesmaids cost today – and the critical response wasn’t kind.
Legal Eagles was an absolute delight when compared to what came next. Howard The Duck had a similar budget to Legal Eagles, and with its irreverent central character, expensive special effects and connection to Star Wars hit machine George Lucas, was expected to be a huge success.
What Universal got instead was a lame duck at the box office, and the press, always ready with a cutting headline, duly did their worst. As Universal’s bosses realized they had a monumental failure on their hands, they began to turn on one another; there were even rumors suggesting that Sid Sheinberg and Universal president Frank Price had started a heated argument on the 15th floor of the studio building, each blaming the other for giving Howard The Duck a greenlight – and that the disagreement had blown up into a full-on fistfight.
Sheinberg denied the story (“It’s a rumor started by idiots for the consumption of idiots,” he said). But at any rate, Price went and Sheinberg stayed. With Universal smarting from the burn of Legal Eagles and Howard The Duck as summer 1986 tipped over into autumn, it’s not difficult to imagine why Sheinberg might want to return to past glories in the hope of securing a hit. After all, he’d been president of Universal when Jaws hit cinemas like a tidal wave in the summer of 1975. Wasn’t there at least a chance that lightning could strike in the same place twice for Jaws?
There might also be another reason why Jaws: The Revenge was suddenly willed into being in the autumn of 1986, as posited by writer Tim Mitchell on his blog, Titans Terrors & Toys. That year, Aliens had made a huge splash in cinemas. It was a monster movie in which its heroine faced off against a toothsome force of nature. Critics loved it even though it was a horror sequel that should, in theory, have been terrible.
That Jaws: The Revenge was inspired by Aliens is mere conjecture, but there is at least evidence that the Jaws sequel’s advertising campaign took a leaf out of Aliens‘ book. Aliens‘ tagline was, famously, “This time it’s war.” The Jaws sequel’s was, less famously, “This time, it’s personal.”
“… We focused on Ellen Brody and her feeling that the shark, in effect, had a vendetta against the family.” – Joseph Sargent
Whatever the catalyst was behind Jaws‘ resurrection, it didn’t change the task that Sargent and Michael de Guzman faced as the leaves began to fall in late 1986: they had to dream up another excuse for another batch of people to be gobbled up by another damn shark.
“We had very little to go on to begin with,” Sargent admitted to Starlog. “So, we began to pile ‘bricks’ one on top of the other, until all of these lovely disconnected elements began to take on a form and a shape.”
One of those bricks was Sheriff Brody, who’d lit up the screen in the original Jaws, largely sulked through Jaws 2 – he was obliged to make the movie for contractual reasons – and had managed to duck out of Jaws 3D altogether. Sargent and de Guzman wanted Brody back, but in a capacity with weird echoes of Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Audiences would have been reintroduced to Brody, almost a decade on from the last time they saw him in Jaws 2. It’s Christmas in Amity Island, and Brody’s out on his police boat on a routine patrol when something shocking happens: a Great White comes lunging out of the water and, in a splash of foamy seawater and blood, Brody’s killed.
This was to be the jumping-off point for a new saga, in which Brody’s now widowed wife, Ellen, becomes convinced that her family’s being targeted by a shark with vengeance on its tiny mind.
“With Jaws: The Revenge, the audience can expect a much more terrifying and spectacular shark doing rather spectacular things,” Sargent enthused ahead of the movie’s release; “and they can expect a very identifiable and heartwarming emotional story since it deals with a woman whose whole family seems to be deteriorating, and her obsessive belief that there is a vendetta against them on the part of the Great White shark. The people content is what turns me on.”
Seemingly gripped by this enthusiasm, Michael de Guzman raced through the script, with its “mystical” shark seemingly able to anticipate Ellen Brody’s every move (that the shark was controlled by a vengeful witchdoctor was a subplot in an early draft of the script, but was later edited out – the detail remains in Revenge‘s novelization).
The original Jaws started its shoot without a finished script. The screenplay for Jaws: The Revenge was completed in just five weeks.
“It’s the pivotal role in this film, the first time I haven’t been the token woman.” – Lorraine Gary
While Sargent and de Guzman were frantically busy as 1986 tipped over into ’87, Lorraine Gary, in acting terms, was not. She’d secured a supporting role in one of the biggest movies of the ’70s with Jaws, but her next collaboration with Spielberg – the WWII comedy 1941 – had seen her career stall. With acting jobs drying up, Gary left the movie business behind and became a literary agent instead.
All that changed when, according to Gary, Sheinberg came home one day and announced that he was thinking of making a fourth Jaws. “He came in and said, ‘We’ve got to have a hit movie this summer and I think we can do another Jaws,‘” Gary told Newsday in March 1987. “I was stunned. I thought he was teasing me.”
In fact, Gary provided another clue as to why Universal was so keen to revive the Jaws franchise for the summer of ’87: television.
“One day,” Gary said in another newspaper interview a few months later, “Sid came home and said they were going to make another Jaws due to the high TV ratings of the first two pictures.”
Now, Gary probably hadn’t assumed she’d be involved in the fourth Jaws movie since she wasn’t asked back for the third, which ditched Amity Island and took place in Florida. But Gary was “shocked and amazed” to discover that the makers of Jaws: The Revenge wanted to write the entire movie around the character. Far from a mother figure hanging around somewhere near the kitchen, Ellen Brody would be the heroine.
Was Ellen’s new status as Jaws 4‘s star due to the success of Aliens? Did Sheinberg have the idea of giving his franchise its own Ellen Ripley? According to Gary, it was Sargent who wanted her for the film’s lead, apparently because he wanted to change the franchise’s demographic.
“Because I was available and they wanted to continue the Brody family connection with Bruce [the cast and crew’s nickname for the shark], they built the script around Ellen. Also, they were tired of pandering to teenagers and the endless acres of nubile bodies – so they got my body instead.”
With Gary in place, the rest of the cast was gradually assembled around her. Lance Guest, who’d previously appeared in such films as Halloween II and The Last Starfighter, was hired to play Michael, Ellen’s now grown-up son (a role filled by Dennis Quaid in Jaws 3D). For the role of Jake, a scientist from the Bahamas, Universal brought in Mario Van Peebles, a young actor who’d just appeared in Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge.
Initially, Van Peebles had turned the role down, thinking that the acting in the other Jaws sequels was so bad that he wanted the shark to chow down on the cast as quickly as possible. But Universal was insistent, and Van Peebles found himself warming to the script. Like Sargent, Van Peebles was also offered the double lure of a large pay check and creative freedom.
“They [Universal] said two magic things to me,” Van Peebles told the Associated Press at the time, “‘We’re going to double your money, and we’re going to let you do the character you want.'”
Van Peebles was in – as was Michael Caine, no doubt attracted by the remuneration (a reported $1.5 million) and the prospect of spending a relatively brief seven days in the Bahamas. Unfortunately for Caine, he’d become a surprise Oscar nominee thanks to his performance in Hannah and Her Sisters. Caine asked Universal whether he could move his week’s filming to another date so that he could go to the awards. The reply was a resounding no – the schedule was simply too tight to move things around.
“And so I had to be there,” Caine told Time Magazine, “And so I missed it.”
Two notable exceptions were Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss, who’d both turned down the tiny roles written for them in the screenplay. Dreyfuss would’ve literally phoned his performance in since the script required him to call Ellen Brody and offer his condolences for her husband’s death. Scheider, bored with shark hunting and less than thrilled at being Revenge‘s Janet Leigh, rejected Universal’s offer.
As a result, the screenplay was rewritten to have Ellen’s son Sean killed by the shark in the story’s opening. Scheider’s Chief Brody, the script now said, had died of a heart attack – or, as his wife puts it in the movie, “He died from fear… from having to go out there after it.”
“I was in production about three months after the first phone call…” – Joseph Sargent
Cameras began rolling on Jaws: The Revenge in February 1987, mere weeks after the first draft of the screenplay was finished. Journalists wondered aloud just how – and why – Universal was crushing what should’ve been a two-year production into nine months. Even Frank Baur, the film’s associate producer, admitted that “we’re doing the impossible.”
“This will be the fastest I have ever seen a major film planned and executed in all of my 35 years as a production manager,” Baur told The Chicago Tribune.
Sargent put on a brave face for newspapers or genre magazines like Starlog (“It’s one of the finest crews I’ve ever worked with,” he would later enthuse), but he later admitted to The Boston Herald that that the movie was “a ticking bomb waiting to go off. Sid Sheinberg expects a miracle – and we’re going to make it happen.”
The opening scenes on Amity Island, again shot in Martha’s Vineyard, were completed in just seven days before the production relocated to Nassau in the Bahamas for a further 38 days on Feb. 9. Sets were hurriedly constructed, including an entire village of wooden huts and a sandy beach. A collection of fake sharks were shipped over from the U.S., including four complete models measuring 25 feet across and three sections of shark – such as the dorsal fin – for use in certain scenes.
The sharks were built during Revenge‘s hasty pre-production period, which explains why they look less than convincing in the finished film – and why, like Bruce in the original Jaws, they kept breaking down during the shoot itself.
“The shark broke down a lot,” Recalled actor Lance Guest in Patrick Jankiewicz’s book, A Jaws Companion. “In fact, it broke down all the time! It’s hard to do, because to make the shark work, you had hydraulic jacks on the bottom of the ocean floor manipulating it, and they had a hard time with the ocean; I remember having to go home a lot of days because the shark just wasn’t working.”
Time was so short during filming that Guest found himself working seven days a week; when he wasn’t performing his dialogue scenes, he was off with the second unit, filming the underwater sequences with the malfunctioning shark. Initial photography finished in May 1987, with many of the aquatic scenes shot in a tank on the Universal lot. The special effects photography, however, continued in the Bahamas right up until June 4 – leaving less than six weeks to get the movie edited and into theaters.
There must’ve been a point among the chaotic shoot that Sargent began to wonder what he’d gotten himself into. Standing aboard a boat tossed about on rough waters, the director swallowed a sea sickness pill and quoted something Spielberg had said years earlier.
“Jaws should never have been made,” Sargent told The Chicago Tribune. “It was an impossible effort. Sometimes I wonder if he was right.”
“We thought the only thing wrong with the film was the ending” – Sid Sheinberg
Cobbled together though it was, Jaws: The Revenge made its deadline and surfaced in American theatres on the 17th of July in 1987. Critical notices were even more hostile than they were for Jaws 3D, but audiences were heading to cinemas at a steady but hardly remarkable rate. There was growing concern, however, at the response to the ending. Moviegoers responded poorly to the gory death of Mario Van Peebles’ character, Jake, and the unconvincing sight of Ellen Brody miraculously harpooning the shark with the prow of her boat.
Clearly, it was too late to do much for the film’s U.S. release, but Sid Sheinberg had a plan: shoot a new ending for Revenge‘s roll-out overseas. “The impact of the shark dying and Mario dying was too much for the audience in one finale,” Sheinberg told the LA Times.
A team was therefore scrambled back to the Universal backlot to shoot a new conclusion, in which Van Peebles is mauled but not killed, while the shark abruptly explodes after its side is pierced by the prow of Ellen’s boat. Universal had attempted to keep news of the reshoot away from the press, but their efforts were foiled by the LA Times.
“An assistant in Sargent’s office confirmed the hurried reshoot,” the paper wrote, “but it is a poorly kept secret: Universal Tour Guides have been pointing out and explaining the activity to hundreds of tram riders.”
“I won an Oscar, paid for a house and had a great holiday. Not bad for a flop movie.” – Michael Caine
If the makers of Jaws: The Revenge knew they had a mess on their hands, they kept a brave face for the media in the summer of 1987. Michael Caine claimed to have thoroughly liked the script (even though he later admitted that he hadn’t bothered to watch the film). Joseph Sargent expressed his appreciation to his cast and crew to Starlog, and talked about his “terrifying” shark doing “spectacular things.”
In the months and years following Revenge‘s release, the growing consensus was that the shark wasn’t terrifying at all, and the things that it did were spectacular in all the wrong ways – roaring like a lion, swimming over a thousand miles in mere days.
Revenge is a textbook example of a movie going horribly wrong: a cast and crew reeled in by healthy pay checks and creative freedom, a studio so hungry for a hit that it’s willing to throw millions (around $23-30 million) at a project in the hope that it’ll make up for the absurd lack of planning.
The result is one of the most shambolic, hilariously inept movies ever to have emerge from a major film studio. Its budget placed it in the company of some of the biggest movies of 1987, such as Beverly Hills Cop II and The Untouchables, yet Revenge made a fraction of the returns those hits enjoyed. Sheinberg remained upbeat about the chances of making Jaws V, but the franchise ultimately sank, never to resurface.
Sheinberg wanted a movie approaching the quality of the original Jaws when he gave the sequel the greenlight; what he got was something closer to an ocean-going Plan 9 From Outer Space. As director Alan Parker once said, “Many directors talk a good film and make bad ones.”
Jaws: The Revenge is without a doubt a bad movie – so much so that it’s gained an almost mythical aura. It takes a special set of circumstances to create a film as calamitous as Revenge, and the result is a collision of bad dialogue, hurried editing and terrible special effects. Sheinberg and Sargent’s film killed the franchise once and for all, but Jaws: The Revenge lingers on like a specter; a warning to other filmmakers about the dangers of enticing offers from studio executives, and an example of just how spectacularly a movie can go wrong.
This article originally ran in Den of Geek UK.