Film: Double Bill

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The Independent Culture


(Steven Spielberg, 1974)

The Thing From

Another World

(Christian Nyby, 1951)

THESE TWO films had a big impact on me when I was growing up. I saw Jaws at the ABC St Helens and thought it was such an exciting film because of what it did for the entire audience. I went back to see it 12 times. By the fourth or fifth time I was not really watching the film but the audience, feeling the electric atmosphere and watching them get excited and jump out of their seats. Spielberg had them all the way through. It's not an experience you get very often in the cinema.

There was a huge expectation for this film because it had done so well in America. It was the first hit movie to feel like a blockbuster. There is a wonderful machismo moment when Richard Dreyfuss is facing up to Robert Shaw, the shark-killer, and Robert Shaw squeezes a beer can and Richard Dreyfuss responds by crushing his Styrofoam cup. They were always waiting for the weather, or for this 30-ft mechanical shark to start working again, so Spielberg had to be quite inventive. It was then that a lot of beautiful moments between the characters were improvised.

I am sure it was a baptism of fire for Spielberg. He was only 26. There were pressures to get him fired; the shoot had gone over schedule, and massively over budget.

It had a humanity and humour that were almost as big and engaging as the shark. You see the men confront this big, dangerous thing and in a way deal with demons other than the shark; Roy Scheider's guilt at having not been man enough to make the mayor shut the beach, for example.

There is a culture of excess in cinema now. There's this idea that bigger is always better, and unless the money is up there on the screen people will be disappointed. The really clever thing about Jaws is that you don't see the monster until a good two-thirds of the way in. And even then only fleetingly.

I have seen The Deep and I thought it was tosh for all those reasons; you see everything in great graphic detail, and it was totally thrill- less. By being about people in normal circumstances, Jaws touched on very scary stuff. By dealing with the prosaic it terrifies you. You don't care when glamorous people are eaten, because you don't know any glamorous people.

The Thing has enormous tension and tells its story in an economical way (maybe for budgetary reasons). There are no excessive special effects, the story is straightforward, and it plays at a psychological level. It's all shadows, using the phobias about what's around the corner.

This movie is about a group of scientists in the Arctic who discover a spaceship; a creature has escaped from it. Where it crosses over with Jaws, and is wonderful, is it's about men surviving a menace outside themselves - something bigger and scarier than they are.

Like Jaws, it has a tremendous sense of claustrophobia. They are in a little Arctic station, and even though dealing with this menace plays out across limitless horizons, it is an uncharted environment. The ocean and the Arctic make up a big, broad canvas that compresses the inevitable confrontation with the monster. It makes your skin crawl.

You never really see the thing/ monster. That's the strength of both films. When the monsters do appear in both films they look slightly ridiculous. And it really doesn't matter. You have been led there in such a powerful and interesting way that you don't care.

These films are great fun but there is something more elemental beating away underneath. As you watch them they remind you in a playful way of your own mortality. They take you as close as you want to get to death, then at the end they tell you that everything is all right. It makes you feel wonderful.

There are European esoteric movies that explore mortality in different ways but to me these films are stunning because they explore these big universal issues in a populist way.