While terrified movie studio executives are scrambling to figure out why audiences are staying home, we suggest they look for lessons in two groundbreaking scary summer films that came out this week, in different years, long ago: "Psycho" and "Jaws."
Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” which is marking its 35th anniversary, is credited with creating the summer blockbuster. But Spielberg’s hero, Alfred Hitchcock, beat him to the punch – or rather, stab – 15 years earlier with the gory story of an unhinged mama’s boy named Norman Bates.
The two films have a lot more in common than just great directors – and ordinary folks suddenly killed when wet.
Unlike many current movies, the power of “Psycho” and “Jaws” rest just as much in what the audience doesn’t see as in what they do see.
In “Psycho,” from the time the killer rips open the shower curtain to the final thrust of the knife, barely 24 seconds pass – but the indelible memories have lasted a half-century and counting. In “Jaws,” the title character, in terms of screen time, is bit player – but manages to chew up the scenery like few other film icons
Hitchcock, of course, was the Master of Suspense. Spielberg learned well, letting “Jaws” play out as much in the mind as on the screen.
Both directors added just a whiff of sex amid the tension, which was aided by music, making the sounds as vital as the sights. Bernard Herrmann’s screeching violin score mimicked the screams that filled the Bates Motel bathroom – and theaters. John Williams’ pulsing dum-dum-dum-dum shark-heralding score, grew faster with the action and the racing heartbeats of movie audiences.
“Psycho” and “Jaws” remain unforgettable movie-going experiences – horror flicks with just enough art to make them revolutionary and enough mass appeal to make then successes in their times and beyond.
While both directors thrilled us with a minimum of special effects, bringing up "Psycho" and "Jaws" isn't intended as a rant against modern popular filmmaking. Spielberg brilliantly employed then-emerging CGI technology to let the dinosaurs run wild in 1993’s “Jurassic Park.” James Cameron, this past year, used improved performance-capture techniques and an enveloping 3-D to make “Avatar” an industry game changer – and the biggest box office success of our time.
From “Psycho” to “Avatar,” innovation, originality and, above all, strong storytelling proved common keys to success.
But this summer, we’re getting hit with reboots and sequels, and flicks where 3-D just seems to be tossed in (it didn’t help or hurt the latest “Shrek,” which has a sweet-but-slight “It’s a Wonderful Life” premise).
“Psycho” spawned three sequels by other directors, as did “Jaws” (including 1983’s “Jaws 3-D”). The films only got worse as they went along.
Looking for the next “Psycho” or “Jaws” is beside the point as Tinseltown grapples with what Deadline Hollywood has dubbed the Summer of Discontent. We’ll just settle for some good, original films.
But it’s probably worth remembering, even in an age where excess is expected in summer movies, that sometimes a little less can mean a lot more – for both the audience and the box office.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.