I’ve been watching a lot of shark movies lately.
Why? I don’t know, it just sort of happened. It started with Sharknado. Then I figured I should probably go back and watch Jaws.
I’m sure some of you are saying that’s completely backwards. Well! To you I say — uh, yeah. It is. My bad.
But it was interesting to see in this order — Sharknado, Sharknado 2, Sharknado 3, Sand Sharks, Jaws. My small sampling of shark films, mostly comic with a dash of actual terror, just barely skims the surface of the shark-centered monster movie genre. The proverbial tip of the iceberg. The dorsal fin above the waves.
Hell, I’ve never even watched Shark Week.
And, yes, minus Jaws, you’re probably questioning my taste in film right now. That’s reasonable. But, look, I love a good bad movie. My favorite movie in high school was Attack of the Killer Tomatoes — but that’s a topic for another blog post — so I guess what I’m saying is Deal With It.
Because the quality of these films, relatively or absolutely, is not really what’s important. (Though I’m not ashamed to admit that I loved Sharknado.)
What is important is how closely connected these movies are, despite being completely different in tone. Yeah, sure — that dissonance should be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a parody in their life. But I’m going to argue that this tonal difference is a lot less of a gap when we’re talking about horror and comedy.
If you don’t have a twisted sense of humor like me, you might wonder what horror and comedy have in common. Actually, they’re quite closely related when you look at the mechanics that are holding them up.
Good comedy and good horror both hinge on the same thing: timing.
I’ve said this before, and I’m far from the only one who’s said it. Still — if you’ve ever tried to tell a joke before, you’re probably familiar with how easily the whole thing can fall apart if your delivery is bad. “Delivery” is complex, but timing is a crucial part of it. Now think about the last time you tried to sneak up on someone and scare them. It’s the same thing, isn’t it? It’s all about the unexpected.
What kind of surprise is it? Well, that’s where you fork off into either terror or delight.
Both require a shock — not the negative kind of shock you hear people complaining about when they say a director only did something for “shock value.” That’s what happens when your execution is poor. You try too hard and make it too obvious and the audience will catch a glimpse behind the curtain. Well-executed shock doesn’t have to be slapstick or a jump scare, either: it can be a sudden shift in emotion or tone.
What the hell does any of this have to do with sharks?
Let’s see. Compare Jaws and Sharknado.
In Jaws, we don’t even see the shark until halfway through the movie. It’s just suggested: through reactions, camera angles, the splash of the water. This is a lot scarier than the sight of the shark, Spielberg explains behind the scenes, because we relate to swimming. Very few of us relate to being around a shark, but take familiar sights of swimming and let the viewer’s imagination fill in the blanks, and suddenly the entire effect is a lot more immediate.
But let the audience get too used to that, and they might stop being afraid. They might start to think that the shock is never going to come. The tension will disappear.
So the first good look at the shark has to be a shock.
How do you do that? Well, you could go for something as menacing as possible… or you could disarm the audience first so that even a slight glimpse feels like a shock. And this is what Spielberg does — he catches us laughing at what’s supposed to be a break in the action, a relaxing moment where the men are bantering about fish chum. The camera stays on Brody as he finishes up his line, and just when we’re chuckling and expecting the camera to cut away, boom!
Just for an instant, just lurking in the background. But there’s the shock: we came for a laugh, and we got played. That crisp reversal of expectations makes for a great scare.
Sharknado doesn’t keep its sharks hidden nearly as well as Jaws — and that’s fine, because that’s not the point. It’s a fucking shark tornado. Of course it’s not going to be subtle. Of course it’s going to be over the top.
But because we know that’s coming, when Sharknado employs teasing and suggestion, the homage comes off as comic where Jaws is eerie.
When they use the mechanics that we’re used to seeing in more serious horror films like Jaws, it doesn’t raise the tension in quite the same way — because in Jaws, we’re expecting something frightening and bloody to happen. But in Sharknado, we are expecting a fucking shark tornado. It’s absurd — an inherent contradiction of intent and mechanism. You’re still ramping up for a release of tension, it’ll just come out as a laugh instead of a scream.
Reversing your expectations.
So it works both ways — lay a foundation of comedy or horror, then pull the bait and switch to the other for a sudden punch.
And it works particularly well with sharks. They’re the closest thing we’ve really got to a kraken — not anatomically, of course, but in terms of threat. Just look at those rows and rows of teeth!
Look, I’m actually pretty fond of sharks. The smaller ones can be pretty cute under the right circumstances. But chowing down on human flesh is not the right circumstance.
And that’s rare! It’s rare that sharks eat humans… but it still happens, sometimes. And sometimes can be scarier than always — it adds just that hint of uncertainty.
Which is a good opportunity to lay the groundwork for that bait and switch.
Just don’t go overboard. Really. I’m warning you not to go off the deep end. If your story is just swimming in these reversals, it will get bogged down. Give the audience a chance to come up for air.
I think I’ve made my point about overdoing things.
There’s an argument to be made that the shark attack genre has been overdone — a pretty good argument, if you ask me. But the old classics are classics for a reason, and the cult classics can be a lot of fun if they don’t cross that line.
The dance of fear and laughter is a delicate one, but rewarding when it’s done right.