The poster for the original high-concept blockbuster Jaws is one of the most iconic ever created. It is an expression of pure primal fear, tapping into the most basic of human nightmares, and encapsulating the thrill of the film in one powerful image.
It’s power lies in it’s simplicity. A naked female swimmer a quarter down the frame. Beneath her, a huge shark shooting upwards. Blue sea. White sky. That’s it.
The tip of the shark’s nose is perfectly on target for the female, whose nudity accentuates the risk. She is defenceless and oblivious to the imminent threat. The poster shark is far larger than that in the movie. Indeed, it is too large to fit on the poster. We see only it’s huge mouth, gaping wide, exposing razor teeth, black eyes either side, ready to swallow the girl in one mouthful. That vertical ascent is how a Great White does kill, but the main purpose of the angle is to highlight that deadly mouth.
It is the horror of the unseen predator, as big as our imaginations, our lurking fears writ large, which we cannot hope to defeat. And yes, like so many iconic images throughout human history, it’s definitely phallic.
The artwork was painted by Roger Kastel for the Peter Benchley bestseller the movie was based on, the original drawing by Paul Bacon being deemed too tame. Kastel was instructed to make the shark bigger and more realistic, and the naked swimmer was straight from the opening chapter of the book, the shark’s first victim.
Roger has had a hugely successful career as a working artist illustrating book covers, magazines and posters, although none of his other work ever touched the iconic purity of Jaws. The original painting was roughly 20 by 30 inches, but went missing years ago, either lost or stolen, and Roger hasn’t seen the canvas since, although it is reproduced continually, embedded in popular culture.
It is an image that doesn’t need a tagline, although the one used in the adverts was just as primal: don’t go in the water. As economical as the film’s title. As lean and mean as John Williams’ two note theme. Basic enough to instill a life-long fear of swimming in many, to get millions flocking to the big screen for a carnival rollercoaster ride.
It still scares today.