Plot Points: Early Spielberg and The Horrors of Broad Daylight
How many of your favorite horror movies take place at night, in space, or in claustrophobic interiors? Judging by Flickchart’s top-ranked horror movies, those are the standard environments of the genre. Alien is in the dark of space where (the famous tagline goes) “nobody can hear you scream,” The Shining plays out in hotel hallways, Psycho has an archetypical creepy old house… It’s not until Flickcharters’ fifth-favorite horror film, Jaws, that the primary setting moves into the great outdoors. Looking further down the list brings us body horror, zombies, vampires, demonic possession, and lots of aliens, but little else with the sun-soaked atmosphere of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic.
Plenty of people, myself included, are reluctant to classify Jaws as a horror, but it certainly is scary. And what’s more, it wasn’t the first or the last time Spielberg set a scary movie in broad daylight. Though he is rarely thought of as a horror director, and never operated wholly within that sphere, there was a time when Spielberg’s favorite tactic seemed to be frightening people in broad daylight.
Duel (1971) was the first. It was Spielberg’s second movie, but, like his first, it was not feature-length; it was made for television and ran just 74 minutes. The horror takes the form of an unseen truck driver who aggressively tailgates Dennis Weaver, the bespectacled and befuddled driver of a boxy red Plymouth. Duel takes place almost entirely outdoors and in full sunlight. That may have a bit to do with the technical difficulties of filming at night in the desert, but it’s also important for removing any easy explanation for the diesel-fueled stalking; Weaver couldn’t be said to have “asked for this” by driving at night when the creeps are out.
Duel is also something of a neo-Western. That once-dominant genre seemed to be fading in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and a number of films from Butch Cassidy to The Wild Bunch had bidden it an (ultimately premature) farewell. Some, like Easy Rider, found ways to use old settings in self-consciously modern ways: hippie heroes on hogs riding through the grand deserts of the West and Southwest. Spielberg’s first movie, Amblin’ (1968), had had both the hippies and the desert, but Duel replaced the former with a businessman and thereby assured itself a longer shelf life. Instead of suggesting Americana with a folksy dropped ‘g’, the word “duel” conjures up images of cowboys in a dusty street at high noon. Instead of guns, Weaver and the trucker face off with motor vehicles, but like Gary Cooper or John Wayne they fight on desert grit under the bright sun. Of course, no western outlaw was ever as monstrous, tenacious, and unshakable as this truck and its cowboy-boot-wearing driver.
There are five human deaths in Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). Three of them take place during the day and two at night. The girl who goes swimming in the opening sequence is chewed up in the evening, but her remains are found in the morning. Ben Gardner, a fisherman who goes looking for the shark, may well have been eaten during the day, but his decaying head and torso are found submerged in his half-sunken boat at night. The rest of the victims die in true Amity Island fashion — either enjoying the beach and the surf or working to protect those who are.
Unlike the truck and driver in Duel, whose motives are ambiguous but probably psychopathic, the shark in Jaws is behaving as normally and comprehensibly as its victims. Its size is unusual, but its behavior is analyzed biologically: “Most people get attacked by sharks in three feet of water about ten feet from the beach… This guy, he keeps swimmin’ around in a place where the feeding is good until the food supply is gone,” recounts Chief Brodie (Roy Scheider). There’s no use for shadows for a creature like this; it’s as willing to pop out of the water in the daytime as nighttime, and that much likelier to find food. A beach, an ocean, and a lagoon would be as hard to illuminate at night as a desert, but Spielberg doesn’t need to bother — the terror happens during the day.
Spielberg’s next feature was 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, an alien story. It features a fair amount of nighttime photography, including a couple of matte shots overlooking a city. However, Spielberg and his art and effects teams use those shots primarily for misdirection and tension; viewers detect a set-up and wait for something to zoom by, to fly over the painted city, but for the most part nothing does.
When Close Encounters gets creepy, it tends to do it during the day. Richard Dreyfuss digs up his yard to fill his living room with mud and leaves while his wife (Teri Garr) and children fear for his sanity. Black helicopters, bogeymen of conspiracy theorists, follow him in his vehicle. In the movie’s most famous scene, a single mother (Melinda Dillon) tries desperately to keep her toddler sheltered from bright lights outside. Their farm house — again an isolated and natural environment — is surrounded by a sudden wind, and light pours in through the windows. When the windows are shaded, light streams through the keyhole. The quality of light is, at first, a highly-saturated orange, like an ideal summer sunset. This gives way to a harsh blue floodlight, intense and irresistible, and within minutes another family in the film is sundered. No house, however sealed, can keep away the bright outside.
This daylight horror was Spielberg’s first calling card. In the 1980s and 90s, it gives way to a new signature technique, a swooping zoom ending in an awed close-up that Kevin Lee calls “the Spielberg face.” Yet one of the first motifs that made a Spielberg movie a Spielberg movie continues to set his early “horror” films apart.
Duel on Flickchart
- Globally ranked #499
- Ranked by 3360 users
- Wins 45% of matchups
- 1 user has it at #1
- 49 users have it in their top 20
Jaws on Flickchart
- Globally ranked #59
- 70331 users have ranked it
- Wins 58% of matchups
- 844 users have it at #1
- 11716 have it in their top 20, including yours truly
Close Encounters of the Third Kind on Flickchart
- Globally ranked #251
- 35791 users have ranked it
- Wins 52% of matchups
- 107 users have it at #1
- 2331 users have it in their top 20