This month is all about the shark flicks and this one is a good one. It’s an Australian entry based on a true story. I said in a previous post that all shark movies might as well be titled “Another Shark movie that’s Not Jaws” because nothing will ever live up to that film in regards to the layers of characterization, plot, pace, and suspense as well as special effects and sound track. Jaws may not be the scariest shark movie that will ever be made, but it’s deeply etched into our cultural psyche and is likely to stay there.
Which brings us to The Reef. I’m sure the Australian tourist commission rolls its collective eyes every time they hear someone is making a shark movie based near the Great Barrier Reef. Nothing like a flick showing people getting eaten one by one by sharks to drive away tourists in droves along with their dollars. But The Reef doesn’t cash in on exploitation or gratuitous carnage. I’d say it’s even less bloody than Jaws. Whether that’s a budget limitation or an artistic choice…it works for this film.
I have written before about the one most important element of setting in a horror movie and that’s isolation. You’d think the vast oceans would be difficult to see as isolating, but this film creates a dual world of isolation. The delima? Stay on a capsized boat that may sink and put you in the water with sharkies also taking the risk you may not be found thus dying of dehydration and starvation? Or make a swim for dry land you know is there, but can’t see thus making you literally a movable feast for the sharkies?
It’s a nice recipe for suspense. Staying on the boat isolates you. Going in the water isolates you. You can tell yourself, “It’s a great big ocean. I’m sure this wet suit doesn’t make me look TOO much like a floundering, tasty seal.” Once the group of four leave the boat, we are stuck with them in the water and at the mercy of the director. There’s one guy with a diving mask. He’s the only one able to see what’s going on in the water beneath them.
And THAT is how you build suspense. By giving just enough information for your audience to empathize, but not enough to create dramatic irony. Dramatic irony separates us from the people we are reading about or watching. In The Reef, we’re right in the water with them and every ominous splash sends a thrill down our spines. Every fin we see break the water makes us catch our breath. It helps that the acting is excellent in this film. The actors are very restrained and realistic. Some of their actions are inexplicable, like one guy has a knife in one scene, but never uses it against the sharks. There’s very little soundtrack, no copy of a musical motif to signal us that danger approaches. Again, this is an excellent choice that helps delineate this film from its famous antecedent.
All in all it’s the manipulation of all these elements that make this film succeed as a horror film and as a reminder of Man’s place on the food chain.