SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

THE REEF (2010) ~ Sh . . sh . . shark! // "A movie made up of often quite startling things - like the contents of a shark's stomach."



*Some spoilers may eat you alive below - watch before reading!*

I was really looking forward to this. Based on a true story it tells of a group of young people sailing a boat along Australia's Great Barrier Reef  towards Indonesia, only for it to capsize and for them all having to swim to a nearby reef, with a great white shark swimming not far behind.

The relationships between the young crew are tangled. There's Luke (a boy with a boat needing a bigger crew) who has invited friends: Matt, (Matt's girlfriend) Suzie, and (Matt's sister) Kate (who also happens to be Luke's ex-girlfriend - you following this?). These characters are often interchangeable. But there's a certain lustiness to the set-up that perhaps serves to remind of films (and especially a certain book of a film; of a far more famous shark movie) where it was even more effectively used.

Luke is still hung up on his ex-girlfriend because he still loves her - but she wanted "time out" to "think about things" (but for no good reason I could pick up on - hey; karma). I think she just wants to play around a bit and go 'a la carte' in her love life, instead of sticking to the same old set menu, for a while. They all end up as potential shark a la carte by the time the end credits roll over anyway.


One thing I liked about the original novel 'Jaws' by Peter Benchley is that Ellen cheats on husband Chief Brody, just because she thrives on the excitement - needs to do something different in her life. In modern shark horror like The Reef, characters "take time out" - to do what? Join a self-help group? A yoga club? Or write the novel they've always wanted to, but never quite could.

While Spielberg actually dropped the Ellen Brody affair for the movie version of Jaws (though he was probably right to, there were enough hang-ups in all the beautiful characterisation already present) - I still liked the way the mom at the start of the excellent film version of Cujo was doing the deed with a bearded lover in the middle of the afternoon behind hubby's back. It meant that, by the end of the film, you really felt for the married couple in crisis - and their story and how it ended, was almost as important as whether the kid or mom got gnashed by the slobbery dog.

In Cujo, the bedroom scene between bored housewife Dee Wallace as Donna and her lover Steve (a lusty Christopher Stone) is shown fairly tenderly and with some relish (morally not all that reprehensible even) but the punishment for mom (much like the kids in Friday the 13th paying the penalty of losing their virginity at camp with a stab in the neck from local bloodthirsty lunatic, Jason Voorhees) is being savaged by a rabid dog. In The Reef - the punishment for Kate taking time out on her boyfriend (for no bloody good reason) is, along with her friends, ending up as live shark bait; a most noble horror film tradition.


Anyway, Luke and Kate nearly kiss on the boat a few times, but that's about as far as redemption gets around here. A young, buff sailor with curly blonde locks also along for the trip, livens the sexual tension and looks interested in the cute ex-girlfriend still 'taking the time out to think about things' but in the end he turns out to be the cowardly/ sensible one (delete as appropriate) who doesn't want to swim for shore when the shark starts circling and soon gets forgotten about.

For god's sake get the hunky shipmate into the sack with ex-girlfriend so that ex-boyfriend can see red, I couldn't help thinking before the sharks swam into play and livened up the poop deck. If this had been Cujo, they'd have been at it like rabid bunnies. And look what sleeping with the enemy did for Nicole Kidman in Dead Calm (1989) - thoroughly enlivened an already enlivened movie and, you know, I really believed in that sweaty quick screw on the hard floor (and bed) of the yuppy couple's yacht. It was the most erotic quick-thinking in movie history.

The thing about great shark movies like Jaws or even the brilliant rip-off ones from the likes of cult directors such as Joe D'Amato for the outrageous red sauce of Deep Blood, is that they seem to develop a bite of their own, effortlessly. They seem like films made by people who genuinely love seeing a rubber shark bite off a rubber leg and make it look pretty realistic without today's CGI that often makes the sharks no more realistic than the one in the animated The Reef (2006). I mean, they have fun with what they are shooting, irrespective of lack of budget or morals.

The Reef has some fun in the making of this movie, evidenced from the 'On Location' extras on the DVD, but while there's clearly some fun to be had behind the scenes, the cast lose some of their personality (that they clearly have in abundance above water) when swimming in the sea being menaced by sharks that are effective, but not as joyously Jaws-like as you may hope they'll be - but then, the shark in Jaws (believable for sure, in context of what it needed to do - or look like, for Spielberg) has never really been beaten by any young pretender, despite the advance in modern technology. The sharks in The Reef are realistic, but not over the top. It's more scary here thinking about where the sharks are and what they might do to your leg, then what they look like up close.  


The film ends too quickly, calling 'wrap' before the shark truly chomps. The shark attacks are tense but restrained for a lot of the time (perhaps as respect to the true story this is based on). It's probably the case that most of those tuning in to a film such as this are mainly looking out for the some serious killer shark action - we are, after all, only human!

The rugged sailor who stays behind while the younger, less rugged, more bikini-waxed crew paddle to an island (he's right: you don't get in the water with sharks, even if you are on a sinking ship) is wasted with little to do after looking lustily at another man's ex than wander around deck looking into the water. At one point, he sees something in the water surrounding him. Possibly his career (not really - he's actually the best actor on board!). Sadly, that's it. Perhaps because we don't know what really happened to this man in real life - apparently the boat and man both vanished and were never seen again, that we don't get much past 'GO'. Maybe one day - in The Reef II, we will get to find out, hypothetically, what might have happened to poor Warren.

It's a wasted opportunity not to have Warren featured more: to have had this character getting increasingly nervous as isolation sets in and shadows are seen in the water around him. Is it too late - or should he still swim after the others? Or wait? But no - we just get a quick shot of the poor lad left alone looking into the water a little forlornly. The others eventually find a bit of reef to just about stand up on - like the limited deck of the boat that Warren is trapped upon; it's a terrifying and better realised last stand. What happens to this dude is between him and the plankton.

Director Andrew Traucki (who, in naturalistic nature horror is a clear genius of the genre - or of a genre he perhaps has invented) adds touches of cinematic flair and vision that tries to do something different with the shark bait genre, even if the script is a little bit wet at times.

When one of the crew swims under the capsized boat to see what just hit them - there is a hint there just may be a shark hiding under the boat with them too. It's all shot from the waist up, in the cramped, half waterlogged, upside-down cabin area and it's almost like the shark is literally 'in the house' (or boat!) - stalking around in cupboards and hiding under shelves (a far better way to get a killer shark out of its own environment and into ours than other more penny dreadful shark movies have achieved before). The scene clearly riffs on Hooper's rummaging around in the cabin of the sunken boat late at night in Jaws - but still a mean scene to crib from, and take further than even Spielberg did.

The shark photography is good; a real shark is used, no rubber allowed here, or even any tacky CGI (a bonus). It may not be the scariest shark mouth ever - but it's a realistic one. At one point we get a startlingly auteur-like scene where the camera gets taken right into the shark's mouth (this really did happen by accident during filming of a scene - the footage then used in the movie). We get to see the cast in completely wild shark teeth-o-vision. It's genius, even if it is a complete accident because just the act of knowing he has to leave the footage in the movie gets maximum respect from me.

'Shark teeth-o-vision' is something of a fan-boys wish fulfilment - Jaws as if filmed by Dario Argento (director of such horror greats as Suspiria and the man with the trademark POV shots that have included such delights as the flight of a bullet through a brain from start to exit wound). Remember Gregory Peck scaring the life out of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday by making out his hand had been bitten off by a marble statue while filming a scene? She wasn't expecting such a theatrical ad lib, cue Audrey's realistic shriek of horror! Sometimes the scariest scenes are those that just happened naturally or exist by the process of a prank because there's nothing worse than sterile, static, perfect cinema (except of course when lensed by the likes of Kubrick, who made it an artform).

The other memorable moments on The Reef mainly come from the cast treading water and being circled by that shark out there, taking the odd deep breath and peering down into the deep dark water from time to time to see if they are being followed. The truth is down there. It's a bit like an old dark house movie where something is about to jump out of a cupboard at you, but here it's from behind a patch of plankton. It's the tension that the film needs. A hint of how good a slow, languid, build-up can be.

Oh, and at least two shark attack moments made me jump out of my seat! That's a result. It's neat trickery used, but fair trickery. If it's good enough for Spielberg...

The director of The Reef, Andrew Traucki, also directed the similar - and brilliant - fact-based creature feature 'Black Water' (2007) that was a fantastically un-shouty and slow-building terror film about a deliciously malignant killer croc lurking in the swamp. Actually, I preferred the croc to the shark in this one. I think I liked the limited swamp-based setting a lot more too. I remember most vividly the cast in Black Water spending most of their time climbing up trees or looking at a patch of swamp for a croc to come out. Somehow it's more intense an experience than the open plan ocean setting of this one.

Of course, if you get stuck out at sea with a shark and your cast includes Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss, it doesn't matter how long you are stuck out there for - you relish every minute. Of the cast in The Reef I thought Zoe Naylor as Kate was especially charismatic and caught the attention. The Reef is a movie made up of often quite startling things - like the contents of a choosy shark's stomach. The sense of isolation of Warren stuck alone on a drifting boat with a circling shark for company is one of the most eerie; it's just a shame it's too brief.

Remember Jaws 2 (1978) with all the teenagers stuck on upturned boats close to a rocky island wondering how to swim for that small stretch of rock and not get chomped upon? The script of that one mirrors that of this one - even though The Reef is based on a true story. Jaws 2, obviously isn't. The sense of being trapped, cornered at sea on those sinking boats in Jaws 2 was dragged out a little too long perhaps - but the build-up of terror was all the more effective as a result. The build-up of terror in The Reef is outstanding.

A deadly shark movie (despite the fish being such a maligned, endangered and beautiful species) when done well, can make for great cinema - period. Not just the genre kind. But Jaws is probably still the only 'great movie and shark movie' ever made, proving that while the concept sounds easy to repeat - it isn't as it's probably still the only 'great movie and shark movie' ever made.

Only the outstanding Australian movie, Rogue (2007) which features a giant killer croc terrorising tourists on a river cruise through the strikingly beautiful Australian Northern Territory comes close to matching the cinematic wide-eyed thrill of seeing Jaws for the first time.


The Reef, ballasted by setpieces of genuine invention and standout terror tactics is among the best of its kind but occasionally treads water and never quite swims far enough away from familiar shores to be a true classic. It still dives deeper into the human/ fish psyche than many other killer fish from the deep movies out there, looks good and has a lot of fun with the genre without ever disrespecting it. And being a lifelong fan of all things great, white, and cinematically shark-like - this was a pretty good example of the cinema of Carcaradon Carcharias.


words: mark gordon palmer

No comments:

Post a Comment