Dir:- David Nerlich & Andrew Traucki
Starr:- Diana Glenn, Maeve Dermody, Andy Rodoreda, Ben Oxenbould, Fiona Press
Back when new digital video technology was just beginning to impact upon the film industry, and in particular the way in which independent movies were produced, a small American drama called Open Water took upwards of $50 million worldwide, off of a budget of barely $500,000. It was written, directed, filmed and edited by Chris Kentis, who went on to direct this year’s Silent House. In much the same way that The Blair Witch Project had done before it, the film redefined cinematic minimalism and also highlighted how audiences seem to respond favourably to low-key tales of human endurance even in the most imperiled of situations. The first of the Paranormal Activity movies did something similar with a more obviously horrific and fantastical narrative, also reaping financial rewards at the global boxoffice. Open Water also came kitted out with a ‘based on’ tag, something that has been used in an increasingly flexible manner by a number of recent films (think of the particularly audacious usage in The Strangers). It is almost as if the promise of ‘authentic’ chills and the voyeuristic thrill of watching another human suffer, and endure, has become a guarantee of public interest, just as wholly unhealthy and coldly calculated sadism has turned the Saw franchise into a global cinematic brand.
The writing and directing team of David Nerlich and Andrew Traucki have clearly digested a few of these recent low-budget cinematic lessons, thus their 2007 debut feature Black Water comes with one of those dubious ‘based on’ tags. Traucki has since gone on to direct another similarly themed drama-horror The Reef, whilst Nerlich has returned to work on visual effects. Clearly it is Traucki who has an eye for impressive visuals, with Nerlich bringing some highly impressive monster magic to this classy creature-feature. However, what is perhaps most disarming about Black Water is how the movie manages to generate so much tension from so little action. The 90 minute running time is an extended demonstration of how little is needed to genuinely frighten an audience.
The plot is as minimalistic as the cast and the action. It revolves around a young couple, Grace (Diana Glenn) and Adam (Andy Rodoreda), who take Grace’s younger sister Lee (Maeve Dermody) on a tour of the Northern Territories of Australia with them. In a nicely constructed opening credit sequence the events of this trip are presented in a montage of holiday snapshots, that helps to immediately set up a strong relationship between the audience and the protagonists. On the final day of the holiday Adam suggests that they go and do a spot of fishing and check out the mangrove swamps. Prior to this they swing by a crocodile farm and the audience is given its first indication of what is likely to lay in store for the trio. Traucki and Nerlich manage to cram almost all of this subtle exposition into the opening ten minutes, priming the audience with the necessary information to appreciate the true extent of the danger Grace, Lee and Adam are about to find themselves in. It’s an impressively confident start to proceedings and the movie does little to diminish it.
Having opted to go on a tour of the mangrove swamps with a guide called ‘Backwater Bill’ the trio arrive at a small jetty, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, only to discover that Bill has already taken a tour out. Jim (Ben Oxenbould) sees an opportunity to make a quick buck and says that he’ll take them out in his small tin motorboat. Although a little reluctant, Grace, Lee and Adam nonetheless opt to go on the trip. Before they head out on the water Lee figures out that Grace is in fact pregnant (but hasn’t yet told Adam), and she also witnesses Jim holstering a pistol. These two details will play intrinsic roles in the development of the movie, particularly toward its final third.
Out in the swamps Traucki manages to capture some truly stunning natural landscape shots, with the mangrove trees in particular forming a hauntingly skeletal and eerily hypnotic backdrop to proceedings. Jim spends a large part of the time travelling through the swamp explaining to the trio what kind of tides they have, where areas are flooded, what good spots to look out for and where the best fish might be caught. Whereas other films might have exploited the potential threat of such a skilled outdoorsman, like in Deliverance or The River Wild, here Traucki and Nerlich keep things simple and plausible, a choice which pays dividends in the final thirty minutes of the film. With barely twenty minutes gone the group hear something bash against the underside of the boat and for a moment they nervously look around to see if anything is moving in the water. It is Jim who finally pulls something into the boat, but it is no real cause concern, just a bit of flotsam. However, moments later another knock is heard and this time it’s something far more threatening.
At first it is hard to see where Traucki and Nerlich can take the film, as within the opening 25 minutes, they have dispatched of one cast member and marooned the rest of the cast up a tree in the middle of a mangrove swamp. Yet this is also the genius of the movie, as Traucki and Nerlich literally focus all the dramatic tension in little details, tiny shifts in the protagonists situation. Unlike comparable creature features, such as Jaws or Alligator, the menacing beast that hems the trio in, is far more convincingly constructed, at times appearing to be a real crocodile (thanks to some clever use of a blend of puppetry, live-action footage and CGI). Impressively the creative team attempt absolutely nothing that would seem preposterous, with the sole exception of the final confrontation sequence. Grace, Lee and Adam, spend most of the first day applying mosquito repellent and trying to work up the courage to approach the now overturned boat. The women feel it is better to wait for help to arrive, particularly as their mobiles having been soaked during the unexpected plunge into the swamp. However, Adam points out the troubling fact that nobody else knows where they are, therefore assistance is unlikely to come along any time soon. What follows is a slow, but fascinating, dance of death with the ferocious predator that senses fresh meat. As time shifts on and no help is in sight, the trio become increasingly desperate, particularly as dehydration is beginning to take its toll.
It is rare to come across a horror film that is far more interested in the plight of the victims than the terror of the situation. Each of the character’s presented are neatly drawn and adequately detailed, so that as their predicament takes on the feel of an ordeal it is impossible not to feel a strong empathy for them. Most of the actual fear in the film’s increasingly languorous sequences is derived from the angled framing of shots, as if the camera were tilting upon the surface of the water, combined with the keen attention paid to the minutest splashing sounds, or the faintest trace of motion across the swamp. When eventually the crocodile attacks, it doesn’t consume its victims in a ridiculous manner, but rather wounds them, attempting to incapacitate them so that it can feed on them later. With little, or no, horror histrionics the film excels at capturing terror as it slowly unfolds in the minds of the protagonists, who are slowly realising they are unlikely to find a way out. The excellent performances from all three principal actors should keep an audience caring till the bitter end, with Dermody, in particular, looking every inch the next big Aussie star.