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Summer (unofficially) kicks off this week, so it’s time we head back into the water…
With the release of Jaws back in 1975, Steven Spielberg not only paved the way for the “summer blockbuster” as we know it today, but he also wrote the book on killer shark cinema. In the 40+ years since Jaws came out, no other filmmaker has even come close to capturing the terror of Spielberg’s horror masterpiece, though many have of course tried. Countless imitators came in the wake of Jaws, with the shark attack sub-genre hitting new lows in more recent years thanks to silly Syfy efforts like Sharknado and Sharktopus.
All hope is not lost, however, as quality shark cinema seems to be on the rise.
Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows was, if you’re asking me, the best shark attack horror movie since Jaws, and last year’s Johannes Roberts-directed 47 Meters Down wasn’t too shabby in its own right. With the release of the big-budget The Meg on the horizon for this summer, you could say that sharks are back in a big way in the horror genre.
We even just got a direct-to-video sequel to super fun ’90s shark flick Deep Blue Sea, almost 20 years after the fact, further suggesting we’ve got a trend on our hands.
But make no mistake. As rare as it may have been, quality shark attack horror wasn’t completely nonexistent between Deep Blue Sea and The Shallows, with two films in particular standing out.
Released in 2003, Chris Kentis’ minimalist horror flick Open Water reminded audiences why they should probably think twice before going for a swim, while over in Australia, The Reef did much the same back in 2010. It’s the latter film that we’re here to shine the spotlight on today, as it hasn’t quite gotten the same attention as the American film that would seem to have inspired it.
Written and directed by Andrew Traucki, The Reef (based, horrifyingly, on true events) centers on a group of five friends who take a sailboat into Australia’s Great Barrier Reef for a little fun in the sun. Not long after they arrive, the boat runs into a patch of coral reef and capsizes, stranding the three men and two women quite literally in the middle of the ocean. Drifting further and further out with each passing minute, they soon make the decision to swim for an island several miles away; that’s when they realize they’re being methodically hunted by a Great White.
If there’s one thing about modern shark movies that sucks the fear right out of them it’s unquestionably bad CGI, and one need only re-watch Jaws to be reminded how much more effective a movie monster can be when it’s practically created in the real world. But The Reef, rather than utilizing digital effects or even animatronics, takes the sub-genre to a whole new level by employing real sharks. Yes, the sharks in Australia’s answer to Open Water are 100% real, and it’s because there’s not an ounce of noticeable CGI in sight that the film is so very effective at, well, scaring the living shit out of you.
Whenever you see a shark in The Reef, it’s obvious that it’s the real deal, and there are a few thoroughly breathtaking, pants-shitting sequences where the shark is in such close proximity to the actors that it’s hard to tell how Traucki even pulled it off. You fear not just for the characters but also for the actors, and there’s just something so potent and real about the whole thing. But what really seals the deal on The Reef being one of the best shark attack horror flicks in the past ten years is not just how terrifying those attack scenes are, but perhaps more importantly, how terrifying it is when you see nothing at all.
Like Open Water, The Reef could best be described as a minimalist horror film, and it’s Traucki’s “less is more” approach that really works wonders here. It’s 50-minutes into the film before we catch our first glimpse of the shark, and even after he does show up, Traucki mostly makes us – right along with the ill-fated characters – anticipate the beast’s return. We often have no idea when the shark is around or when he’s going to strike, and the fear and paranoia etched onto the faces of the characters really tells the whole story. When it comes to horror, what you don’t quite see tends to be way more terrifying than what you do, and The Reef knocks that particular method of restrained suspense out of the park.
As for the kill scenes, of which there are a few, they’re executed with much the same restraint. Some viewers may be disappointed that Traucki doesn’t go a little further with them, showing more and perhaps even adding some gruesome gore into the mix, but that’s just not the movie he set out to make here. The name of the game is realism, and The Reef smartly dials back the action in service of that realism.
So if you’re looking for a genuinely scary shark film, look no further than The Reef. Pair it with Open Water for a double feature that will ensure you never go into the water again.
At the time of writing this, The Reef is streaming through Amazon Prime.