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Black Water is one of those rare instances where “based on true events” isn’t just a gratuitous tagline. The 2007 movie (later followed by an unrelated and more polished-looking sequel) is in fact inspired by an event from a few years earlier — near the Finniss River in the Northern Territory of Australia, two people were stranded in a tree after a massive predator killed their friend, then continued to stalk them. While that real-life account and this piece of fiction are substantially different in most respects, they both illustrate the terrifying unpredictability of “salties.”
After spending Christmas vacation with family, Black Water’s three main characters set off on a number of small adventures before returning to their humdrum lives. It’s only when sisters Lee and Grace (Maeve Dermody, Diana Glenn) and Grace’s husband Adam (Andy Rodoreda) go fishing in a mangrove do they encounter one of Australia’s most dangerous residents. The namesake of Backwater Barry’s isn’t available on that one ill-fated day, but another tour guide named Jim (Ben Oxenbould) offers to take the unaware customers out on the water. Big mistake.
A strength of Black Water is its brisk pacing. It takes almost no time before the leads are tossed into the deep end; they’re left to fend for themselves as Jim is consumed by a hungry, hungry crocodile, and their dinghy is capsized and out of reach. The movie’s factual basis then comes into play as the three survivors scramble up the nearby trees, waiting out a threat that never goes away. It’s now a game of patience for both the protagonists and the audience.
Something that makes Black Water stick out from the herd is its verisimilar execution. Directors and co-writers Andrew Traucki and David Nerlich saw an opportunity after Open Water made a big splash in the shark niche of horror, and they wanted to create something similar. Up until this movie, though, crocs had been treated more cheesily than seriously. The idea of these reptiles cropping up in unexpected parts of society, larger and smarter than nature allows, and chomping their way through humanity is already absurd enough. It was only normal for filmmakers to take a less than serious approach. This movie contrarily dares to be realistic in a subgenre known for its silliness.
A key to Black Water’s critical success is its ability to make the characters seem genuinely frightened. Traucki and Nerlich ditched the humor intrinsic to past croc flicks, and they made their scenario consistently dire and hopeless, not to mention plausible. The filmmakers emphasized what’s already there, apropos of a saltwater crocodile, rather than drumming up something fantastical. These living and breathing monsters don’t need to be enhanced; they’re intimidating enough just the way they are. There’s a particular instance where the scaly antagonist reveals its head above the water’s surface before submerging; its jaws are wrapped around a recent catch. This one scene, charged with Grace’s anguished cries and music to match, is so simple yet remarkably sinister. Moments like that achieve more than a standard jump-scare.
Limiting the cast to one set for most of the story is torture for both them and the viewers. Black Water becomes downright agonizing to watch as Grace, Lee and Adam cling to trees and pray for help that never comes. Their desperate attempts to escape, although foolish and typically unsuccessful, are forgivable, unlike other movies where extremely bad decisions are transparent. But what else can the characters do here other than wait to die? If not by crocodile, then by dehydration. That painful realism doesn’t do much in the way of cheap thrills, however it does keep your attention.
On account of their similar premises and neighboring release dates, Black Water and Greg McLean’s Rogue are often compared. Resources aside, the two movies are worlds apart in execution. McLean’s river epic, based on the iconic saltie named Sweetheart, has since become a benchmark in these sorts of movies. Rogue is stylishly made, has broad appeal, and it boasts top-end special effects. Black Water, produced with a fraction of McLean’s budget, relies on its filmmakers’ ingenuity and commitment to harsh reality. Traucki and Nerlich’s debut also includes reasonably seamless compositing, which makes the actors’ fearful performances even more impressive.
Black Water doesn’t let up once the characters enter the water. And after a grueling struggle between man and animal, it lacks even the trademark bittersweet ending deemed necessary to help shake off feelings of sadness. The lack of catharsis is unbearable. The ultimate outcome won’t sit well with everyone, but there’s a twisted kind of poetry in the movie’s aggressive depiction of fleeting life.
What might be viewed as another regurgitation of the Jaws formula is in actuality a bright spot in the wide and varied world of creature-features. In this subset of horror, one that’s been regularly dismissed as schlocky, predictable and devoid of originality, this movie is refreshing without straying too far from familiar waters.
Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.
Paul Lê is a Texas-based freelance film journalist, critic, and columnist who specializes in horror, tokusatsu, and international cinema.
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A holiday as conspicuous as Christmas will undoubtedly attract the most thrills and chills at this time of year. In the past, TV’s genre anthologies have been a remarkable and plentiful source of wintry terror, be that of the Christmas variety or otherwise. The original Twilight Zone submitted the strangest of strange holiday stories, Tales from the Darkside provided the macabre classics “Seasons of Belief” and “The Yattering and Jack,” and Tales from the Crypt put a new spin on the EC-era slasher “And All Through the House.”
Christmas horror only became more weird and wild as the century changed. And as these five festive frighteners from more recent anthology series suggest, there’s never a better season for horror than winter.
Black Mirror, “White Christmas”
Before Charlie Brooker‘s critically acclaimed sci-fi anthology Black Mirror moved to Netflix, the series concluded its on-air run with the memorable segmented episode “White Christmas.” Multiple stories were combined into a one-off holiday special. Had it actually been the series’ finale, it still would have been a wonderful sendoff.
As with the multi-storied episode “Black Museum,” ‘White Christmas” divides itself into defined chapters. Although, there is a wraparound device to help glue all the pieces together. Jon Hamm plays unreliable narrator Matt, who has been Joe’s (Rafe Spall) roommate for the last five years. They live together in an isolated cabin, and on one fateful Christmas Day, the two finally decide to have a conversation.
Matt explains his tech jobs up to this point, which all entailed some less than upstanding behavior, before Joe explains how he himself ended up in this cabin. He recounts a troubled relationship with a woman who “blocked” Joe from her life when they disagreed about a major life change.
What ultimately comes out of this bonding experience between the two main characters is dark and emotional. It’s nothing traditionally scary, but like other episodes, it does warn against the ulterior uses of advanced and intrusive technology. There’s no cheer to be found in this especially chilly episode.
American Horror Stories, “The Naughty List”
It never begins to look a lot like Christmas in “The Naughty List,” on account of the fact that this episode is set in sunny California. Don’t expect any white snow here. While this spin-off of American Horror Story included extensions of pre-existing plots in the flagship series, Max Winkler and Manny Coto delivered a self-contained tale about Christmas evil.
It’s an oh too familiar setup in “The Naughty List;” obnoxious influencers prove why they’re the scourge of the internet again. The audience is launched into the social media sewer that is the Bro House. The four bros in question are Barry, Zinn, James and Wyatt (Kevin McHale, Nico Greetham, Dyllón Burnside, Charles Melton). And these four dudes have amassed a huge following, not to mention a glut of wealth, after bestowing the world with their potent cocktail of immaturity and insensitivity.
However, the Bro House is cancelled when they record a random man’s suicide right around Christmas. Rather than try to help or at least show some compassion, the bros post the video in hopes of gaining more likes and subscribers. The plan obviously backfires, and the group rockets into a series of desperate attempts to save their brand. This includes an embarrassing display of queerbaiting and, most importantly, harassing a mall Santa Claus (Danny Trejo). The last crack is what seals their fates.
“The Naughty List” is another example of extreme comeuppance around Christmas, and it borrows a timeless trope from horrors of yesteryear: a killer Santa. It’s nothing particularly deep or even original, but at the very least, it offers a quick and bloody end to some despicable influencers. That in itself is a gift.
Two Sentence Horror Stories, “Quota”
Two Sentence Horror Stories continues to be timely with Season 2’s “Quota,” an episode directed by Lynne Stopkewich (Kissed) and written by Melody Cooper. It’s not difficult to figure out what this story was inspired by, especially in recent years as Amazon’s warehouse practices come under fire in the public eye. Zombies are then thrown in so the metaphors are unmistakable.
It’s Christmas Eve when an e-commerce fulfillment center becomes ground zero for a mysterious virus. But before the outbreak begins, relatively new shift manager Sarah (Sabryn Rock) is faced with a dilemma; she has to exceed quota that night if she wants her Christmas bonus, otherwise she might lose her house. One bad joke between Sarah and her boss ends with the exhausted workers all being locked inside the building so they can’t leave.
Sarah is given a door code for emergencies, yet she’s also expected not to use it if she values her job. To make matters worse, rats have spread the ailment that reduces people to monstrous zombies. Sarah and her friend and coworker Tina (Marci T. House) are given a hard choice as chaos erupts inside the warehouse, and they fight to go outside.
While “Quota” is hardly subtle about its intentions, it’s also an entertaining slant on the “work yourself to death” concept with convincing action and sufficient scares.
Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet Of Curiosities, “The Outside”
“You are lovely, inside and out.” Neither sincerity nor platitude can stop Stacey (Kate Micucci) from continuing with her “transformation” in “The Outside.” The awkward bank teller and amateur taxidermist is dead set on letting a highly sought-after lotion called Alo Glo work its magic, no matter how much pain it causes her at first.
Ana Lily Amirpour‘s Christmas-set episode of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet Of Curiosities, written by Haley Z. Boston and based on a webtoon by Emily Carroll, exists in a time and place that’s flecked with anachronisms. However, the odd thing about this story isn’t so much the confusing co-existence between certain retro fashions and current devices. No, it’s this goopy, coveted lotion that’s full of retinol, peptides, and some other ingredient that triggers a total bodily and mental metamorphosis. Alo Glo at first causes an allergic reaction, but given some time, Stacey experiences the most extraordinary makeover.
Being surrounded by catty and comparatively stylish women all day, it’s no wonder Stacey feels like something is wrong with her. She doesn’t fit in with any of her coworkers, and her desperation to belong comes out in full force as the spokesperson (Dan Stevens) of an Alo Glo ad urges her to continue using the product, even if it causes her skin to itch and peel. “It’s a process,” he explains.
“The Outside” is a fairly lighthearted blend of New Weird and Body Horror, and sequences will definitely evoke memories of Annihilation and a particular Tales from the Crypt episode. It drives its point home with the force of a mallet, but the performances, humor and a general sense of oddness all elevate the story.
Inside No. 9, “The Bones of St. Nicholas”
A British tradition is sharing ghost stories at Christmas. This custom began in the Victorian age, and it peaked years ago in modern times. However, Inside No. 9 honors the habit of holiday horror with its Christmas creeper, “The Bones of St Nicholas.” The 2022 special is a real warning to the curious (if you know, you know).
A Dr. Jasper Parkway (Steve Pemberton) has booked a church on Christmas Eve, claiming he’s there to visit his mother’s grave nearby. Plans change when he receives two unwanted visitors, a couple (Shobna Gulati, Reece Shearsmith) who have also reserved the church that same night. As the three share the space, they also indulge Dick (Simon Callow), the warden who whips out a spooky story about St. Nicholas and his missing jawbone said to be stashed away inside this very church.
George Kane directs this episode about human rationalization. The church is said to be haunted, but Pemberton’s character is a man of science and dispels any suggestion of the supernatural. In the meantime, he’s the one who’s most susceptible to the goings-on, such as weird noises and shadows in the corner of his eye. Is this the standard story of a man of logic being shown the existence of the uncanny? As usual, Inside No. 9 is an exercise in subverting expectations.
“The Bones of St Nicholas” is a beautifully shot and effectively eerie episode about the power of wonder. To be expected, the quality in performances is high, particularly those from Callow and Gulati. The episode is never quite what it seems, though that’s always a plus in the twisted world of Inside No. 9.
Series of Frights is a recurring column that mainly focuses on horror in television. Specifically, it takes a closer look at five episodes or stories — each one adhering to an overall theme — from different anthology series or the occasional movie made for TV. With anthologies becoming popular again, especially on television, now is the perfect time to see what this timeless mode of storytelling has to offer.
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