Thursday, May 15, 2008

Movies: Why are Aussie vacations so darn dangerous?

In a perfect world, Netflix would be able to point you to just about any genre you could think up. No matter how obscure, idiosyncratic, or otherwise uninformative.

For example, one of my co-workers likes watching flicks that feature boarding schools. I don't know why. She didn't go to a boarding school. She doesn't have any kids, let alone any that go to a boarding school. I put it down to her being originally from Massachusetts. But, whatever the reason, she should be able to find movies by asking for "semi-twee boarding school movies." She'd maybe get Dead Poets Society, the History Boys, Cider House Rules, The Emperors Club, and so on. The "semi-twee" would spare her such flicks as Boarding School, the early '80s German sex farce (?), that would come up in a straight out keyword search, but doesn't really have the vaguely gay, emotionally-crippled, school tie aesthetic she's specializing in.

I bring this up because, on this dream Netflix, a search for "monster crocodile flicks based on true stories" would yield you at least two hits: Primeval and Black Water. It's a genre waiting to explode. With a little attention from filmmakers, I think "monster crocodile flicks based on true stories" could be the next "J-horror remakes."

We've already covered Primeval, so today we look at Black Water.

Like the former film, the latter, a small-scale 2008 Aussie creature feature, is based on a true story.

The Real Story

In 2007, an Australian cattle rancher named David George was tossed from his horse. He suffered a blow to the head. In a dazed and semi-concussed state, Georges recovered his horse and mounted up in the hopes that the horse would instinctively ride home.

Instead, the horse lead Georges in an isolated mangrove swamp in the Cape York region. Worse, while staggering about, Georges's horse disturbed a crocodile nest, royally pissing off the resident crocs and their touchy friends.

To escape the enraged lizards, Georges abandoned his horse and quickly scrambled up a mangrove tree. The horse was eaten. The crocs kept Georges treed for an entire week. So he wouldn't fall out of the tree in his weakened state, Georges tied himself to the trunk. Georges later told reporters "Every night I was stalked by two crocs who would sit at the bottom of the tree staring up at me. All I could see was two sets of red eyes below me and all night I had to listen to a big bull croc bellowing a bit further out. I’d yell out at them, ‘I’m not falling out of this tree for you bastards’.”

Eventually, Georges was found and rescued by a helicopter crew who had to drop a rope to him and lift him out of the croc-infested area.

The Film

Despite having a real story as inspiration, Black Water most resembles not the misadventures of David Georges, but rather another recent Aussie flick (itself "based on true story"). Like Wolf Creek, the film follows three young folks on a vacation gone awry. Even the gender mix is the same: two girls, one guy. There's the road movie aspect and the slow-build into that follows our trio through a tourist trap or two. Two of Wolf Creek's minor themes even pop up again: the lush beauty of nature and class of a modern, urban, educated Australia with its much mythologized, wild, primitive fringe. But, instead of a psycho-version of Crocodile Dundee, we get an actual croc filling the role of stalker.

Our film opens with a trio of young vacationers – sisters Grace and Lee, and Grace's boyfriend Adam – saying goodbye to Grace and Lee's mom. We quickly establish that Adam's an office drone, Grace is preggers (but Adam doesn't know), and Lee is the baby of the group. Unlike Wolf Creek, this film doesn't spend a lot of time getting to know these guys. They are meant to be almost generic Everymen and Women. All we need to know about them is that they're essentially nice folks. After a montage scene in a croc farm and a short bar scene in which our heroes decide to take a river tour, we've got our principles in a little motorboat and headed into the mangrove swamp.

Before you can "chunder on a bunyip's budgie smuggler" (as the Australians say), a particularly mean-spirited croc tips over the boat and gobbles-up the guide.

Our lucky threesome scrambles up the nearest mangrove tree. Temporarily safe, the trio assesses their options. They can make a mad lunge for the boat, which floats tantalizingly close to the base of their tree. They can try to use the tangle of mangroves to get free. By hopping from tree to tree, mayhaps they can stay high and dry while reaching terra firma. Or, of course, they can wait for a rescue that may well not be coming. And all the while, as they debate, small splashes and water ripples let them know that the killer croc.

The script is tight and effective. Many Interweb critic-types have opined that the idea of watching three folks get stuck up a tree is tedious. This does the clever script, which makes the most out of a minimal cast and a villain that, Jaws-like, you almost never see, a serious injustice. The characters, while not much deeper than the waist-high swamp water that surrounds them, feel real enough to give the danger their facing some traction. You don't love these poor vacationers, but you don't very well want to see them get torn apart by a crocodile. After a slight drag, necessary to rule out the "let's just sit here" plan, the movie moves on at a nice clip, with our heroes trying outsmart the sinister, seemingly omnipresent croc, or a "pash nut out larrikin" (as the Australians say).

The film looks good. Like Wolf Creek, Black Water is strangely romantic about the natural landscape. The details of the mangrove swamp – from close-ups of its less sinister fauna to cut shots of the way light plays on the swamps inky black water – are loving shot. When I was watching Wolf Creek, I ascribed this to the fact that the filmmaker was a painter prior to picking up the camera. Now I'm thinking that we might be seeing some national tag. Regardless of the origins of this trend, it makes for some odd juxtapositions. Imagine, for example, if somebody shot a Friday the 13th film and was determine to not only kill off campers, but shoot Crystal Lake itself as a beautiful place. It leads to a sort terrible sublime sense of things: nature is overpowering in simultaneously good and bad ways.

The croc, actually played by several different veteran crocodile actors, usually looks great. There's a couple of shots were I think we're dealing with super-imposed images and the result is clunky. I respect the impulse to work with real beasties over CGI or animatronics, but the results occasionally look worse. Gore effects are minimal. For a croc attack pic, it's quite restrained. The film emphasizes tension and suspense over the horror of bloodletting.

In the limited genre of "monster crocodile flicks based on true stories," Black Water towers above the competition. Opening it up to the broader, "alligator/croc rampage" sub-genre and I'd say that Black Water probably ranks in the top ten. As a horror flick in general, I'd say Black Water holds it own. I'd recommend it next time you "come to raw prawn some shonky trackie daks" (as the Australians say).


spacejack said...

For reasons I would be hard pressed to explain, your review makes this movie sound about as appealing as it could possibly be to me. I'll have to see if I can pick it up this weekend.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

For a film about a bunch of folks in a tree trying to outsmart a crocodile, you can't find better. Hope you dig it.

Anonymous said...

Movies about boarding schools.. So would your coworker enjoy such CLASSIC boarding school movies as "Toy Soldiers" or "TAPS" ? You should suggest them for her queue...

spacejack said...

Well, I saw it. Not a bad little thriller, the kind of movie I wish Canadian filmmakers should try their hand at. (Although a killer grizzly bear movie set in Alaska was already done... I guess we'd have to do one about an aggressive moose. Or maybe a polar bear would be different enough?)

Coincidentally, there was a Canadian 'hiding in a tree' movie, but the urban version where the predators are a gang of youths. I'd rate it about the same as Black Water.

Cinematically, I think I preferred Wolf Creek's aesthetic, as well as its sheer horror factor. Black Water almost seemed more nature documentary, like a National Geographic or a Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom, but with people getting eaten instead of gazelles.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

You weren't here for the last "croc attack based on a real story" flick. If you'd been there for that one, you'd be telling everybody about how Black Water was the Citizen Kane of "croc attack based on a real story" flicks.

Overall, I'd agree. It is a modest flick that's a success on those terms. I gots no problem with that sort of flick.

Anonymous said...

Based on your review, I definitely want to check this out.
I like this whole emphasis on the suspense rather than the outright gore aesthetic you're describing.
Meanwhile, your comment, "In the limited genre of 'monster crocodile flicks based on true stories,' BLACK WATER towers above the competition," makes me think of the 80s Russell Mulcahy film, RAZORBACK (pre-HIGHLANDER, I'm pretty sure). I remember the blurb on the VHS box stating, "Arguably the best horror film with a giant pig ever made!" or something to that effect.

Shonky trackie daks, indeed...

CRwM said...

Screamin' Cattle,

And the razor back thing reminds me of the NYTimes review of the latest Troma flicks: "Within the context of its genre - the satirical sexploitation zombie chicken gross-out musical extravaganza - it is just about as perfect as a film predicated on the joys of projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea can be."

I should gather these things up. A compilation of these "For [bizarro film type] this is pretty awesome" type reviews would be a "deadset fossick ridgy-didge" (as the Australians say).