From the Eunoia Archives: The Terror Test: Test Prep #9

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do in the First Place

Originally written for The Terror Test. Check out their new website. I am now writing Lost in Arhkam. Previous Test Prep essays

This was written before the current fires in Australia for an episode covering Wolf Creek (2005) and The Babadook (2014).

“The correspondent wondered ingenuously how in the name of all that was sane could there be people who thought it amusing to row a boat. It was not an amusement; it was a diabolical punishment, and even a genius of mental aberrations could never conclude that it was anything but a horror to the muscles and a crime against the back.” ~ Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat”

“One minute we’re having a good time, and now we’re not.” ~ The Reef (2010)

The first stop on Terror Test’s around-the-world virtual field trip of horror is Australia. While it has become cliché to say that everything there will kill you, Australia has had “crisis meetings” about the nation’s horror industry negatively impacting tourism. Wolf Creek (2005) is based on true events surrounding hitchhiker killings, and has been said to have influenced copycat killers. Another film produced by Australia’s burgeoning horror industry, The Pack (2015), depicts some of Australia’s famous deadly wildlife, in this case, feral dogs. Not everyone is against Australia’s horror industry, though. Some say that horror films help tourism in the long run by bringing in people to visit sites similar to popular destinations in America like Amityville or The Stanley Hotel in Colorado, which inspired The Shining. Wolfe Creek National Park, despite the few copycat killers, has become an increasingly popular tourist destination since the film’s debut.

While the guys test Wolf Creek and The Babadook (2014), I’m focusing on my favorite Australian horror film of recent years, which also has the bonus of being a good shark movie: The Reef. Like many horror fans, I grew up with Jaws (1975), and still watch it every year. I even wanted to study sharks because of it. I read every book in the library on the subject and was a pre-Shark Week devourer of documentaries like Blue Water, White Death (1971), by Australian shark authority and shark attack survivor Rodney Fox, who is also responsible for some of the most iconic photography of great whites ever taken. Great white sharks are truly sublime, equally beautiful and terrifying. As a sidenote, Fox consulted on Jaws, and if memory serves, he helped film the cage sequence, in particular.

Kim Newman, in Nightmare Movies, writes that the success of Jaws comes down to its “linear simplicity” and that “All the film does is bite, keep scary, and make little sharks.” By “little sharks,” Newman means all the mostly bad sequels and rip-offs. The Reef can be counted among those little sharks, but it’s surprisingly good. It’s even more simply linear and clocks in sleekly under ninety minutes. The movie is about a group of friends on an overturned boat. They can wait and hope the craft’s seemingly obsolete emergency devices help, or they can swim the twelve or thirteen miles to an island. Most of them opt for that swim, since the boat is sinking anyway. And that’s it. There’s some blame, shame, and guilt, but mostly the film is about going from point A to point B while floating in the ocean with a hungry great white. This simple story manages to produce and maintain a good deal of tension throughout, and it avoids the largest pitfall of most shark films: bad shark effects. How does it manage that? Real sharks.

Where Newman sees Jaws operating on the mythical level of Moby Dick or Old Man and the Sea, I see The Reef operating within the naturalist tradition of Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.” Naturalism, as a literary movement, looked at the human’s place in the natural world and was influenced by interpretations of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. Naturalist writers, rather than feminizing a nurturing Mother Nature, or seeing humans as some kind of masters of the Earth, tended to write about how the natural world was, at best, indifferent to human beings, and, at worst, hostile to them.

Both “The Open Boat” and The Reef are castaway narratives. Each involves a quartet of characters drifting in the ocean, hopefully toward safety. Both are as much, if not mostly, about the setting and the characters’ relationship to the marine world in which they find themselves. Both are based on true events. In Crane’s story we’re unsure if these characters are going to make it and we don’t get too close to any of the characters. Their boat is falling apart, the seaworthy captain is injured, the seas are rough. It doesn’t look good.

Similarly, in The Reef, we don’t get small town politics like in Jaws and we don’t get family drama, and we don’t get characters like Brody or Quint. In a way, we get a kind of bourgeois retelling of Quint’s Indianapolis speech. Crane’s perspective of a removed, ambivalent third person narrator–with limited access into the correspondent’s thoughts–doesn’t peer inside the other character’s minds. The reader does get to hear and see the reactions the characters have to their setting, though.

In both instances, the setting is the sea and sky. In the movie, the surroundings are stunningly gorgeous, unlike the descriptions of the often “gray” sea in “The Open Boat.” In the same way New York City or the Outback are often said to function as a character, Australian natural beauty amidst the danger and suspense commands much of the show here. In that sense, we’re back to the interesting tension that the conversation about horror and tourism has. Will this scare people, or bring them out?

Shark attack statistics, particularly the low likelihood of being attacked by a shark, are mentioned more than once in The Reef. This, on the one hand, reminds us to get in the water, to enjoy what life has to offer. Combine that with the stunning natural photography and who wouldn’t want to go visit Australia’s wonders? On the other hand, the first time we get reminded about attack statistics is when one of the characters is looking at a wall of shark jaws, similar to the ones Quint prepares in Jaws. It’s a not so subtle reminder of genre. We’re watching a shark movie, so there are going to be sharks. And they have teeth. Lots of teeth.

No matter how irrational, it’s those teeth that keep my boating to a yearly trip around Amity Island. I occasionally venture into the Deep Blue Sea (1999), and now, I may wade out to The Reef on the regular. That’s enough of the water for me.

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