Movie Review ~ The Reef: Stalked

The Facts:

Synopsis: To heal after witnessing her sister’s horrific murder, Nic travels to a tropical resort with her friends for a kayaking and diving adventure. Only hours into their expedition, the women are stalked and attacked by a great white shark. To survive, they will need to band together, and Nic will have to overcome her post-traumatic stress, face her fears and slay the monster.
Stars: Teressa Liane, Ann Truong, Saskia Archer, Kate Lister, Tim Ross
Director: Andrew Traucki
Rated: NR
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review:  In 2007, director Andrew Traucki delivered the low-budget Black Water, about a gigantic crocodile attacking members of a tiny tour boat. That early film became such an underground success story it provided the funding for Traucki’s next creature feature, 2010’s The Reef. Following a similar storyline of a mammoth shark terrorizing members of a capsized boat, it elicited the same genuine scares by doling out shots of the razor-toothed monster hungry for its next meal. Neither film was great art, but they were a considerate step above the usual fare, sidelining cruddy special effects and practical animatronics to show the bare minimum and let the viewer’s imagination create much of the horror.

A largely uneventful career followed for Traucki until 2020, when he gambled on a sequel to his first film. I didn’t think Black Water: Abyss was half bad, either. It was perhaps a bit too stuck on what worked initially and didn’t do much to move things along. Yet it had a somewhat claustrophobic set-up, decent performances, and a moderately convincing crocodile when it was seen. When that movie was released, it was announced that Traucki would also be getting back into shark-infested waters with another trip to The Reef, and I’ve been keeping my eyes open ever since. 

We all know that I can’t quit these shark movies, no matter how hard I try or how much they continue to disappoint me. I’m trying to be better, though. So far in 2022, I’ve already steered clear of Alicia Silverstone in The Requin and avoided Shark Bait, but The Reef: Stalked was too intriguing to pass up. I was a fan of the first film, and considering the not embarrassing showing of Black Water: Abyss (which, like this, is unrelated to their original entries), I thought that Traucki would show those other fin flicks a thing or two. Sadly, Traucki has adopted an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach for his sequel because while it has one or two good jolts, most of The Reef: Stalked is a stinky as day old chum.

Four women set out on a kayaking trip, making good on their promise to continue a shared passion for exploring the underwater areas around their homes by the Australian coast. For sisters Nic (Teressa Liane) and Annie (Saskia Archer), it’s a way to potentially mend a relationship strained by a tragedy within their family that neither has adequately dealt with. With Annie being less experienced, it’s good that Jodie (Ann Truong) and Lisa (Kate Lister) are along to help because Nic has developed a paralyzing fear of the water, explained in the opening prologue.

They’ll all likely think twice before dipping a toe in a baby pool after encountering an ornery Great White Shark. Latching onto their scent when they are far offshore in kayaks perfect for chomping, the shark is relentless in its pursuit, clearly having nothing better to do than follow the women along the shoreline. Even more incredible, this is after they’ve made it to a nearby island and, get this, gotten back in the water.

Until this point, I was lazily making my way through the movie and batting away the numerous times Traucki had one or more women slowly looking across the horizon line for a shark fin. This was all Shark Movie 101, and they all do it. I’d even gotten the requisite near miss of a leg in the water pulled up as the shark was about to bite. Having the women (the ones that survive an initial tense encounter) make it to the safety of a small island (where there are other people, mind you) and then willingly get back into their flimsy floatie and paddle for sunnier shores was just too much. It worked much better in the previous film when the potential shark snacks had nowhere else to go.

The performances are serviceable at best, with lines drawn in the sand to who the professional actors were and who was hired from the local population. I question Traucki’s taste level with putting a child in harm’s way so violently but then, much of The Reef: Stalked has question marks floating around it. Why make a sequel if you don’t feel compelled to do something interesting with it? Why do we need to give heroines extra baggage to make them fear the water, lining them up to simultaneously hurdle a roadblock and vanquish a beast? Why did no one think to pack a waterproof cell phone? Why was Jaws made nearly fifty years ago with a shark that looks more believable than one made in an era with elaborate films shot on cell phones?

I wish I could find “The One” gem in these sloppy shark films. I go into each one with my fingers crossed that this will be the one that rights all the past wrongs. I’ve got another one in my queue and while I’d like to say the outcome looks promising, too many failed dives to the depths have led me not to get my hopes up. Keep swimming with me, though…we’ll find something fun soon!

Movie Review ~ Black Water: Abyss

The Facts:

Synopsis: Five friends exploring a remote cave system in Northern Australia find themselves threatened by a hungry crocodile.
Stars: Jessica McNamee, Luke Mitchell, Amali Golden, Benjamin Hoetjes, Anthony J. Sharpe
Director: Andrew Traucki
Rated: NR
Running Length: 98 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  Believe me, I’m not one to complain about the recent influx of decent creature features that have made their way to on demand platforms.  After years of slogging through an endless array of bargain-basement CGI dreck that were made for a dime and starring 80s G-list stars looking for a vacation in beautiful Romania, the tides seemed to have shifted.  Either the graphic artists have gotten better at their jobs or filmmakers are just putting a little more effort into the product, but the output has definitely seen an uptick in quality.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not Jaws level practical effects or even in the Jurassic Park area in terms of digital believability, but it no longer looks like people are being attacked by a Sega Genesis character.

Another option that’s been employed when you can’t totally nail the CGI is to take the less is more approach and that’s just as admirable in my opinion.  I’d rather a director be able to use some style to create suspense without showing what lurks unseen waiting to attack than to be treated to a badly rendered monster that generates laughs instead of shrieks.  That’s the approach taken in Black Water: Abyss and, for the most part, it’s a smart one because the less we see of the nasty crocodile stalking a quintet of spelunkers, the better.

Thirteen years is a long time to wait for a sequel to a fan favorite but returning director Andrew Traucki has obviously been in no real rush to get back into the water with just any old story.  The first film released in 2007 was inspired by actual events but this follow-up is pure fiction and has no ties to its predecessor that I could find.  A brief prologue feels unnecessary at first until you see it has laid some groundwork for clues later on and it leads quickly into the introduction of two couples heading into the Northern Australian forest to explore a cave system their friend Cash (Anthony J. Sharpe) recently got wind of.  Eric (Luke Mitchell) is the alpha male of the group and takes the lead on most endeavors once they get into the creepy cavern, though his girlfriend Jen (Jessica McNamee, The Meg) is far less adventurous and hangs back.  With the other couple, the roles are reversed with Yolanda (Amali Golden, The Invisible Man) being more fearless than Viktor (Benjamin Hoetjes) who has recently recovered from a life-threatening bout with cancer.

What starts as a fun day of adventure soon turns to terror when a storm floods the cave system and strands the group in an open section with a territorial crocodile that doesn’t like to share his living space.  With the waters rising and what little space they have to stand on vanishing fast, they’ll have to figure out how to either swim back through the now underwater tunnels from which they came or find another way to safety.  At the same time, group dynamics create personal tensions that further put their safety in jeopardy.

Working with his small cast and cramped quarters, Traucki creates more than a few sequences that generate a marked measure of sustained suspense.  Viewers have been conditioned to wait for surprise attacks so Traucki anticipates these beats and cleverly times them earlier or later, so you’re often truly caught unaware when the crocodile appears.  Much like last year’s 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, there’s a lot of anxiety to be mined out of any passage when people have to swim underwater for safety and there’s a doozy of a scare at one point that gave me a fine jolt.  It gets repetitive, though, around the sixth time someone has to fetch something in the water that is just out of reach and s-l-o-w-l-y gets in, flirting with being caught by the croc.  It pads the run time longer than it has to be and, I think, compensates for a script by Ian John Ridley and Sarah Smith that doesn’t exactly know the right way to end things.

If the CGI is a little rough when employed, it’s nice that Traucki and his collaborators haven’t tried to make the beast supernaturally large or omnipresent.  That is looks often like a regular crocodile when an animatronic croc or other practical effects are used makes the film better, though it does feel a little like a creation for a theme park thrill ride the way it glides through the water.  The cast reacts nicely anytime they come face to face with it and their commitment goes a long way in our believing what’s happening.  Most of the time it appears just out of our view or as bubbles but there are several nice shots when the camera lingers long enough for audiences to appreciate the scale of the scales.

Recent releases Sputnik and, yes, Deep Blue Sea 3 have been nice surprises and I was hoping that Black Water: Abyss would be able to join that list of sure-fire recommended features but it just misses the mark…but it’s not for lack of trying.  Traucki also directed the fun shark film The Reef back in 2010 and from the looks of his IMDb page is working on a sequel to that as well.  His work here may not be the most creative in its development but at least it’s produced with efficiency and thoughtfulness.  The sequel in name only to the surprise hit (at least on video) film gets most everything right but just stays too long in the water, eventually pruning and getting soggy.