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.