“We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” Roy Scheider famously declared in Jaws. Many water-based Australian creature features, however, feature characters who would settle for a boat – the fishing vessel from Spielberg’s classic looking rather luxurious compared to, well, nothing. Or in the case of The Reef: Stalked, compared to a couple of kayaks the characters navigate into treacherous waters, where a huge great white shark gets stalkery and chompy.
Directed by Andrew Traucki, the film is a self-contained sequel to 2010’s The Reef, which plonked five characters in the middle of the ocean and gave them a choice: sit on a wrecked capsized yacht as it slowly sinks, or attempt to swim to an island – with a less than friendly antagonist hanging out in the water. The fish food – ahem, characters in these kinds of movies have two essential modes: pursue that thing in the water or stay the hell away from it.
With The Reef: Stalked opening in Australian cinemas on July 28, now is a good time to reflect on the fishiest – or strange, interesting and water-related – creature features in Australian cinema. Here are five.
Don’t you hate it when you go to the supermarket to get some dinner, only to bump into a great white shark who is there for the same reason? SFX whiz-cum-director Kimble Rendall dramatises this everyday situation in Bait. Set in a coastal community where a tsunami of biblical proportions has submerged a supermarket and swept great white sharks into the aisles, this film recasts the fin-sporting fish as consumers and humans as products. This would’ve offered plenty of room for a fun satire on consumerism, taking a leaf out of Dawn of the Dead’s book, but don’t expect anything remotely resembling a subtext.
Nor of course would we expect one: audiences go into Bait wanting a fun, gnarly midnight movie that visualises an outrageous premise. Rendall certainly delivers the latter, but keeps a very straight face, attempting genuine suspense and refusing to rush through things. Sadly the fun factor is often non-existent and the pace laborious, with moments of mayhem few and far between. And it doesn’t help that the characters are dull as ditchwater. They include criminals whose planned robbery of the store was botched by Mother Nature, and a former lifeguard, Xavier Samuel’s Josh, who is mourning the death of his brother. Guess which kind of ancient predator killed his bro?
Black Water (2007)
Don’t you hate it when you go on a holiday, get stuck in a mangrove swamp, and can’t get down from a tree because a crocodile is in the water below? With Black Water, Traucki and co-director David Nerlich delivered a very tight and nervy film that maintains an unshakable sense of realism from start to finish. Like The Reef, there isn’t a lot to the experience, narratively speaking: a trio of holidayers – Grace (Diana Glenn), her partner Adam (Andy Rodoreda) and her sister Lee (Maeve Dermody) – get stuck up a tree, with a hungry croc and a small capsized motorboat below them.
They end up in this situation after taking a river tour conducted by a company called Blackwater Barry’s, led by a stubbie-drinking guide played by Ben Oxenbould. Thus there are two important lessons to learn about trust. One: never trust Ben Oxenbould, who also played a tour guide in season two of Wolf Creek, and things didn’t exactly go well there either. And two: never trust a company called Blackwater Barry’s, which, sheesh, sounds kind of self-explanatory. The directors cotton on to the idea that more terror can be created by not showing the croc, but they still roll old mate chompy out in very measured, calculated increments, maintaining a sense of dread.
Frog Dreaming (1986)
Don’t you hate it when you visit a national park and encounter what might be an ancient mythical creature? There’s a Spielbergian sense of largesse in Brian Trenchard Smith’s charming ’80s adventure, which belongs to a proud tradition of family films framing kids as brave, optimistic heroes and adults as cynical party poopers. In one amusing exchange, young protagonist Cody (Henry Thomas) asks a middle-aged man if he believes in monsters, to which the bloke unhelpfully responds: “For 20 years I was married to one.”
The film begins in a picturesque lake, where a man in a rowboat notices the water start bubbling, then finds himself in considerable strife. Why is the water bubbling? According to local legend a monster called a “Donkegin” lives there. Cody sets out to investigate, consulting an Indigenous man (Dempsey Knight) who is also quite unhelpful, asking him the rather eerie question: “You like to dance with the devil?” But little Cody of course cannot be deterred. The film sustains a good energy as it builds towards an emotionally satisfying high stakes ending that (without spoiling it) constructs the perfect narrative justification for a dodgy-looking monster.
Long Weekend (1978)
Don’t you hate it when you go camping for the weekend, only to have every creature around you join forces and attack you relentlessly? Colin Eggleston’s thrillingly original Ozploitation movie has a The Birds-esque premise, albeit with a twist: it’s never directly stated that all the animals are actually ganging up against the principal characters. Maybe they’re just experiencing rotten luck? Peter (John Hargreaves) and Marcia (Briony Behets) go on a trip to the beach in an attempt to save their marriage, only to encounter far more imminent threats when – cue scary music – nature fights back. Or – cue mysterious music – does it?
Including Long Weekend in this list is slightly cheating the premise, given it isn’t a water-based film – though much of it is set on the coast. Before they arrive, the couple treat the natural world callously and disrespectfully, for instance tossing a cigarette butt out the window and leaving the family dog to fend for itself. Then things get crazy. The idea that enemies are all around you, all the time, is obviously terrifying, and yet this could easily have turned into a dodgy low-rent spectacle (like its 2008 remake). Instead the film is very cleverly crafted, with a terrifically edgy atmosphere.
Dark Age (1987)
Don’t you hate it when you just can’t catch that legendary 25-foot crocodile, no matter how you try? Having learned a few tricks after serving as second unit director on Razorback, the Ozploitation classic famously pitched as “Jaws on trotters”, Arch Nicholson went on to helm Dark Age: the most purely enjoyable of Australian creature features. Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (who later shot all six Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit movies) gives the film a restless visual style, and the script incorporates messages about Indigenous culture and conservation that don’t feel embarrassingly out of date today.
Northern Territory wildlife ranger Steve Harris (John Jarratt) has a tough time convincing his boss that the flesh-chomping reptile they’re pursuing is a “Dreaming croc” – partly because said boss is played by Ray Meagher, aka Alf “stone the flamin’ crows!” Stewart from Home and Away, so he’s not the best listener. The late and great David Gulpilil has a small but memorable part as Adjaral, who helps Steve in his mission to take the croc to a sanctuary. The plot is simple; it’s the execution – and the energy – that matters.
The Reef: Stalked is out in cinemas today