Competitive swimmer Kaya Scodelario is informed by her sister that their divorced dad Barry Pepper is missing during hellacious Florida weather. She takes the drive to find her dad, who it turns out has ignored evacuation orders and is still at his home. When she finds her dad (who was her swimming coach as a kid), he’s in the basement, with water rapidly coming in. Before she can try to get the old man out though, another problem arises: Florida alligators. The only thing worse than a hurricane may be a hurricane with gators swimming about all bite-y.
It seems as though every reviewer of this 2019 horror-thriller from director Alexandre Aja (“Haute Tension”, “Mirrors”) is obligated to mention that Quentin Tarantino listed it as his best film of 2019. Well, I can’t say I agree with QT on this one, as this alligator-in-a-flooded-house flick is pretty much a ‘jump scare’ film. Y’all know my feelings on that subgenre of horror by now, I find it lazy and annoying. It’s not that I can’t admired a ‘jump scare’. My favourite horror film “The Omen” has the all-time best example of the cheap tactic, as Gregory Peck tries to investigate the back of his son Damien’s scalp for the Devil’s number. However, an entire film that pretty much depends on such a cheapjack ploy? I didn’t much like it when “A Quiet Place” did it, I don’t like it when 98% of mainstream horror films since 1997 have done it, and it didn’t ingratiate me to this film either. And that’s a shame. Up until it utterly wrecked itself at the climax, Aja’s stunningly-shot and creepy “Haute Tension” showed the guy had definite affinity for the horror genre. He’s struggled to reach those heights since (I actually enjoyed “Piranha 3D” for what it was, though), and this is ultimately no world-beater.
Things start well. The premise is simple but could’ve produced a real winner. I’ve never seen Kaya Scodelario before to my knowledge, but she’s immediately believable as both a swimmer and the frightened-yet-resilient hero of this film. She’s really appealing without being all cutesy and sweet. Barry Pepper, an underrated actor I don’t seem to see often enough these days, is perfectly solid as the dad too. Their relationship is one of the best things about the entire film, as it’s always helpful in a film like this to have characters you genuinely care about. So the actors and screenwriters Shawn & Michael Rasmussen (who wrote the mediocre John Carpenter film “The Ward”) deserve credit for doing a lot with quite little, given the rather simple plot. I like that Scodelario isn’t your standard screaming and crying wimp in the face of alligator-related terror. She should be, most of us would be, but we’ve been there and done that. I appreciated the difference, this chick is strong and resilient, instead of being a panicking mess of uselessness. I’m sure she’d be panicking on the inside, of course but instead of screaming or crying she just bloody well gets on with the task at hand: survival.
Aja sets up a convincingly hellacious storm at the outset, and we all know I love a horror film with atmosphere. Atmosphere and striking cinematography were the key to Aja’s “Haute Tension” being two-thirds a great genre film. It’s a shame then, that so much of the film is set in and under a house, leaving that wonderfully foreboding and frightening stormy sky to waste pretty much while we are witness to a game of Hide-and-Seek with humans and alligators. That just isn’t my bag, and “Black Water” did it much more frighteningly, with a lot fewer ‘jump scares’ from what I remember too. Seek that film out if you’ve not seen it already (I’m guessing it’s one of the few films Tarantino hasn’t seen), it’s a nail-biter from start to finish. This is a pretty good-looking film from a cinematography and lighting standpoint, though on occasion you do get the sense of it being filmed on a fake movie set. It was indeed filmed on a soundstage (a warehouse in Belgrade apparently), but you shouldn’t be aware of that while you’re watching. You’re supposed to think it’s a house and its basement. It doesn’t happen often, but yes occasionally you do start to see the seams a bit. I think part of the reason I noticed however, is that I simply wasn’t as engaged with the film as I would’ve liked. So there’s that, too. In fact, my favourite moment in the film was a funny one that didn’t really involve the main characters, but a bunch of seriously dumb, would-be ATM thieves. It’s a very, very funny moment. I also thought the home stretch was rather enjoyable within the confines of Aja’s cheapjack approach to the central concept. It may just be another cinematic ghost train, but that climax in the bathroom is quite fun, actually. We even get a gator roll! Awesome. Otherwise, the appeal is a bit limited for me.
With its strong heroine vs. alligator plotting, I can see why Quentin Tarantino enjoyed this film, but I was left somewhat indifferent. Although not a bad film, the ‘jump scare’ nature of this killer croc/alligator movie still leaves the Aussie “Black Water” sitting firmly on the throne for me. In fact, it ends up coming off like a ‘jump scare’ mixture of “Open Water” and “Bait”. It’s a bit of a shame, because the character dynamics and performances are perfectly fine and deserve a more original, more atmosphere and tension-building approach. Oh well. The CGI alligators are decent, for what it’s worth.