Four women are hunted by a shark while on a seagoing kayaking adventure.
Received wisdom is that sharks got a raw deal from Peter Benchley’s novel and Spielberg’s classic movie. Though they’ve now been so thoroughly rehabilitated — personally I trace it back to Viz magazine’s self-explanatory cartoon strip The Pathetic Sharks — it’s hard to feel antipathy or fear towards even the biggest Sharky McSharkface.
That said, sharks still don’t do themselves any favours, eating surfers and ripping off swimmers’ limbs. The creepy smile doesn’t help either. Compare the sharks’ evil grin to a dolphin’s. It’s the difference between smiling like a psychopath and “smiling with your eyes”. A dolphin could be devouring my lower leg in front of me and I’d still be thinking “but look at that little face! Sooo cute!”
Still, in movieland — and increasingly in smaller independent films — sharks continue to go great guns. Partly, I think, because like zombies they make good allegories, but unlike zombies they work best with only one, which is cheaper. They also move so fast you can get away without really showing much of them. A black fin, some churning seawater dyed red with human blood, and a long shadow underwater can, when combined with decent human performers, carry a lot of the film: tapping into shark movie tropes or referencing bigger budget movies like a roller-skater in a Maserati’s slipstream. The Reef: Stalked is a welcome entrant in this genre: a solidly entertaining shark drama (the poster, below, is gloriously tropey), where experience, sheer determination and teamwork can triumph.
Four young women — experienced divers and spear fishers Nic (Teressa Liane), Jodie (Ann Truong) and Lisa (Kate Lister), plus Nic’s sister Annie (Saskia Archer) — are targeted by a shark on an open water kayaking trip. They’re there to honour Cath, another diver and sister of Nic and Annie, months after she was murdered in her bath by her husband Greg.
The four are first attacked by the shark en route to an island for lunch, when Annie and Lisa are thrown off their kayaks into the water, and left desperately trying to get to the minor safety of their boats. After that first terrifying crunchfest the women realise that two children are playing on a pontoon in the water just off their island destination. One, a tween called Demi (Eva Mocke-Kenaki), is left injured and bleeding heavily, and with no mobile phone signal on the island — or other people, beyond her friend Winston and their mothers — the surviving kayakers lash two of their boats to the mothers’ seen-better-days wooden dinghy and set off for help on the next island.
In a shark film though, a mere killer great white is never enough. Neither is killer great white + a grief-related fear of diving (Nic has struggled with being underwater since Cath’s death). The borrowed boat is past its best. There are family conflicts too: Nic believes herself uniquely affected by Cath’s death, and is unconcerned at how Annie might be coping; Annie is constantly held back by Nic’s lowly opinion of her, which comes to a head when they have to use wits and sheer bravery, as well as their diving skills, to save themselves.
Despite its mostly familiar premise, there’s a lot to enjoy here, and Lister and Archer are particularly impressive; while director Andrew Traucki is very effective at stillness. I’ve watched several smaller shark movies (smaller movies, not movies about smaller sharks) over the last few years. It’s a genre with lots of terrible entrants, but The Reef: Stalked holds up pretty well as a “haunted house underwater” B-movie. Everyone ends up in the drink at some point. Their desperate terror and adrenaline-pumped awareness are perfectly pitched. Lisa, tipped into the now-quiet sea, looks as if she knows her number’s up as she tries to “tiptoe” past to the boats.
But beyond that, the ensuing battle — nature’s version of what happened to Cath — is also absolution for Nic, as she is forced to work through her grief and guilt and come to understand her late sister’s situation. The shark stalks for fun not food. As one woman after another is pitched into the sea then looks fearfully around at the deceptively calm water, desperate to get to the boats but aware any movement could attract the shark’s attention, it’s hard not to equate it to abused women, on guard lest something sets off their partner (who then claims it’s the woman’s fault, something Greg actually says to Nic when she discovers her sister’s body). Even the shark looks terrifyingly normal for a shark; it’s not some unusually monstrous outlier.
These metaphors for Cath’s life and then death (see also that title) are tricky territory — Nic’s underwater flashbacks are on the nose, and it’s depressing to see we’re in danger at home and outside of it — but it at least highlights what can go on behind closed doors. None of the four could save Cath, but out in the open they can work together to save each other and Demi.
However bad or brilliant a shark movie is, the gorgeous underwater scenes always get me. The colours! Apart from the blood, obviously. The blues, greens and ochres of water, rocks and plants, look serene in the clear water, a beautiful environment soiled by viciousness. We do see a lot of the shark; I don’t know how they filmed its scenes or how much was added later, though there’s only one point where the creature’s arrival heralds chuckles rather than a blood-freeze.
Much as I’ve loved watching the recent crop of “gorgeous, capable young women against the shark” movies though, I would like to see one where a group of older women go into battle against the toothy terror. (No not me; my preference is for English shores where the only thing I’ll die of is hypothermia or lacerations from a discarded Stella can.) Three women in a boat battling a Great White with middle-aged smarts and fury would be something to behold, even if it might ultimately prove a rather one-sided skirmish.
Signature Entertainment presents The Reef: Stalked on Digital Platforms 29 July & DVD 8 August
Watch the trailer for The Reef: Stalked: