Sunday, 27 April 2014

Nature (En)trails: Primeval/Black Water - Reviews

Nature (En)trails is an ongoing series of review features in which I intend to focus on one of my favourite sub-genres of horror.  "When Animals Attack" movies have fascinated me since I was a kid and I saw Stephen Spielberg's game-changing Jaws for the first time.  I don't anticipate this ultimately providing anything close to a comprehensive list of these movies as I will be focusing mostly on the more well known examples.  But every so often I'll throw in a real clunker (of which there are many) in an effort to keep things fun and lively.  I'll be focusing on crocodile and alligator movies over the course  of the coming month with Rogue, Alligator and perhaps Alligator II: The Mutation on the cards.  I hope you all enjoy this review series as much as I'm going to enjoy writing it.

Primeval (2007) - Review

Primeval was inspired by the true story of Gustave, a monstrous man-eating freshwater crocodile allegedly responsible for hundreds of deaths along a stretch of river located in the African province of Burundi. The end result is a slightly above average but nonetheless sporadically entertaining entry in the well-populated “when animals attack” sub-genre of horror.  It really is impossible to whole-heartedly recommend this movie to anyone who isn’t a card carrying fan of nasty nature movies but it’s certainly more grounded and worthwhile than straight to DVD "delights" such as Dinocroc and Supergator

When it arrived back in 2007 the movie was met by a bit of a critical mauling.  Frustratingly it was also responsible for Australian killer croc movie Rogue having its release date pushed back by a year.  This is something that's was not only annoying but more than a little bewildering because comparing Primeval to Greg McLean’s underrated gem reveals a movie that is inferior in every conceivable way.  However, despite it living in the shadow of its more impressive peer, the beating Primeval took from critics seems harsh.  With expectations in check there's much to enjoy here despite its reliance on well-worn cliches.

The story focuses on a trio of journalists who embark on a mission into the depths of war-torn Burundi to track down Gustave, the movie's river dwelling villain.  They are accompanied by a wildlife expert who intends to take the beast alive and a guide who is out to take revenge on the monster that killed his wife.  As the hero of the piece Dominic Purcell, best known for his role in TV's Prison Break, is a little lacking as a leading man but acquits himself well in the more action orientated scenes.  Orlando Jones and Brooke Langton are also decent as the other two journalists.  As big a fan as I am of Jurgen Prochnow (if you haven't seen Das Boot sort it out) he's not up to the task of filling the rather big boots most famously occupied  by the legendary Robert Shaw in Jaws.  It's common for these sort of movies to have a proxy Quint character and while Prochnow is good in the role of Jacob Krieg he lacks the kind of eccentric edge that may have added to the movie's appeal somewhat. 

With the human element being relatively bland can we rely on our reptilian antagonist to provide some vital thrills?  Like any movie of this sort it can die on its arse if the beastly villain is anything less than effectively rendered.  Fortunately that's not the case with Primeval.  The giant crocodile, which was a product of CGI wizardry, in all its flesh-rending, bone-shattering glory looks very cool and, crucially, feels like it has weight and presence.  Its interaction with the environment is particularly impressive especially any of the many scenes involving water.  Its physical interactions with its victims are likewise noteworthy.  Often where CGI is concerned there's a danger of the effects elements failing to occupy the scene alongside the physical surroundings and characters in a fashion that is convincing.  That's not an issue here and Gustave is a truly impressive creation.  He's also a vicious son of a bitch and some of the kills are splendidly grisly with one crowd-pleasing death in particular which culminates in Gustave popping a victim’s skull between his teeth being spectacularly messy and wince-worthy.  

Another somewhat interesting element of the movie is the theory that Gustave has grown to such an immense size by feeding off the corpses of the victims of the slaughter taking place in Burundi.  Primeval is set against a backdrop of civil war and mass genocide which had been going on for some years with the bodies of thousands of victims being disposed of by throwing them in the river where they ended up fodder for the local wildlife including the crocodile population.  So essentially this ravenous beast was a product of the evil of mankind.  The real villain of the movie is not Gustave but rather the militia on opposing sides of this protracted and brutal civil war which between 1993 and 2005 claimed the lives of approx 300,000 people.  It's an interesting angle.

Ultimately I wouldn’t say that Primeval is the croc of shit (groan) that its initial reception suggests it to be.  It’s watchable and at times succeeds in generating a healthy level of suspense and excitement.  But there’s little here that hasn’t been done many times before (and indeed since) more effectively.  Director Michael Katelman is mostly known for his small screen work and given the opportunity to work on a larger canvas he certainly doesn't embarrass himself.  But nor does he shine.  Primeval shouldn't be dismissed entirely but in a world where Rogue, Black Water and Lake Placid exist it falls somewhat short of the mark. 

Steve's Score:

Black Water (2007) - Review

While Primeval reveals itself as nothing more than a guilty pleasure when compared to Rogue’s indisputable brilliance, Black Water falls somewhere in between but is far closer to Greg McLean’s movie in terms of quality.  It is also a far more realistic proposition than either of its 2007 peers and in at least one way manages to one-up both.  It uses real crocodiles.  

Impressive though the CGI generated mayhem was in both Primeval and Rogue it's no substitute for the a living, breathing adversary.  In Black Water, largely as a result of the tiny budget, the film-makers elected to shoot many of the more action packed elements of the movie using blue-screen technology with the final scenes being a composite of the actors reacting to crocodile footage that they shot separately.  The end result is, somewhat surprisingly, never less than convincing and is a large part of what makes the movie as nerve-racking as it is.  You really feel that you're watching the protagonists being menaced by something tangible rather than something created by the magic of modern special effects wizardry. It also stands as yet another fine example of film-makers turning adversity to their advantage.

In fact much of the movie’s effectiveness as a tour-de-force of expertly sustained terror comes from the mostly believable way events play out.  For once we don't have characters making rash, stupid decisions for the purpose of placing themselves in more jeopardy.  There’s nothing in Black Water that’s exaggerated for effect.  The choices made by the characters throughout ring true and as their situation steadily worsens the film-makers bring a knuckle-gnawing sense of dread  to bear that had me on edge from the first moment of disaster all the way through until the end credits provided me with some badly needed respite.  My nerves were more than adequately jangled.

It's true that Black Water contains protracted scenes where not much happens other than the characters engaging in conversation and growing steadily more fearful as the hopelessness of their situation becomes increasingly apparent.  Fortunately the movie is blessed with a trio of actors who are up to the task of not only delivering engaging, realistic performances in what must have been a relentlessly uncomfortable shoot but also succeed in the vital area of making the audience care about their fate.  So normal are they that it requires no effort and only a little imagination to step into the shoes of these people and wonder what you would do in their situation.  In my case "panic and die a horrible death as a crocodile snack" is the likely answer. These are ordinary people who through no fault of their own find themselves in a survival situation that they are ill equipped to deal with.

The movie is also remarkably claustrophobic; especially in light of the open air nature of the location where it was shot.  Stuck up a tree in a mangrove swamp, with no means of communicating your dilemma to the civilised world while at the mercy of a ravenous freshwater crocodile is a truly desperate situation to be stuck in.  Especially given how ill-equipped our trio of walking, talking crocodile snacks are in terms of their abilities to survive in such a hostile environment.  The use of sound here to rattle the nerves of the protagonists and in turn the audience is masterful and succeeds in tightening the vice-like grip of increasingly unbearable suspense as the movie progresses. 

Black Water is, overall, a damn fine slice of crocodilian terror.  What the film-makers managed to achieve on a very limited budget, working in difficult, uncomfortable conditions is really quite remarkable.  All in all they deliver an authentically crafted, brutally intense, powerfully acted depiction of the crushing psychological effect of being stuck in a desperate and increasingly hopeless situation with a group of people you love and care about.  There’s a pervasive atmosphere of mounting dread that bleeds from every frame of Black Water and becomes ever more acute as events take a turn for the tragic.  If you’re a fan of Traucki’s second feature, The Reef, but have't seen this I would suggest you remedy that with haste.  This is clearly the work of the same film-maker and really does demand to be seen.  It taps into the same primal fears and does so in a fashion that is equally effective.   Recommended.

Steve's Score:

No comments:

Post a Comment