Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Don't Go Into The Water

As a special summer treat I've decided to tie up a loose end I've been rather stoked about. Recall if you will December 2008 when I decided to take a break from all things undead and watch all the movies I could get my hands on about giant crocodiles and alligators. It was a blast, to be sure, a much needed station break. What's bothered me since then is the notion that there was something out there just beneath those calm waters. Specifically two croc films I hadn't managed to find. I had a legit excuse for one, it's been long out of print, one of a bevvy of Australian horror films that only ever made it to VHS in this or any country. The other was just not on DVD at the time and I was still a novice at finding things on this great series of tubes we call the internet. Anyway I've seen both of them now and realized that they have more in common than the spiny beasts at the center of their narratives. Both Dark Age and Black Water are Australian second wavers that waited long enough after the films that they take inspiration from that it's easy to judge them on their own merits rather than how closely they resemble their source films. Take what you will that both of these films about saltwater crocodiles attacking people in Australia were both based on movies about sharks attacking vacationing Americans.

Dark Age
by Arch Nicholson
Steve Harris is a park ranger who runs an animal rescue in a town in the middle of nowhere. His stock in trade are crocodiles and up until now the only thing he's had to worry about are poachers like John Besser and his redneck friends. Some of those boys happen to be out on the local river one night hunting illegally when something catches one of their lines and pulls their tiny boat over. Of the three men that go overboard, only two resurface. The police, not to mention Besser, all assume it's one of Harris crocodiles and come down on him hard but he knows nothing of his has gotten out and if its big enough to pull a boat holding three hefty hillbillies it's gotta be well over the average size and he'd know if he'd seen anything like that. Another attack a few days later on an aboriginal infant puts Harris back in touch with old flame Cathy Pope who looks after the kids. She and Harris seek help from Oondabund an old spiritual man with a deep love for the animals surrounding his home. He reckons it's Numunwari, a legendary crocodile that his ancestors talked about. Oondabund and Harris figure it's going to take a cunning hunting strategy, as well as some finessing of public officials in order to find a way to catch the beast and then make sure it's dealt with properly. Being the environmentalist he is Harris doesn't want to just issue an APB on the thing because it means every hunter for miles is gonna go out killing crocodiles to try and claim reward money. Some professionals are called in but they yield no better results than John Besser, who loses an arm while out at night looking for it. So even if Harris manages to subdue the beast, he's going to have to figure out a permanent solution before a hopping-mad Besser and his remaining cronies come looking for revenge.

I wish I knew what's kept Dark Age from being shown in Australia because maybe if they sorted that out they could release it here. I'm saying that but apparently Synapse Video has obtained the rights to release it in the states at least. And here I spent a year and a half trying to download it. C'est la vie. As a Jaws knock-off, Dark Age hits a surprising number of the proper beats while steering clear of a few others, notably it's stirring conclusion. Sonia Borg is credited as the sole writer on the print I saw but other sources have to other writers, Stephen Cross and Tony Morphett, helping her adapt Grahame Webb's novel Numunwari, apparently as hard or harder to track down as a copy of the film. It's thus impossible to know if Webb was ripping off Steven Spielberg, Peter Benchley or no one at all, and his book morphed into a Jaws copy on the screen. I say that but to be fair Dark Age is probably the best Jaws knock-off I've ever seen. Pair it with Big Alligator River or Tentacles and it's miles ahead. Pair it with Piranha or Alligator and it's still a comfortable distance ahead where craft is concerned. Unlike the smartest of Jaws' many imitators, Dark Age manages a level of style that most never aspired to. Director Arch Nicholson, an old hand at Aussie exploitation films by 1987, having directed the gut-wrenching Fortress and worked second unit on the excellent Razorback, with which Dark Age has much in common, fills the swamps with smoke and too-little light to keep us in suspense until he's ready for the big reveal. The scenes where we get glimpses of it, as in the remarkably effective first-sighting where he eats this movies' Alex Kintner in one very loud bite, do much to simply indicate the size of the creature without spoiling it entirely.

The performances are all, if not great, certainly endearing. The writer and activist Burnham Burnham makes one of only three appearances on film as Oondabund and though I suspect he felt a little patronized doing an Aboriginal version of the Indian companion from any number of American westerns and mother nature's revenge films, he doesn't totally embarrass himself or anything. And it wouldn't be a film about aboriginals without David Gulpilil who, despite looking like one column of an fossilized totem pole, is almost impossible not to like. I've loved him in every film I've ever seen him in and though he's relegated to a kind of silent Quint role, he's still easy to root for. The hillbillies and Nikki Coghill are all fine, as is John Jarratt, who was a little like Australia's Claudio Cassinelli or Kurt Russell until he mostly vanished into TV in the 90s. He had the good fortune of being rediscovered by Greg McLean, who had the genius idea of having Jarratt trade in his good looks and affability for leering menace in the astoundingly good Wolf Creek. Seriously Greg McLean is a fucking genius. But Dark Age... The croc effects are pretty great (though a more trained eye will tell you he changes from a croc to a gator in a few scenes) and though he always has a pretty good sense of where the hero and villain are going to be at any given moment, Nicholson gives as good as he gives, if that makes sense. Yes, there are problems, but ultimately you get to see a big fucking crocodile eat some people and then, in a pretty interesting turn of events, we get treated to a car chase at the end of the picture and even get to feel good about the crocodile eating people! I've accepted logic holes for less. Perhaps if Dark Age hadn't been so handsomely put together I'd be willing to scrutinize but something about good Australian exploitation warms my heart. After waiting as long as I did, I'm glad it didn't disappoint.
Of course Dark Age wasn't alone in its exploitation. For years and years after Steven Spielberg put himself on the map with Jaws if you saw a movie with a big animal in it, chances are someone somewhere was trying to cash-in on his monster shark. Everything from giant mutant bears to orca whales was put into service ripping off Jaws. Hell, even Dino De Laurentiis' terrible King Kong remake felt a little like a Jaws rip-off (maybe that's just me). So imagine for a second a shark film comes out and basically changes the game entirely. Chris Kentis and Laura Lau's Open Water had nothing to do with Jaws beyond featuring sharks as their antagonist but even those sharks are of average size and don't even really get blamed beyond being animals doing their animal thing. There is no hunt, there is no booming John Williams contrabass cue, no villain, just a bunch of digital cameras and a sense that everything is both very real and very unfair. Kentis and Lau did such an amazing job with Open Water that they have yet to follow it up; my guess is they fear not being able to top it but this is wild conjecture [ed. they had every right to be afraid]. But as anyone could have guessed, a popular shark movie was bound to have imitators. But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet. It is, I suppose, a possibility that the makers of 2007's Black Water had no intention of taking a page from Kentis' playbook, but honestly I don't care. Why? Because Black Water is as good a movie as Open Water and though it perhaps shucks a touch of the shark movie's realism in favor of an openly grimmer tone through-out, I didn't mind because it meant being able to see a different outcome than the one that befell the hapless couple in Open Water.

Black Water
by David Nerlich & Andrew Traucki
Lee, her sister Grace and Grace's boyfriend Adam are going away for a little bit out to the wilder parts of Australia. Evidently living in the Australian suburbs is enough to make you forget about movies like Wolf Creek, Razorback and Wake In Fright and go tear-assing off into the bloody wilderness without a care in the world. After a pit stop at a crocodile farm they head to a hotel where Grace takes a pregnancy test but hides the results from Adam. The next day they head to a boat rental joint to do a little fishing up in a mangrove swamp. The regular tour boat has just left but Jim, the assistant boat-hand, could take them out if they want to. Lee becomes a little anxious when she sees Jim grab a big goddamn revolver on their way out, but he's only too happy to explain that he's just taking a few precautions in case they need to ward off crocodiles. Then, as if to validate his concern, a big fucker of a saltwater croc spills their boat and Grace, Adam and Lee find themselves stuck in a tree on a hot day with no guide, no phones, no food, no water, no one aware of their predicament and no way home except an upside down boat in the middle of solid black water, just far enough away to make trying to retrieve it seem suicidal. The croc may have disappeared for the time being but he always pops up to remind the three tourists that they're never alone. It's gonna be a long damn day...

I'd like very much to show Black Water to the makers of made-for-syfy (née Sci-Fi) channel original movies to show what you can do with virtually no money. The plot couldn't be simpler: three people stuck in a tree while a hungry croc waits for his chance to eat them. And's almost perfect. Our three performers, Diana Glenn, Maeve Dermody and Andy Rodoreda are above-average and believable. The trouble with a situation film like this is convincing us that the mistakes made by the characters aren't so huge that the film hinges on them, but big enough that they ratchet up the tension those few needed notches. Black Water's steaks are almost hopelessly average. The croc is big but by no means fantastical (and frankly it doesn't have to be. Having lately become addicted to River Monsters, I'm terrified enough of ordinary creatures) and the scenery is sunny and open yet feels claustrophobic. Grace's decision to try and see how far the tree branches lead her is incredibly thrilling, even if it is a slowly paced scene. You know that this is the extent of the traveling we'll do and directors David Nerlich and Andrew Traucki put all of our/their hope in how far she can get. They make little things into big deals with little to no frills. In fact the only part of the movie you might confuse with something trashy and made-for-tv is an opening montage of vacation photos of Grace, Lee and Adam set to a rather terrible pop song. Both times I've watched this film I've been totally annoyed by this scene until I'm up in the tree hearing the crocodile chew on body parts and then I remember why that stupid goddamn song is there. If we didn't care, if we weren't lulled into seeing these three as people then we wouldn't have much invested when the croc shows up. Like Open Water, it hedges it's bets showing you a lot of the lives of their heroes before tormenting them. I remember a long time ago watching deleted scenes for that piece of shit Deep Blue Sea and hearing Renny Harlin talk about he cut a scene where we learn that one of his characters was pregnant. He felt it made her getting eaten by a shark harder for the audience to take. Now that movie was a piece of shit and so really it wouldn't have mattered but movies like Black Water and Open Water don't have to worry necessarily about those decisions because their about people rather than characters. You don't have to worry about how best to sympathize with people, that just happens if you've really done your job as an actor. And here, they have.

Of course because these are just people, an air of grimness hangs heavy over the proceedings. Unlike Open Water you do get a few moment's respite and the music is in on it this time. Rafael May's score is one of the few things that make the film a little less than real but considering how good it is, I don't so much mind. The minimalist guitar and cello themes are really excellent and do so much to keep you on edge. Of course no music probably could have done that, too, but I understand the impulse. But the biggest thing keeping the audience on edge is the crocodile itself. It's clearly a real croc for most of the film and the stand-ins they use for close-ups are flawless. In Rogue, for example, the CG was a touch more apparent because we were dealing with a monster, a freak. That the effects happened to be excellent was a plus, to be sure, but Rogue was so entertaining that it didn't matter so much. Rogue was basically a slasher film whose killer happened to be a giant croc and Greg McLean is a fucking genius so of course it worked. Rogue actually has more in common with Dark Age tonally than Black Water and if I were a bit more savvy and smart I'd probably have paired them, but whatever. Black Water is more subtle than both films and gets by on nerves for most of the film but it also knows when to unleash a giant motherfucking crocodile. And ultimately, isn't that what we all want to see?
In answer to the question I posed a few seconds ago, sometimes. Sometimes I want to see a big motherfucking crocodile. Mostly, however I want genius filmmaking. Given the choice between something by Renny Harlin and Greg McLean, I'll take McLean any and everyday, he's a fucking genius. I like directors who know their shit. Though occasionally I'll accept that some people like getting pandered to, and join in with them, especially if it means seeing one of the last filmed performances David Carradine gave before masturbating himself to death. You may recall that when last we talked lizards I mentioned a certain film by Roger Corman under the rather dubious name Dinocroc. I caught that rather dubious piece of shit on sci-fi (now syfy) and so I suppose it's only fitting that I should catch it's in-name-only sequel on the same channel. Roger Corman and his team might not be able to make movies worth a goddamn but there was just the right balance of camp and self-deprecation for me to forgive what a piece of shit it was for most of it.

Dinocroc Vs. Supergator
by Rob Robertson
So there's a lab on and island and some scientists accidentally made big fucking lizards who're now gonna eat people if you can believe that shit. David Carradine's behind it. So a 'hot' park ranger, a 'hot' double agent, a schlubby spy and a 'cajun' gator hunter have to pit the beasts against each other before they eat all the fat tourists, slutty beach-dwellers and pervy assholes on the island. Oh but first they have to eat a swat team who didn't get through the "Hide Your Regional Accent" part of acting camp. Real movie? Debatable. In it's favor: its nonsense is somewhat endearing. The Supergator is actually not bad looking in most of its scenes, especially when compared to the Dinocroc. Also, considering that Corman was one of the first people to rip-off Jurassic Park (in fact he did it before Jurassic Park hit theatres, sly dog) it's kind of nice to see him still ripping off Jurassic Park to the point of actively stealing the sound effects from that film for his poncey little spring break movie. Bless your heart, you cheap bastard.

Against it: Well it stoops to ripping off fucking Jurassic Park, for one. It believes a gator the size of a hummer limousine can hide in six inches of water, for another. It's steeped in a blinding, MTV-like colour palette that's almost as blinding as the performances are deafening. And then there's David Carradine not really earning all that good credit Quentin Tarantino gave to him with those Kill Bill movies. But then Michael Madsen and John Travolta haven't done much since Tarantino brushed the dust of them, either...And I guess Sonny Chiba had to take that part in The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift, so...I'm sorry I lost my train of thought...right, big fucking gators. Yeah, so this movie is silly as shit and really too boring to be quite as fun as it needs to be. It's called fucking Dinocroc Vs. Supergator, so really this ought to be a non-stop, rip-roaring ride, people getting tore up every six seconds and the like. This was not that. So while I knew it would be spectacularly terrible, I was hoping it'd do a little more to earn my respect. But then Corman's movies were never as exciting as they ought to have been. You needed a first rate talent like Joe Dante or Peter Bogdanovich to get something worth the price of a ticket and Rob Robertson (if that is your real name) is no such thing. So all in all I'm rather glad I came back for this last stop in Crocton. A good croc movie can be really satisfying and I was entertained by all three of these films, yes even the silly one. It's tough to lose when you pick a movie with a big fucking gator running the show.

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