Eyes watching horror and calculated assaults in,
Andrew Traucki’s The Reef (2010)

In horror cinema the appetite for explicit, punishing and phantasmagoric deaths is insatiable. At the Frightfest screening of Final Destination 5 (Steven Quale, 2011, USA) this year, the artless nature of gymnast Candice Hooper’s (Ellen Wroe) death was so breathtaking, so lingeringly unashamedly brazen, that we very nearly gave this one sequence a standing ovation in the aisles (it received enthusiastic applause instead). By the time Miles Fisher’s Peter decides much later on in the film to intervene in the Final Destination schema (he fixes, in the third and dullest act, to kill off a survivor in order to save himself), not one Frightfest attendee in Cinema 1 that night wasn’t wishing for a return to the Fischli & Weissian chain-reaction of death that made Candice’s earlier comeuppance so memorable. Her death scene is up on YouTube with a three hundred thousand view count and rising. This fetishistic adulation of the “death spectacle” (very much the USP of the Destination series) is largely absent from The Reef (2010, Australia), Andrew Traucki’s low-budget horror film about a group of stranded vacationers who are stalked by a Great White as they navigate the Coral Sea Islands. This absence allows for a more interesting cinematic world. The gags may be staler (this is the most humourless Australian thriller I think I’ve seen in years), but Traucki makes particularly effective use of the first-person camera, exploring the potentialities of objective and subjective camera work in underwater photography. Our sense of fear, curiosity and alarm derives in great part from this point-of-view structure: like all slasher films, The Reef teases us, it makes us look, and then it hurts us. So in addition to our common hunger for the death spectacle, there is then the simple fact that we pay good money to experience an assault of sorts on ourselves; the pleasure of surviving unscathed, though deeply shaken, simultaneously liberates and excites us.

In some respects The Reef is a film about our compulsion to look at and register horror. Carol Clover (1992), who’s written extensively on horror cinema and particularly on our spectatorial need to see horror films, uses the phrase “eyes watching horror.” Her phrasing can and does encompass many eyes of horror: the victim’s eye looking in at horror, an innocent who sees telepathically the harm done to others, the eye of the killer itself, the “memory eye” which visualises people or events otherwise lost in the past, and not least the spectatorial eye which is assaulted by horror over and over (from Hitchcock and Powell to Hooper and Craven, through even to Gens and Laugier). Those familiar with both the fatalistic desire of protagonist Heather Donahue to capture the eponymous entity of The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999, USA) on film and with the cartoonish assault which floors her in the final reel will recognise in The Reef similar strategies at play, though clearly reformulated to achieve different ends. In The Blair Witch, for instance, the many “incidents” captured by the documentary filmmakers on handheld cameras in the dead of night are memorable for being disorienting but also for containing absolutely nothing—as Mallin (2001) states: the film “makes the fact of not seeing the proof of a malevolent otherworldly presence.” Mallin adds that “the story is about the need to complete the story.” As consumers of narrative, we search for information and certitude—our personal “project” as an audience therefore is to become active participants and to “see” in the footage of The Blair Witch Project that which the documentary filmmakers ultimately failed to see and fully grasp for themselves. In The Reef, more than simply involving us in the scene, first-person cinematography is used repeatedly to train our spectatorial eye to similarly drop its guard—to borrow terminology used by Cumbow (1990), it imposes a way of seeing, a vision, on the audience, a vision that is not necessarily adversarial but which plays to and plays on our compulsion to look. Inevitably, as the film moves on, we begin to search for the thing that now hunts us.

Two things occur from the outset. Firstly, The Reef owes much to its unique geographic location. Set in the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland, the film traces the plight of four victims—Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling) and Kate (Zoe Naylor), and Matt (Gyton Grantley) and Suzie (Adrienne Pickering)—as they use small sections of the Great Barrier Reef to escape the dangers of the open ocean. Filmed almost entirely offshore and in ubiquitous light, Daniel Ardilley’s camera moves effortlessly from the pastel-blues and off-white glare of the surface to the clear warm waters of the reef and the ominous voids that appear beyond its magnificent sections of coral. So effective is the approach that the whole endeavour feels like an underwater movie. It becomes quite clear early on that The Reef offers audiences of popular thrillers, especially those in the west, respite from the animated environments that plague the screen victims of Open Water (Chris Kentis, 2003, USA) and Adrift (Hans Horn, 2006, Germany). The ocean is idyllic, the characters bathed in sunlight, the currents aid their survival plan, and errant objects that appear on the surface are visible at much greater distances. In this environment, not only can we see telltale signs of danger adequately from far away, we also see adequately enough below the surface (rarely have the two approaches been coupled competently in Hollywood film). This produces an uncanny affect. One could argue that the film channels and exorcises Joseph Sargent’s Jaws the Revenge (1987, USA)—the third sequel in the Universal franchise—for the fact that Traucki’s staging of the drama recalls the Ellen Brody character’s nightmarish vision of herself swimming alone in crystal waters, a vision which betrays a fatalistic longing to return to the ocean despite her overt fears. When we dream we are not so much in control of our bodies as watching our bodies forcefully rebel; common-sense takes a walk, and reality dawns on us cuttingly fast. This dream-logic marries well with The Reef’s fantastic environments: human rationality, emotional reasoning and decision-making at the non-conscious level all figure large in the film. A sequence in which Matt breaks away from the tightly-grouped party of survivors in order to retrieve a stray kickboard is a sound example of bodily rebellion: the scene works cheerfully as suspense, but we instantly write off Matt’s chances because his actions are foolhardy, no one in their right mind would ever attempt the same thing. Yet Matt’s compulsion to swim for the kickboard overtakes him, primordial feelings—I have a body, it must be protected—kick in. Another immersive set-piece—in which Luke and Kate, still far from making landfall, make it to several coral clusters that break the surface of the water—plays well too, but once again seems more in keeping with our expectations concerning fantasy and dream-logic. The conceit is so effective allegorically, and in addition it plays so well on primordial feelings (during, and especially in the hours after the film), that the entire sequence delivers an authentic experience for us as viewers—in Todd McGowan’s (2007) words (used about a different film but helpful here too) it keeps us in the attitude of questioning. With its survival theme and fantasmatic set-pieces set in colourful environments, The Reef feels like a wish-fulfilment narrative dreamt up by an anxious, and fevered, and desiring Luke.

Stranded: Kate (Zoe Naylor), Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling), Suzie (Adrienne Pickering) and Matt (Gyton Grantley)
consider their options, while Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith) looks on in The Reef (2010)

The second point to make concerns the first-person camera. Thankfully we’re spared in this scenario anything quite so roundly stupid as a Jawsian camera—mounted behind the dorsal fin in Jeannot Szwarc’s not-terrible sequel Jaws 2 (1978, USA); sharing the nodding, bobbing shark’s-eye-view in Jaws: The Revenge; or matter-of-factly conjuring shark-vision through a goldfish bowl in Renny Harlin’s godawful Deep Blue Sea (1999, USA). However, Traucki uses unusually long takes of the stalking shark, pieced together from footage shot with underwater cameras from the safety of a cage and a boat respectively, in order to create the illusion of the first-person subjective camera. This footage, remastered, edited, and digitally cleaned, becomes everything that Luke sees underwater through his goggles, or at the very least it privileges an omniscient film-world camera that captures the same things Luke sees. The film makes good use of this device to generate tension—it is Luke who monitors the shark as it circles the defenceless group and only Luke; the others remain none the wiser. But more than a gimmick, the first-person camera is used over and over again. This makes clear two things: that the filmmakers aim for a verisimilitude which is difficult to attain (particularly for low-budget productions) without recourse to authentic underwater footage of real sharks; and secondly, that the first-person camera becomes effectively the reactive gaze of slasher horror cinema—it performs the same job as Pablo’s (Pablo Rosso) infrared camera in the memorable closing moments of [Rec.] (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007, Spain), as Heather and Josh’s cameras in The Blair Witch Project.

What excites me about this approach is that the film affords us, albeit in edited form, several opportunities to observe characteristically small changes in the Great White’s threat display. The sharks (we use here the plural because the film-shark is of course represented by many different Whites) move slowly from non-aggressive posturing into a subtly more pronounced display advertising at first bulk and body length, and then jaw size and gape. Of course, Traucki’s footage of the shark circling its prey still provides a distortion—a White which has been drawn to a fish carcass by human agency via chumming moves in on its prey very differently to an unmonitored White that is provoked by something far larger, less familiar, and potentially more dangerous than itself, like a swimmer—therefore, we are still watching an imaginary. The available footage is configured and manipulated for fantasy cinema, thus the shark’s behaviour is still misrepresented. But considering we’re in an age where Hollywood productions (and news organisations) can barely do a thing with Whites, Makos or even Reef Sharks beyond recapitulating the same tired representational strategies employed by Steven Spielberg thirty-six years ago, this sense of a half-turn towards real-world experience and real-world behaviour does at least offer us, as engaged audiences, possibilities for making sense of the cinematic White shark in less mercurial ways.

Thus bringing us to the importance of looking. In The Reef, looking is about as helpful as screaming and kicking. Luke lowers his head into the water compulsively, both to see if the threat is still real and to see from where the next attack is coming, but he gleans no useful information by doing this (he can’t help the others because the shark is unpredictable, fast and, in its circling patterns, mildly hypnotic); all he can do is look. Why, then, does Traucki make him look so often? We, on the other hand, scrutinise the frame and anticipate the assault because we need to see, it is part and parcel of our masochistic (to cite Clover again) investment in pain. We do so not out of curiosity, but of necessity. The most interesting aspect of The Reef for me concerned the nature of this desire to look. On the one hand, the subjective camera is very clearly a device which can be manipulated by filmmakers (in this case Traucki) to create a desired effect: to heighten suspense, to collapse the visible distance between the shark and its prey, or to launch a visual attack on an audience. Being on the receiving end, we either overlook this system of production in order to preserve the illusion of an autonomous world, or we suppress our direct involvement altogether and remain detached. On the other hand, the very cinematic image generated by the subjective camera takes on and brings into being a variety of meanings/ideas which move cinema beyond the technical aspects of its construction. On this website, we’re mainly concerned with the latter. This idea that cinematic images in some way convey or hold consciousness, or thought, inspires many of the responses on these pages. In the end, The Reef is possibly no different from a film like Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960, UK), which brings the protagonist Mark’s victims face to face with their own deaths, but which critically trades on Mark’s own masochistic identification with their suffering. Traucki’s film turns on a similar pleasure: the very human compulsion to see with our own eyes the horror which is about to befall us.

29 September, 2011


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