Grace (Diana Glenn), her boyfriend Adam (Andy Rodoreda) and younger sister Lee (Maeve Dermody) are holidaying in Northern Australia when they decide to take a river tour. Drifting into a mangrove swamp, their boat is suddenly capsized and their guide disappears beneath the murky waters. They have been attacked by a crocodile. Adam drags Grace to the safety of a tree whilst Lee clings desperately atop the overturned boat. Stranded in the swamp, with no rescue in sight, the three must work out what to do to survive, while the ravenous crocodile circles below. Watching. Waiting.
Based on a true story, Black Water has a great premise and some effective shocks, but lack of momentum fritters some of the tension away. With its characters stuck up a tree for most of the movie, the narrative is similarly stranded. Part influenced by genre classics like Duel (1971), Jaws (1975) and Alien (1979) (early on Lee mimics the chest-burster scene), the film avoids the pitfalls of the “you are there” school of docu-horror (The Blair Witch Project (1999), Open Water (2005)), but also loses some of its intimacy. The nerve-jangling scares are aided by David Nerlich and Andrew Traucki’s decision to keep their croc a mostly hidden, yet palpable menace. The directors filmed footage of real crocodiles (Traucki was chased by one uncooperative reptile) but it is sparsely used in favour of subtle sound effects, POV shots and ripples of water that set your nerves on edge whenever they appear. Save for one awkward moment when the croc leaps out of the water (Croc looks screen right, then so do the actors), it’s skilfully done thanks to Nerlich’s background in visual effects. Co-director Andrew Traucki also helmed black & white sci-fi pastiche, Rocky Star which aired on BBC2 ten years ago.
Standout moments include a harrowing night when two characters are forced to listen while the crocodile chows down on their friend, and Lee awakening, post croc-attack, to find herself next to the rotting corpse of their riverboat guide. The film’s most nightmarish innovations are the “Death Roll” POV shots where we experience, first-hand what it’s like to be caught in a crocodile’s jaws. Some unintentional humour arises when one character says: “I’ll be right back”. Audiences are likely to groan since we know what’s coming. Given the circumstances it’s hard to judge whether the characters react believably or not. While people react to trauma in different ways, the protagonists waver convincingly between hysteria and a fierce determination to survive. Especially impressive are Diana Glenn and Maeve Dermody as sisters whose bonds are severely tested by the horrors they endure. Dermody keeps us riveted as she skulks toward a final confrontation with the monster. Kudos also for an ending that strikes the right balance between triumph and tragedy.