Making sharks terrifying again

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Making sharks terrifying again

On seeing the poster for “Open Water,” you will probably assume, as I did, that it’s yet another unpleasant, boring horror film off the assembly line of unpleasant, boring horror films. And so you will feel rather stupid, as I did, when you realize that it’s actually not just a good film, but an original one.
The plot is straightforward: Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) go on vacation to some unspecified Pacific island to escape their hectic lives, and their scuba diving group accidentally leaves them in the middle of the ocean, where they spend hours upon hours, first trying to be rescued and finally just trying to survive.
But it’s the way the story is told that makes it worthwhile (and truly horrifying). A modern Hollywood shark film might rely on startling the audience with supersaturated sound, sharks and storms. Instead, “Open Water” uses two well-developed characters and their capable actors to make the situation terribly realistic, and disturbing on a far deeper level.
Writer and director Chris Kentis moves his camera and his pen as though this world were our own. The scuba leader’s mistake seems perfectly natural: because two people leave the water only to go back in again, he puts two ticks too many on his paper, and when Daniel and Susan are the last ones in the water, he thinks everyone is already aboard. In the kind of irony that makes a good suspense film, the audience can see the mistake coming from the start.
The psychological development of the two characters as they float in the sea is the script’s other major virtue. When they first surface, they assume their boat is one of two floating on the horizon, and that it will be back to rescue them shortly. As the current starts carrying them out to sea, that illusion slowly dissolves, giving way to worry, blame and eventually abject terror.
The camera work completes the illusion of reality. Most of the shots are handheld, giving the film a disconcerting air, as though it were a home movie or a documentary made by some perversely detached third party.
At one point Daniel says of the sharks circling him, “I don’t know what’s worse, seeing them or not seeing them.” Mr. Kentis knows that, for the audience, it’s the latter that’s more frightening. He’s not afraid to let the film fall into complete and utter blackness when night comes, and a segment in which a large shark is lit up only once or twice by flashes of lightning is perhaps the film’s most viscerally scary.
The sharks in the film are real, and the actors, wearing chain mesh under their scuba gear, were really in the water with them. Mr. Kentis and his wife produced this film themselves on weekends and holidays, and the crew supposedly fed the sharks tuna so they would not bite the actors.
It should be a lesson to Hollywood that this $130,000 film is in fact more successful than effects-laden horror flicks that cost orders of magnitude more. The characters and fish in “Open Water” do something airbrushed actors, orchestral music and special effects cannot: they convince the audience that they could be next. And that is the most frightening feeling a story can provoke.

Open Water
Suspense / English
79 min.
Opens today

by Ben Applegate
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