This is the Greatest Shark Movie Since ‘Jaws’

The Reef

Few horror subgenres have struggled quite as considerably as shark attack horror. There’s Jaws, the Apex Predator, a certified masterpiece of American filmmaking, and then there are, well… there are a few others. The Shallows is pretty good, even if its toothy terror is a glossy CG blob, and the 47 Meters Down franchise treads water with incredulous set pieces. The Meg and its sequel are dumb fun, even if there’s too little of the titular beast in either franchise. Deep Blue Sea is good for some 90s camp, too. Beyond that, however, is a veritable grab-bag of direct-to-video schlock and low-budget nonsense. Some of it (Santa Jaws) is good for an evening lark with Bad Cinema, but the broad spectrum of shark attack horror is pretty grim.

What’s most unusual is that it is symptomatic exclusively of shark horror. There are dozens of fantastic slashers, and while some are undoubtedly beholden to their older brethren (e.g. Peeping Tom, Psycho, Black Christmas, Halloween), they’re not regularly assessed against those forebears. That is, “This new slasher movie is good, but it isn’t Halloween.” The same could be said of ghost stories. Every year, there’s some new, terrifying ghost story released, and they succeed independently of whatever the subgenre’s greatest might be. Even found footage horror, perennially indebted to The Blair Witch Project, succeeds on its own. Sure, there are plenty of bottom-barrel offerings, but just as many succeed on their own merits.

Enter Andrew Traucki and The Reef

Shark horror has never come close to matching Spielberg’s masterpiece’s simple efficacy and blockbuster sensibilities. In fact, there’s been nothing even remotely good enough to rival Jaws. Maybe that speaks more to Jaws’ cinematic success than anything else, but if you ask any horror fan for their favorite shark movies, you’re liable to get the same few answers. Not because there’s a wide consensus, but instead, simply because there isn’t that much to choose from.

Jaws doesn’t presently have any contemporary rivals, and I’m not sure it ever will. This year, we’ve already seen No Way Up and Something in the Water. Both were fine, though the most exciting offering is the forthcoming Under Paris on Netflix, though even that looks passable at best. So, while the subgenre churns out the same buckets of chum time and time again, there is at least Andrew Traucki’s The Reef. It’s not perfect, but it is quietly the greatest killer shark movie since 1974.

An Impressive Creature-Filled Filmography

Traucki’s filmography is stylistically akin to what Chris Kentis accomplished with Open Water in 2003. While that wasn’t a shark movie, the filmmakers did use real sharks. The cast wore chain mesh under their diving suits—though luckily no one was bitten—and were filmed in close proximity to the sharks seen on-screen. It lent Open Water a verisimilitude that no doubt accounts for its shark horror prestige even though, taken as a whole, it hardly qualifies for subgenre inclusion.

Traucki’s work—including The Reef, Black Water, and recent sequels to both films—prioritize that same verisimilitude. The shark in Jaws felt real, even though it was mechanical, and Traucki regularly flexes his low-budget muscles to render his survival thrillers that much more realistic. In Black Water, Traucki’s sensational giant croc survival thriller, real footage of crocodiles were spliced into the location with the actors using special effects. So, no, the core cast wasn’t filming with real crocs, but, it did work to suggest—to create the illusion—that they were. It renders the filmmaking a bit frenetic, but it sells the conceit.

Cinematic Trickery And Creating A Scary Shark

With The Reef several years later, Traucki made use of the same cinematic trickery to even stronger effect. When a yacht capsizes and leaves a group of friends stranded en route to Indonesia, they’re left with the choice to either remain on the sinking vessel and await help or swim to a nearby island. While some choose to remain behind, the rest don their gear and set out into the open ocean. It’s Chekov’s Shark as soon as one member vocalizes their fear that the twelve-mile swim might be chock full of oceanic predators. It most assuredly is. 

Traucki, like with Black Water, filmed real sharks near Port Lincoln on the Eyre Peninsula of South Australia to imbue The Reef with more credibility. The real sharks help, though The Reef’s greatest strength is how regularly they’re kept out of sight. Jaws’ lack of shark until well into the movie is a widely known effects fluke. Resultantly, the shark is only visible for four minutes of the movie’s 124-minute runtime. The Reef’s smaller scale makes that more difficult, of course—not even Spielberg could sustain an entire movie of people just swimming. But the understated sensibility remains and elevates The Reef’s scariest moments.

How Much Shark Is Too Much Shark?

One of many answers for why shark horror flounders is, paradoxical as it might sound, there’s too much shark. Galeophobia, an overwhelming fear of sharks, is no different than something like thalassophobia, an intense fear of deep bodies of water. It’s less about what is, more about what could be. Once it’s known, that fear, in some small part, evaporates. The threat of a shark attack is scary—the actual shark attack is decidedly less so. Shark horror, whether the exploitation kind of the 1970s or 1980s or the streaming titles we see today, often prioritizes the shark a bit too much. It’s a tricky balance. You need enough shark to deliver on the premise, but not too much it renders what should be the ocean’s scariest predator a joke.

The Reef’s MPA rating is R for just language. It’s not filled to the brim with shark carnage. Instead, reworking Spielberg’s famous POV shots, its most dread-filled moments are beats of silence, flippers gently treading beneath the surface, something watching from below. There are splashes in the distance, proclamations that someone felt something move beneath them, but few actual moments of sharks chomping down on wayward Australians.

It’s terrifying in its subtlety. While it never quite matches Jaws, its most effective moments come pretty darn close. Simple shots—such as a character donning their goggles to pop beneath the surface and scan for sharks—are breathlessly intense. Coupled with Traucki’s footage of genuine sharks, these moments land in a way no other shark picture since Jaws has managed. It’s not Jaws, but it’s quietly the best shark attack horror movie released since then.

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