‘The Black Demon’: Get Into the Water, There’s Nothing There [Review]
In 1953, Flannery O’Connor posited a good man was hard to find. In 2023, “man” has been swapped out for “shark movie.” Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was the first summer blockbuster, no small feat for a horror movie (and, yes, Jaws is unequivocally horror). The shark subgenre has more laudable origins than most. Yet year after year, summer after summer, nothing has come close to matching the suggestive efficacy of Spielberg’s original.
Some, like The Reef: Stalked, are fittingly fun. There’s no doubting Johannes Roberts’ Carpenter-esque craftsmanship in the 47 Meters Down duology. Shark movies have been good, but they’ve rarely been great (other than The Shallows). Most often, they’re duds, aimless vessels floating in an open sea with Clueless cast members. Will Adrian Grunberg’s The Black Demon, a high-concept merging of Mexican mythology and shark terror, change that? Suffice to say, it’s as culturally sensitive as it is entertaining. So, no, not much at all.
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Josh Lucas stars as Paul Sturges, an oil executive on vacation with his family in Bahia Negra, a coastal Mexican town rendered with all the tact of a GOP playbook. Everyone is othered, and everyone is a threat. The first act taps uncomfortably into early-aughts xenophobic horror, cultivating tension from violent locals and shady bars. It’s not safe outside the United States, see? No matter that Sturges’ wife, Ines (Fernanda Urrejola) is a local. Everyone is on edge. While Paul absconds early to check in on an offshore oil rig, Ines and their two children soon follow, driven from the mainland after an attack. That should be the end of their troubles. Yet, as the introductory scene made clear, something monstrous is lurking out there in the deep.
The titular Black Demon is woefully underused. Had Grunberg and writers Carlos Cisco and Boise Esquerra better ruminated on the cultural underpinnings, the monster might have worked. Instead, the human drama is chum, fish guts, and viscera just begging for a shark to come and save it. It rarely, if ever, does. With just two other rig workers alongside Paul’s family, the carnage is constrained from the start. The tension mostly amounts to repeat scenes of someone falling into the water and flailing while The Black Demon cuts to reused underwater POVs of something big swimming toward them. They’re saved at the last minute, repeat ad nauseam.
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As The Black Demon unspools, the peripheral promise is glimpsed, though never actualized. Cisco and Esquerra deserve credit for making their monster more meaningful than most, linking the shark to environmental protection and a mythic claim to Bahia Negra. Supernatural exploits take root, with the leads speculating the shark has the capacity to make them hear and see things that aren’t really there. Yet, for as much promise as it yields, they never see much of anything, with most reveals being obvious long before the characters feign surprise. Just guess who the real bad guy is.
A giant witch shark isn’t a bad idea. It’s a great idea, actually, and in broad brushstrokes, leveraging the supernatural to make a point about deregulation and environmental devastation works. In fact, it’s arguably what the entire aquatic horror subgenre is really about. The Black Demon was crafted with the best of intentions, no doubt, but as a package of disparate elements, it never rises about the surface. A shark curse would be much better than this. At least then something might happen.
The Black Demon tries to make a point, but any subtext it might have achieved is destined to sink among the chum of a bare-bones monster movie.