There’s a reason we don’t get many shark movies - it’s hard to find a new way to tell a story about people being eaten by sharks. People and sharks rarely share the same environment, so you mostly have to do a variation on one of two themes: sharks going where we wouldn’t expect them or people stuck in shark waters.
The Reef goes for number two, an easier and much more familiar way to set your shark movie. Based on a true story, The Reef is about a quartet of folks trapped in the water when their boat sinks; they attempt to swim 10 miles to land but find a hungry and persistent shark has decided to treat them as his personal buffet line. There are echoes of Open Water here, but The Reef skips all the irritating arguing and bickering that made you root for the sharks in Open Water, and sticks mostly to sheer survival terror.
And it mostly works. Long segments of The Reef are terrifying; the film, directed by Andrew Traucki, creates serious dread and tension. Traucki understands what’s scariest about the situation isn’t exactly the being eaten part, it’s the fact that you’re floating in a world you can’t see. Seeing the shark’s fin break the water is scary as hell, but it’s scarier knowing that that anything could be just below your legs at any moment.
It’s the scenes between the attacks, or just leading up to the attacks, where The Reef had my stomach clenched up. I’m a sucker for survival horror, as I know I would be one of the chumps going out very early, and that’s frightening. Traucki plays with the fear of the hidden world of the sea a lot, and has the lead character - the only one with a diving mask - break through into the underwater domain to give fleeting, tense glimpses of what could be coming. You’ll be straining to see through the murky depths, looking for a glimpse of a fin, or the outline of a monstrous Great White.
The actual shark attacks, sadly, don’t work as well. I think a shark attack scene is the right time to go gonzo, to truly gore it up, but whether it be sensibilities or budget, Traucki keeps the grue limited to blood in the water.
Better shark attacks might have solved The Reef’s other major problem, which is that it’s fairly repetitive. Float, be scared, tension, shark footage, tension, attack, repeat. Part of the problem is that, as is common in this genre, the characters aren’t particularly engaging, so while the film creates excellent cinematic tension, it doesn’t have character tension - you literally don’t care what order they die. Still, you’re not actively rooting for them TO die, which is a huge step up from Open Water.
The Reef is strong and scary, but not perfect. For shark movie aficionados it’s a must see; for the rest of the populace it could be a strong reminder of why it’s not safe to go in the water.