Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, Black Water: Abyss comes along.
Well, the truth is, no one living in the Northern Territory where David Nerlich and Andrew Traucki’s original Black Water (2007) was set, or in Northern Queensland where Traucki’s belated sort-of sequel unfolds, ever thinks it’s safe to get into the water. Estuarine crocodiles, or ‘salties’, are apex predators – highly hostile hunters which, unlike sharks, will actively seek out and kill all creatures, including humans, that enter their territory. No sane person sets out to enter these beasts’ natural domain – the billabongs, rivers and estuaries of Northern Australia – and those who, for whatever reason, find themselves there feel far from secure. In Black Water, it was a group of holidaying youngsters whose fishing boat got overturned by a croc in a mangrove swamp, forcing them to seek refuge up a tree – a scenario loosely inspired by a real incident. In this follow-up, connected to the original only by the inclusion of a killer croc (all salties are killers), five people become trapped in a virgin cave system with an aggressive reptile and rising floodwaters that leave them less and less solid ground on which to shelter from the toothy death circling below.
What ensues falls somewhere between the tense crocodilian cat-and-mouse of Eaten Alive (1977), Alligator (1980), Lake Placid (1999), Rogue (2007) and Crawl (2019), and a deadly subterranean game of ‘the floor is lava’ (only with encroaching waters replacing the imagined magma). Here, as in the original Black Water and the shark-themed The Reef (2010), Traucki keeps the predatory threat mostly out of sight, as something that the characters – and we with them – are constantly aware is lurking there, but are unable to see. As such, apart from the occasional deadly strikes, the crocodile remains an unseen presence, like the scotopic flesh-eating troglodytes in Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005), or like Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man (2020) in a much lower-tech skin. This leaves most of the horror to our overactive imagination, with every drip, splash or ripple stimulating great anxiety. It is a highly effective delivery system for adrenaline-firing nervousness and fight-or-flight responses in the audience. Given our knowledge, right from a prologue involving two lost Japanese tourists, that there is a man-eating crocodile which has made the cave its feeding ground, even early scenes where our five more-or-less intrepid explorers first arrive in the cave bristle with our expectation of peril – and the bludgeoning repetition in subsequent scenes, as characters must, again and again and again, venture into the dangerous waters to achieve various life-saving goals, serve, far from boring the viewer, to ratchet up the tension unbearably. Here what you cannot see truly can hurt you.
Black Water: Abyss is a film of calm-seeming surfaces and hidden depths. The two couples at its centre – Jennifer (Jessica McNamee) and Eric (Luke Mitchell), Yolanda (Amali Golden) and Viktor (Benjamin Hoetjes) – conceal emotional turbulence under veneers of marital contentment. Yolanda, though not yet showing, is pregnant, but has kept this from Viktor, for reasons. Jennifer is secretly monitoring Eric’s phone, also for reasons. We are led to suspect that both these relationships have already been entering their terminal phase even before the killer croc shows up to expedite the process – and speaking of terminal, unadventurous, asthmatic Viktor may seem the weakest of the group, but he is already a recovering survivor – of cancer. Meanwhile, would-be guide Cash (Anthony J. Sharpe) may put on a brave face of alpha maleness, but beneath all the braggadocio he is very much a beta to his friend Eric, and something of a coward. Soap goes well with water, and while these economically sketched human dramas may seem petty when juxtaposed to the monster that is ending them one by one, in a sense that is the point: the film serves as a memento mori, with patiently pernicious mortality always prowling around the edges of our banal life stories.
Death is the dragon that ultimately can never be slain – so while the over-the-top coda of Black Water: Abyss, shifted to a different location and played in a shriller register, offers the kind of climactic confrontation that is requisite of genre cinema, it comes tinged with our awareness that in the long, quiet river of life, there will always be more crocodiles just waiting around the bend for their moment to bite.
© Anton Bitel