“He’s not a lizard, he’s an amphibian, like some of the oldest, baddest dinosaurs,” says pet shop owner and trainee veterinarian Jules Adams (Luciane Buchanan) in a scene from near the beginning of The Tank. It is 1978, Jules is explaining to her seven-year-old daughter Reia (Zara Nausbaum) – who would rather be at an environmentalist demonstration against “men cutting down our forest” than in her parents’ store, but is too young to go alone – why an axolotl has just chewed off the limbs of his partner in his tank. “You know, if we took him out of the water he would turn into a salamander and hunt on land,” says Jules, adding that his prey would be “anything that moves.”
All this is careful foreshadowing, as was a brief prologue, set in 1946, where a man (Jack Barry) was shown being dragged violently down into a hatch in the ground, just outside the cabin where his pregnant wife (Holly Shervey) and daughter (Coco White) were sleeping. That cabin in Oregon, long since abandoned, is about to become the inheritance of Jules’ husband Ben (Matt Whelan), its property deed hidden away in the files of his recently deceased mother Linda. It is not Linda’s only buried secret – for she had always told Ben that his father and older sister had died in a car accident shortly before he was born in ‘46, but it now emerges that in fact they both disappeared, presumed drowned, while staying in the cottage whose very existence Linda had strangely never even mentioned to her son.
It is all very mysterious for Ben, but more importantly this legacy – which includes not just the cottage but a large stretch of virgin woodland and the neighbouring Hobbit’s Bay (a name that also foreshadows dragons) – would appear to be a potentially lucrative blessing for the impoverished Adams family (yet more foreshadowing of domestic horror), despite claims, going back at least to the local Siuslaw tribe from around the time of the Big Cascadia Earthquake, that the land is ‘cursed’.
Before his disappearance, Ben’s father had drilled through to a subterranean spring to provide fresh water for the cabin – but in doing so had, like the earthquake centuries earlier, unearthed something savage, troglodytic and hungry – and now that Ben removes the lid from the hatch to the underground tank and opens the pipes once more, a prehistoric creature is reawoken and re-emerges from the water to the land, endangering yet another generation of Adamses.
Written and directed by Scott Walker (The Frozen Ground, 2013), The Tank burns slow and builds tension for its first hour, as the creaky old cottage only gradually reveals (through old photographs, newspaper clippings and diary entries) the harrowing experiences of its previous residents while something growls in the shadows beyond – but then in its third act, it unleashes full reptilian mayhem, lent bite by creature effects from Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop. From here on in, it delivers a monstrous hybrid of Lewis Teague’s Alligator (1980), James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006), Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2007) and Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island (2017), while also bringing its ecological subtext right to the surface.
The Tank is preoccupied with history and legacy. It is always looking back – to the parallel, cross-generational misadventures of the Adams family back in 1978 and even further back in 1946, to reports of vacationers going missing there in 1932, and shipwrecked sailors also vanishing there in the early 1900s, to the Earthquake centuries earlier which was said to have swallowed people up, or even to the prehistoric times when the land and sea were roamed by “the oldest, baddest dinosaurs”.
A post-credits coda points to a later time when men once again come to cut down the forest, to disrupt the natural ecosystem and to disinter the repressed, except that this future is also still part of our past – indeed it is, as text reveals, June, 1993, the same month and year that Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was released. The implication here, of recurring mistakes and lessons never learned, can easily be extrapolated into our own present, when we are all reaping the consequences of a long tradition of treating the land as a commodity and doing reckless damage to the environment.
So even if you struggle to understand why an eyeless creature might peer into a window or be granted slasher-like POV shots in the woods, these monsters expose our own brute blindness and primitive drives. For as we repeatedly bring catastrophe down upon ourselves, history repeats itself, nature keeps getting its revenge – and even a slayed dragon will not stay down for long.
strap: Scott Walker’s ecological creature feature pits a family, not for the first time, against a remote property’s buried secrets
© Anton Bitel