Another summer, another middling horror shark movie.
The Reef: Stalked is in theaters, VOD/digital, and Shudder on July 29, 2022.
Andrew Traucki’s The Reef: Stalked is the writer/director’s fourth wade back into aquatic horror waters, albeit with inconsistent results. I wasn’t taken by his first shark attack flick, The Reef, which was a concern that proved detrimental coming into his 2022 sequel. Both films implement a style of using wildlife B-roll that doesn’t match character-focused cinematography, but The Reef: Stalked also falls victim to another sin of indie-budgeted shark cinema — poorly computer-animated beasts. It’s never as bad as Alicia Silverstone’s battle against a pixelated atrocity in The Requin earlier this year, but still woefully underwhelming in terms of fin flick thrills.
Traucki’s setup du jour for The Reef: Stalked is four women paddling kayaks towards a Pacific island when Mr. Hungry Shark appears. I’ve seen protagonists adrift on jet skis this year, also floating on a detached coastal hotel bungalow (The Requin is wild, y’all) but Traucki finds sensibility in a getaway excursion on open waters – at least after central protagonist Nic (Teressa Liane) discovers her sister and diving buddy Cath (Bridget Burt) drowned in a bathtub by abusive partner Greg (Tim Ross) during an introductory tragedy, and Nic disappears from other sister Annie’s (Saskia Archer) existence until now. This backstory is how Traucki attempts to empower emotional stakes beyond hunter-prey animal attacks, as Nic frequently hallucinates Cath’s gurgling face gasping for air when gazing into the sea’s churning wakes.
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Two narratives fight for dominance throughout The Reef: Stalked. One analyzes Nic’s growth as someone who flees from confrontation and depressive realities after her sister dies — the shark stalking Nic represents her traumas, get it? The other is an actual creature feature where Nic, Annie, Jodie (Ann Truong), and Lisa (Kate Lister) must defend themselves on single-rider kayaks against a massive fishy foe. Unfortunately, there’s never a fluid marriage between Nic and Annie’s reevaluations of PTSD, heavy-handed metaphors, and excitable shark horrors. Traucki aims to chart new waters since he can’t just recreate the capsized nightmare of The Reef, but fails by disconnectedly overcomplicating what surrounds sporadic shark attacks from beneath.
Even worse, and most regrettably, The Reef: Stalked continues a streak of dodgily inserted or animated sharks that never feel like they belong in their cinematic environment. In this case, it appears video footage of real sharks is superimposed into scenes which still give a digital feel. Actors react to invisible lungers that emerge from (sometimes digital) cover-all splashes that surge topside with the ferocity of clunky video game graphics. These are your sea monsters, your fearsome predators, and they don’t even blend into islander backgrounds. Traucki’s dilemma is not uncommon and very well might be a recurring talking point come my review of fellow shark flick Maneater next month. Scared swimmers flail away from meh-at-best sharks (aside from wildlife inserts) for 90 minutes like you’ve seen over and over from underfunded aquatic horror films — when will we learn our lesson?
Admittedly, The Reef: Stalked doesn’t sink until the shark appears, after Traucki’s foursome establish their chemistry and motivations. While the sisterhood angle may wear thin after an hour, it’s initially something intriguing to bite into, and the scenic shoreline landscapes all look lovely. As a casual kayaking adventure across crystal blue waters, we sense the oncoming storm before a dorsal fin slices through waves — the film just cannot sustain that feeling of dread. Once the chomping begins and waterlogged survivors cling to bobbing surfaces for safety, excitement merely doggy-paddles with unmemorable strokes. Nic’s reclamation of self, the ensuing fight for salvation on sandy beaches, an outside interaction with children swimming in danger zones? It’s underplayed as terrifying shark attack cinema, whether post-production additives lack or undercut momentum.
The Reef: Stalked is another middling mid-budget fin flick that’s tonally confused somewhere between Shark Week and Lifetime. There’s nothing exceptional nor abysmal — Deep Blue Sea 3 and The Requin respectively represent both ends of the recent subgenre spectrum there — as writer/director Andrew Traucki dunks some GoPros (or adjacent technology) underwater and repurposes oceanic documentary footage. It’s consistently underwhelming and repetitively dull, never finding the true horrors of shark attack flicks. Have we learned our lesson about utilizing unsatisfactory post-production seabeasts when trying to compete with the likes of Jaws and Deep Blue Sea? I presume not, with The Reef: Stalked as the latest disappointing example for aquatic horror fans.
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Another summer, another middling shark attack movie that uses unfortunate digital beasts to try and sell the horrors that lurk deep beneath.