Posted on June 29, 2015

Crocodile Horror: Black Water and Rogue

Dawn

Shark Week is coming up (starting July 5), and so I want to whet your appetite with a post on two films about the shark’s horror-film sibling, the equally disturbing crocodile. In fact, crocodiles may be even more disturbing than the shark: reptiles not fish, they can terrorize on land as well as sea (and river and lake!).

Australia has demonstrated that it rules the domain of crocodile horror, with two exceptional films released in 2007: Black Water, directed by David Nerlich and Andrew Traucki (the latter of whom has since also directed the shark horror film, The Reef [2010]), and Rogue, directed by Greg McClean (who also directed Wolf Creek [2005]).

The plots of both films are what you would expect from animal horror, which rarely deviate from a standard formula: humans are terrorized by predator; humans fight predator; one or more humans may or may not survive encounter with predator. What distinguishes both Black Water and Rogue, though, is the incredible suspense they both create, the beauty of the cinematography; and the message both convey about humans’ fragile position within the natural world. Humans may be apex predators, but we have clawed our way to that apex only through our manufacture of tools (not least, guns) and through expelling “the wild” from the places many of us live. When we find ourselves out of our artificial environments and without tools, we plummet pretty quickly to the bottom of the pyramid of predation.

The sheer beauty of both films, along with the gut-churning tension both induced when the characters were inevitably trapped, helpless, in crocodile-infested waters, were pretty much my vying, equally overwhelming, affective responses to both films. But when I was able to think more critically about what was going on in each, I was really struck by the important point they make about humans’ utterly insignificant, tenuous place in the natural environment. That we can so quickly become food—meat—should never be far from our conceptions of who we really are.

One of the characters in Black Water becomes meat

One of the characters in Black Water becomes meat

Both Black Water and Rogue begin by showing, in different ways, how humans strive to dominate the “wild” (and have been pretty successful at it). In Black Water, three tourists stop at a crocodile farm before heading out into the mangrove seas of northern Australia, home to some of the most fearsome apex predators—saltwater crocodiles. The scene at the farm shows crocodiles penned up for human amusement, the crocodiles framed within a confining built environment.

2. Black Water, croc farmEverything changes when the three friends and their guide head out into the wild, in the long middle after their boat is capsized and they are menaced by an unforgiving crocodile. Through most of this part of the film, the camera repeatedly returns to unmediated shots of nature, the humans, perched in a tree, minimized within its vastness, stillness, and indifference to them. This is by far the most terrifying part of the film, as the imperviousness and frequent hostility of the characters’ environment induces a genuine existential dread. Who are we now?

3. Black Water, nature1 4. Black Water, nature2 5. Black Water, nature4

Late in the film, the “final girl” has her showdown with the crocodile, and this ending serves to release the built-up existential dread, not least because the human figure (and human ingenuity) again become predominant. In one pivotal shot, not only does Lee (Maeve Dermody) command the frame, but the fact that the frame has clearly been digitally designed is itself a kind of re-assertion of human dominance. In its re-assertion of the human, this frame seems to augur Lee’s survival.[1]

6. Black Water, Leah and the crocRogue gets across humans’ attempt to dominate the environment differently. As the tour group sets out through Kakadu National Park and Katherine Gorge in northern Australia (where much of the film was actually shot), it offers us consistent shots of human heads, literally showing the dominance of the human and human ingenuity, human “civilization.”

Kate (Radha Mitchell) in Rogue

Kate (Radha Mitchell) in Rogue

Pete (Michael Vartan) in Rogue

Pete (Michael Vartan) in Rogue

Director Greg McClean juxtaposes these extreme, almost artificial close-ups with extreme long shots—and the vacillation back and forth between these kinds of shots instills less dread, I think, than the middle of Black Water, where the characters lose all efficacy for a while, where they are swallowed up by nature. Rogue keeps returning us to the human and leaves us in much less doubt that the characters will triumph—and the film certainly ends triumphantly, in a way that partakes as much of the action genre as the horror genre.

Long-shot of the boat in Rogue

Long-shot of the boat in Rogue

Both films for much of the time, though, knock humans off their vaunted perch. Both show humans becoming meat. Both show humans going from dominating their environment to being part of the environment. Stripped of their guns, radios, phones, cameras, flares, and boats, humans merge into the nature that also threatens them; they are not separate from it, not able to contain it, but are part of it.

In this way, both Black Water and Rogue say something about human nature—something that is the inverse of those shots of the croc farm in Black Water and of Kate’s and Pete’s heads in Rogue, which do suggest we somehow “contain” nature. The terrifying parts of the film suggest that we don’t contain nature but that we are nature, that we’re immersed in a nonhuman world of which we also partake. In “The Making of Rogue” (a great short documentary that comes as a special feature on the DVD), Radha Mitchell (who plays Kate) says of the terrain they filmed in: “You have nothing to do with it and you’ll never understand it.” And she says of the crocodiles: “They’re completely unknowable.” Black Water and Rogue suggest that we’re no different, that we too partake of that unknowability.


[1] Michael Fuchs reads this moment differently, arguing that it implies a “/combining/ of the human and the animal,” in his great article, “‘They are a fact of life out here’: The Ecocritical Subtexts of Three Early-Twentieth-First Century Aussie Animal Horror Movies,” which can be found at https://uni-graz.academia.edu/MichaelFuchs.

 

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