It’s sharksploitation horror season! Every summer, it seems like we get at least a couple finned genre flicks featuring the ocean’s most feared—but in reality, wonderful—creatures. This year, director Adrian Grunberg’s The Black Demon is the first big one available for audiences to dive into. Sorry to say though, this one is more chum than it is a juicy seal.
Written by Boise Esquerra, The Black Demon is set just off the Baja coast at a barely standing (floating?), oil rig. Safety inspector, Paul (Josh Lucas) and his family have just arrived in town so that he can conduct his latest check on the industrial eyesore. But after a series of unfortunate circumstances, Paul and his family find themselves trapped on the rig, circled by a megalodon shark that refuses to let them leave.
I’ve about given up on ever getting a truly great megalodon film. A prehistoric shark thought to have been anywhere between 15-25 meters in length (!), megalodon’s make the Great White look like a house pet. They’re pure nightmare fuel. Yet The Black Demon can be added to the long list of films that fail to capitalize on just how terrifying these beasts are.
Opening on, what else, a shark attack near the rig in the middle of the night, The Black Demon starts with a good taste of the film at both its best and its worst. Murky water filled with clouds of oil allows Grunberg to play with audience perception. An inspired shot from inside the shark’s toothy mouth conjures deep sea chills. At the same time, a school of CG fish that look straight out of an N64 game and a brief moment of horror made difficult to comprehend through choppy editing and clunky camerawork highlight some of the film’s many stumbles.
Poor technical aspects aside, what really sinks The Black Demon is a collection of thinly rendered characters, their development sacrificed for a guy who is peak shitty white dude, Paul. Outwardly proud of his work for Nixon Oil, Paul is the kind of person you dream about getting turned into shark food. He seems like an okay enough dad—Lucas is exceptional at putting on that “good guy” smile—but you end up wanting to knock his teeth out as soon as he starts belittling the poor townspeople who have watched his company turn their prosperous village into a decrepit ghost town. He laughs at the Hispanic men trapped on the rig with them and their belief in curses. He bosses around his family. You’re not supposed to like Paul, and I’m not one of those who thinks main characters have to be “good”, but his role is so obnoxious, Lucas’ performance so over-the-top cartoonish, that it becomes nearly impossible to empathize with the questionable arc which he is given.
In a sub-genre starving for originality, Esquerra’s script does at least offer up some unique ideas. Believed by Chato (Julio Cesar Cedillo) and other villagers to be the vengeful result of a curse, there’s a heavy dose of supernatural lore that plays into The Black Demon’s megalodon. One interesting element is the belief that the shark can conjure hallucinations for its victims. There’s potential for some great scares in that, except the film lets this and various other concepts go underexplored as they drift out to sea. Which is a shame, because one of the most unique elements of the film is the spiritual tone injected into it through music, totems and painted images of the god at hand spread all throughout.
Between junk scattered on the beach, a town destroyed by Nixon Oil and a shark thought to be brought on by a curse, the heavy-handed environmentalist theme practically swims up and bites you on the ass. That’s typical to any nature run amok horror film, but The Black Demon chomps so viciously into the thematics that it becomes a distraction. Think Birdemic without the intentional comedy. Characters finding their hands covered in oil instead of blood is a clever bit, but my guess is that if you’re watching Grunberg’s film, you want less montages of animals harmed by oil and more shark carnage, which there isn’t nearly enough of.
The Black Demon commits the greatest sin of any sharksploitation film; It’s dull. Outside of a couple jaw-dropping moments, the shark at hand goes underutilized. It barely has a presence, taking a backseat to Paul’s internal struggles. Suspenseful scenes are brief and have little bite. All of which is disappointing coming from the director of the incredibly gory Rambo: Last Blood. The most shocking thing about The Black Demon is how surprisingly toothless this R shark film is.
Muddled lore. Frustrating characters. Bloodless shark action. The Black Demon is drowning in issues. Falling somewhere between Megalodon and The Meg, sharksploitation fans have seen much worse, but a truly great megalodon film remains as mythical as the creature itself.
The Black Demon swims into theaters April 28th from The Avenue.
By Matt Konopka