Black Water: Abyss (M)
Five photogenic Aussie twenty-somethings pursued through an underground cave system by a territorial crocodile is how most of the world sees Australia - hot Hemsworths and bikini models and ancient killer animals, Down Under.
They're not wrong. It's hard to swing a Kanken backpack in Bondi without hitting at least two former Home and Away cast members and a cluster of redback spiders.
Andrew Traucki's new horror film does nothing to dispel any of these myths, featuring as it does not two but three Home and Away alumni, and the most tenacious crocodile since Steve Irwin's Collision Course movie.
This is something of a sequel - Traucki released Black Water in 2007, in which Maeve Dermody is among a small group of tourists left stranded in a tree in croc-infested waters when their day-trip boat capsizes.
As this film opens we meet a group of young friends having a social night out before a planned adventure. Over beers, we meet the ruggedly handsome Eric (Luke Mitchell) and his lovely girlfriend Jennifer (Jessica McNamee), and their coupled friends Yolanda (Amali Golden) and Victor (Benjamin Hoetjes).
Through some subtle exchanges we learn a little more about these friends - that Victor is in remission from cancer, that Yolanda is pregnant but hasn't told Victor yet, that Jennifer holds some insecurities about her relationship.
The following morning, they're off through the North Australian jungle to the family property of Cash (Anthony J. Sharpe) who had stumbled upon a previously undiscovered cave while searching for some missing backpackers.
Cash has dreams of a new income stream with tourists booking adventure holidays spelunking and so has roped his pal Eric into scoping the cave system out.
What begins as a fun day exploring the subterranean system goes literally downhill, as a storm front moves in and the cave's water levels rise, and that water brings with it a toothy visitor.
One of the few positives of the COVID era is that, thanks to the Dendy Cinema's sensible social distancing of patrons, nobody was close enough to laugh at my physical reactions to this film.
As the screen went dark, or the music dropped, or the camera focused on ripples on the water, all signals that something was about to go down, my feet were squirming up the seat in front of me, may hands gripping the armrests, suppressed grunts of fear escaping.
Which is to say that this is a really effective little film. The suspense is well built, the scares are genuine.
Of course, I grew up in coastal Queensland, so I didn't see this as horror-lite so much as a documentary. When you've had to swim back to shore as the shark alarm is screaming louder than you are, you take your water-bound predators seriously.
Traucki is a director who understands how to build and hold suspense, and he surrounds himself with a crew who can do a thoroughly professional job on a modest budget.
Setting your film in a cave underground with rising water can be a great budget-saver. The filmmaker draws on our own imaginations, choosing to reveal little and leave our minds to do the work others may effect with CGI and a bigger budget.
I appreciated the writing from John Ridley and Sarah Smith, with character touches revealed as the film progressed, and while not enough development was put into the Eric character, Luke Mitchell's presence and physicality overcomes this.
He's a great leading man, demonstrating that the university of Home and Away is as plausible an education path as NIDA for future actors.
Strong performances from the cast, notably Jess McNamee, reward the audience. It's quite a job for an actor to pull off a subtle performance in a genre film like this.
One thing the global shutdown has done for what is left of Australia's film industry is redress some of the balance that always tipped way too far in favour of American product at the Aussie box office.
Now all folk who love a good locally-produced scare need to do is got to the cinema - or the supermarket.