There are several groups of shark attack movies in cinema history, perhaps the largest sect of the animal horror subgenre. A classic blockbuster like Jaws is often considered one of the best films of all time. Another end of the spectrum is the never-ending parade of shark films the internet adores, like Sharknado and Sharktopus.
A balance needs to be struck between these two poles for mainstream, non-Jaws films. The Shallows and Deep Blue Sea are maybe the two best examples of films that manage to take their aquatic horror seriously without becoming ridiculous.
There have been three mainstream shark attack movies released so far in 2022 (The Requin, Shark Bait, and The Reef: Stalked), with another on the way (Maneater). In each film, the characters are unexpectedly attacked by sharks at sea while trying to survive. Uncannily, both The Requin and The Reef: Stalked feature plot devices that remind the protagonists of their past water-related traumas.
Despite employing this device in their narratives, both films endearingly use sharks to metaphorize repressed suffering, but unintentionally trivialize their protagonists’ trauma by associating it with shark attacks.
More disturbing than the similarities between the films are the traumas that inform the protagonists’ flashbacks. When Jaelyn (Alicia Silverstone) is bathing, she experiences visions of suffering a stillbirth. After Kyle (James Tupper) cuts his foot on coral, Jaelyn has a panic attack in which she relives the traumatic event.
In The Reef: Stalked, Nic (Teressa Liane) recounts seeing her sister drown in a bathtub by her abusive partner. Nic sees her sister drowning throughout the film when she looks into the water. In addition, both films draw attention to these flashbacks through their visual compositions. The Requin’s flashbacks are set against a black backdrop with hazy steam.
The Reef: Stalked is filmed in close-ups that feel claustrophobic. Therefore, each film emphasizes the flashbacks’ significance through jarring visuals. The two forms of trauma provide chomp-centric plots with a measure of sobriety that distinguishes them from low-budget schlock. However, whatever solemnity is created is quickly shattered when unintentional laughter is evoked.
Jaelyn is swept up by The Requin’s biggest shark while stranded on a coracle. The film is overtaken with an intense goofiness thanks to its subpar visual effects and the odd editing that switches to Silverstone screaming in between shots of the shark jumping.
While the characters are attempting to bail out water from their boat in The Reef: Stalked, a fully visible shark silhouette zooms rapidly towards them. It is nearly impossible not to giggle at the spotty shark design and the confusing reaction shots. In moments like these, the viewer is completely disconnected from whatever investment they might have had in the protagonists’ stories.
There is no need for shark movies to be technical masterpieces in order to be effective. In movies where sharks repeatedly attack the same group of characters, there is a certain element of levity. It is especially jarring when considering how seriously the films treat their characters when there are sillier sequences.
The purpose of films about characters overcoming disturbing traumas is not to incite involuntary laughter. A less serious approach to The Requin and The Reef: Stalked’s characters and their traumas might have prevented unintentionally silly moments from negatively affecting the overall movie.
In both movies, shark attacks could potentially have been handled in a more serious manner without adding extra layers of horror. Even someone who is unafraid of the ocean can be terrified by the prospect of being attacked by a shark.
Trauma-based flashbacks also imbue the film with thematic weight in addition to adding dramatic weight. Trauma in these films goes beyond toothy fish. Nevertheless, the themes of The Requin and The Reef: Stalked are at odds with the narrative proceedings. That’s not to say shark movies can’t have deeper meanings.
There is a critical reflection in Deep Blue Sea about humanity’s exploitation of nature. That film, however, harmonizes its narrative with its themes. In contrast, connecting birth trauma or domestic violence with sharks is much more difficult. As a result, the films feel as if they are misusing rather than authentically incorporating real-world trauma.
In order to discover the aforementioned throughline, one must think of sharks at a symbolic level. Sharks symbolize the repressed trauma each character must overcome in both films. As the characters overcome their trauma and move on from the attack, they symbolize overcoming their trauma and moving on in their lives.
This method of symbolizing repressed trauma is not limited to shark movies or horror films in general. Film critic Robin Wood argued that genres are driven by the return of the repressed. As a result, both The Requin and The Reef: Stalked trivialize their chosen traumas.
The Reef: Stalked illustrates this particularly well since repeated visualizations of trauma mimic the shark’s repeated attacks. There is an implicit association here between serious, distressing incidents and shark horror’s inherent absurdity.
A shark attack movie will never masterfully blend shark-centric terror with sincere drama as well as Jaws. But that doesn’t mean all cinematic sharks have to be schlocky. Between the two, there is a happy medium that shark-attack movie fans crave. As The Requin and The Reef: Stalked demonstrate shark movies that try too hard to be serious inadvertently end up schlockier.
Robert Poirrer is a contributing author who covers Hollywood latest movie releases and web series for the MovieThop website. He has a decade of experience in writing movies based articles for numerous renowned media outlets. He is excellent at creating unique content based on emerging trends in a variety of categories especially entertainment, movies and lifestyle. When not writing articles you could find Robert enjoying mountain biking trips with his friends. He graduated in English Literature from North Carolina State University.