Creature feature Black Water: Abyss is an undemanding dose of light horror

Keep your standards low and this Australian creature feature (now in select cinemas) might prove satisfyingbut don’t expect too much, writes critic Travis Johnson.

Thirteen years on from Andrew Traucki’s 2007 killer croc flick Black Water comes this spiritual sequel, which again puts a handful of handsome young people on the menu of a voracious reptile. This time around the hunting ground is an unmapped and partly flooded cave system our heroes have unwisely decided to explore, which adds some novelty and few new dangers to the scenario, while also inviting unkind comparisons to Neil Marshall’s stone cold horror classic: 2005’s The Descent.

Rest assured, Black Water: Abyss is not The Descent. But that’s no capital crime—few films are. This brisk and mildly bloody exercise has its own charms, mainly rooted in the fact that saltwater crocodiles are freaking terrifying and that a canny director can milk the odd sinister ripple in an otherwise still pool for an unbelievable amount of tension.

Traucki, who also gave us similar creature capers The Reef (2010) and The Jungle (2013), is such a canny director, and the film’s dramatic setpieces are mounted with an impressive degree of flair and confidence.

Unfortunately, the script by TV veterans John Ridley and Sarah Smith (Bite Club) scaffolding those fun, fright-filled moments together is pretty generic, and the characters are thin, with the cast struggling to inject life and individuality into what are effectively one note ciphers. Eric (Luke Mitchell) and Viktor (Benjamin Hoetjes) are blokey blokes who enjoy a bit of adventure tourism; Jen (Jessica McNamee) and Yolanda (Amali Golden) are their girlfriends. A few extras wrinkles shoved into the mix—Viktor is recovering from cancer, and a pregnancy opens up a pathway for a bit of infidelity drama—do little to flesh out the ensemble, who are basically here to scream, run, swim, climb and get eaten.

This is a pretty common problem in the world of low-budget Australian genre exercises, with filmmakers tending to throw all their efforts into the “good bits” (gore gags and inventive kills) but not bothering to give the narrative connective tissue the attention it deserves. That’s fine if you’re the kind of punter for whom only the splatter matters, but anyone wanted something meaty as well as bloody is going to come away disappointed.

But perhaps that’s setting the bar too high. If the win condition here is seeing people get mauled by giant reptiles and all other concerns are secondary, then Black Water: Abyss is a winner, and presents its thesis right out of the gate with a tense little prologue in which two Japanese tourists (Louis Toshio Okada and Rumi Kikuchi) meet a grisly end. The thing is, what unfolds after that sequence never tops it, which speaks to a certain lack of ambition at work.

Ultimately this is a rather generic, albeit technically adept, creature feature content to colour well within the lines and never offer us anything you wouldn’t expect to find in any given example of the subgenre. The boxes get ticked with mechanical efficiency. If you’re hankering for an undemanding dose of light horror, then Black Water: Abyss fulfills that remit—but don’t expect anything more than that.