What has sharp teeth, a powerful bite and deadly-fast reflexes? Well, a lot of things that can kill us, as it turns out, but in this episode we focus on a certain heavy, armored, toothy reptile which appeared in 3 films (2 of which were actually good) in 2007.
The natural world is full of things we’re both fond and fearful of. Different kinds of animals, for instance, are beloved, revered and even worshipped in different ways by different cultures. Even some of the dangerous ones are, more often than not presented as cute and cuddly in mainstream pop culture.
Here in North America, for instance, bears are the archetypal stuffed animal. A popular children’s-novel-turned-TV-show labeled one as “Gentle” right in its title, and let that titular bear befriend a boy. And I’ve seen more smiling cartoon bears selling toilet paper in advertisements than I ever need see again.
Meanwhile, the Wikipedia page for fatal bear attacks in North America makes for an overly long and absolutely spine-chilling read.
Some animals, to be sure, don’t have the same positive public relations spin. Wolves, for instance, despite looking very much like man’s best friend, tend to be depicted as far more aggressive than they are in real life. The default setting for sharks in the vast majority of stories is “villain,” as highlighted in a conversation from the film Drive.
And, like their distant, aquatic, carnivorous cousins (I know they’re not really related, please permit me my fondness for alliteration), gators and crocodiles have never come close to getting the Gentle Ben treatment.
Full Episode Script
I have no scientific basis for what I am about to say, it just seems logical to me: We are all here because at some point–if not several points–in the deepest history of our ancestry–dating back to times that predate history as we know it–one of our predecessors avoided or survived an encounter with a killer animal. We all owe our existence to someone who avoided a tiger, or a snake, or a spider, or a bear, once a upon a distant time.
In the present, I imagine that the overwhelming majority of people listening to this right now don’t have to worry about dangerous animals killing or even injuring them. If anything, it’s quite the opposite. Civilization has pushed many animals to the brink of extinction or beyond, including some predators that would have a clear natural advantage over us if we were barred from using technology, weaponized or otherwise. But of course, technological advancement is one of the things that makes human beings human, and it’s hard for me to complain about it when I’m sitting here in my comfortably air conditioned home using a microphone and computer to record my thoughts on horror which I’ll share with anyone in the world who has the capacity to hear it courtesy of, you guessed it, technology.
We can readily kill animals without even trying, without meaning to or thinking about it. I’ve passed far more roadkill in my life than I can even begin to put a number to. It’s not even particularly startling to see it. Now that I’ve written that out for me to say it on this podcast, it’s maybe a little disturbing. The rather gory aftermath of high speed violence can just lay out in the street, sometimes for several days, and most of us probably aren’t terribly sickened or stricken by it, even if it’s the remains of an animal we collectively–at least in America–have deemed lovable. I’ve seen dogs or cats in the road and not one person pulling over to lament that this might have been somebody’s pet, a child’s cherished companion, a family friend. We might sincerely think it’s unfortunate, but not enough to disrupt our day to do anything about it, not like we might if we saw a human body in the road.
And look, I’m not going to pretend I’m King Wildlife Activist here, equating animal lives to human lives, I’m just making some observations that I plan to tie into the theme of this episode. Which you probably guessed by the title is the fear of dangerous animals. One of our primal, most fundamental fears. It’s not a fear of something manmade such as clowns or plane crashes. This is something that was baked into our forebears, the recognition and respectful, healthy fear of things with teeth far sharper than yours, and strength much greater than yours, and speed that often tops out higher than the best you’ve got, even if you’re motivated by running for your life.
This fear of nature’s many predators, or even just animals defending their turf, has been explored in pop culture countless times. Not literally countless but who’s got the time to actually count that up, you know what I’m saying. Once upon a time, the biggest movie of all time, the one that changed how the industry releases films, was the masterpiece that is Jaws, a relatively straight-forward story about shark attacks executed extraordinarily well. Spielberg would again, years later, make another movie that helped alter the industry and became the biggest movie of all time when it was released, Jurassic Park. Granted, the animals of Jurassic Park are born of science fiction but they’re still animals that actually once roamed the Earth. They’re not aliens. They’re not an invented monster doubling as a metaphor like the almighty Godzilla. They’re just big, mean, fast and ferocious animals possessing many sharp parts with which to render you a human ruin.
Honing in on Jaws specifically, there hadn’t quite been a major movie or novel like it prior to its release, in that it was about a killer animal just doing what it does, and being what it is, at least to a significant degree. It wasn’t like Hitchcock’s masterpiece The Birds, for instance–based on Daphne Du Maurier’s novel–in which all of the bulk of the horror is spurred by the titular birds engaging in un-birdlike behavior. It wasn’t like any number of fifties monster movies involving giant animals whose size and even aggression was often a product of accidental irradiation or some other scientific mishap. There wasn’t any hint of the supernatural or metaphysical, as their was with the television film Killer Bees, released a year earlier, in which said bees were controlled by a psychic. It’s not an oversized beast taken far outside of its natural habitat, like King Kong. It is a shark in the ocean attacking people. To be sure, that is unusual, but far from unnatural. If you were to hear of a town being attacked by thousands of birds in an apparently coordinated siege, you’d probably, justifiably presume it was an internet hoax. If you heard about a handful of people being bitten by a shark over the course of several days, however, you’d probably find that perfectly plausible.
This is an element of the story that feels like it was largely lost on many or even most of the novels and movies that sought to capitalize on the success of Jaws. In Arthur Herzog’s Orca, for instance, he makes the claim that killer whales are the only other animals besides humans that kill for vengeance. I’m no marine biologist, so I could just be wrong here, but I haven’t found anything that supports this notion. Even if it were true, however, I doubt an orca’s revenge would consist of knowing to attack oil pipelines and finding out the specific location of a captain’s seaside house. And in the film Grizzly, instead of a relatively ordinary, dangerous, rampaging bear, the titular grizzly is a prehistoric animal that is almost twice as tall and at least twenty-five-percent heavier than the largest grizzly bears on record, which are already rather large. The shark in Jaws was certainly larger than the typical great white, but it wasn’t doubling size records.
I could go on for quite a while with examples of this. In the William Essex novel The Pack, abandoned pet dogs possess “unnatural intelligence” and “kill for sport.” In the film Mako: The Jaws of Death, a man develops a telepathic connection with sharks, and uses them to get revenge on anyone who’s slighted him. He also has a medallion that protects him from the sharks, because let’s add a little mysticism to the mix too. And leaning even more into the supernatural, the 1980 film Jaws of Satan sees the devil himself take the form of a large king cobra, because who says you have to choose between taking “inspiration” from The Exorcist or from Jaws; why not both.
This continued well beyond the 70’s and early 80’s. Deep Blue Sea features scientifically enhanced super-intelligent sharks. The films Burning Bright and Crawl both feature dangerous animals in places you wouldn’t expect to find them–a tiger and alligators, respectively, in houses boarded up and facing a hurricane in both cases. And Snakes on a Plane famously has exactly what its title says it has. But, you can find counterexamples to the ones I’ve referenced. Books and movies that are more in line with the relative naturalism of Jaws. Stephen King’s memorable Cujo is fairly straightforward in its portrayal of a large–but not impossibly large–and rabid dog. And the film adaptation, as a practical matter, removes even the slightest hint of the supernatural of that remained in King’s book from an earlier draft in which Cujo was possessed by the spirit of local serial killer Frank Dodd. More recently, Open Water, The Shallows and 47 Meters Down feature unmodified sharks in their natural habitat. And I think there’s something that potentially resonates a little more about an animal attack story that doesn’t rely on science fiction, the supernatural or wild beasts showing up in highly unusual places. Not that I’m averse to any of those setups, but I think our fascination with and understandable fear of toothy, speedy, ferocious beasts, particularly man-eaters, means that the unnatural, extra-extraordinary elements often just kind in the way.
There have been many famous–or infamous–incidents involving animals terrorizing entire communities. Jaws, of course, was partly inspired by the 1916 New Jersey shark attacks, an eleven-day event that greatly influenced the way many people perceived sharks. A half-year earlier, in late 1915, a brown bear killed seven people over the course of five days in Sankebetsu, Japan. The Beast of Gevaudan, perhaps the most legendary man-eater of all time, partly due to some lingering speculation about what exactly it was–a wolf or multiple wolves or even a wild dog–terrorized a 2800 square mile region of France for 3 years in the 18th century.
Even deadlier man-eaters have rampaged through portions of India and Africa. A tiger in Nepal and a Leopard in northwestern India are said to have killed over 400 people a piece near the beginning of the 20th Century. In the Central Provinces of India around the same general time frame, another leopard was deemed responsible for 150 deaths. In Kenya, a pair of lions killed 135 railway workers. These attacks in Kenya became the source for multiple films, most famously The Ghost and The Darkness, which wasn’t terribly concerned with accuracy but was nonetheless reasonably entertaining.
The same cannot be said for another movie loosely inspired by an African man-eater. In 2007, Primeval became mildly infamous for its wildly deceptive ad campaign. It claimed to be a film about history’s most prolific serial killer, responsible for approximately 300 deaths or more. Said killer is named Gustave and he was indeed terribly frightening and dangerous. He’s also a crocodile, which by definition excludes him from being a serial killer since the second word in the Oxford dictionary definition of the term is “person.” You’re not a person, you’re not a serial killer. That much is probably obvious to vast majority of us. Even if we allowed for this bizarre expansion of the term serial killer that would include animals, the advertisement would still be a lie since, as I mentioned, Gustave is estimated to have killed 300 or so unfortunate people, whereas the tiger and leopard from India are thought to have killed north of 400. So Gustave still would not be the most prolific serial killer under this bogus redefinition of what a serial killer is. And even setting that aside, the advertising would still be misleading since Primeval isn’t actually all that concerned about Gustave; it’s more so a film about an African genocide and the Western world’s general, comparative indifference to atrocities committed on the continent, and this is certainly a subject worthy of exploration in a film that is capable of handling it tactfully, thoughtfully, or even just sincerely. Primeval doesn’t meet any of those qualifiers.
But all is not hopeless if you’re living in the year 2007 and determined to watch a good film about crocodile attacks. You’re going to get two more of them before the year is out, both of them far, far superior to Primeval, which was embarrassed to even admit what it was, at both of them featuring a similar, simple premise, both of them at least claiming to be inspired by something from the real world, and both being set in the same country. A place that is just about legendary for being home to tough people partially made so tough because they live seemingly among a variety of killer critters… Australia.
To be clear, Australia is a little less unbelievably deadly than you might think it is based on internet memes and such. But even before the internet was a thing Australia had this reputation, and it’s not completely baseless.
The most venomous aquatic animal in the world is the box jellyfish, found off the coast of Australia. The world’s most venomous snake, and four of the world’s top 10 most venomous snakes, can all be found in the land down under. Now, it is important to distinguish most venomous from most dangerous, because some of these snakes, such as the one that tops the most venomous list, are far more likely to slither away from a person than attack them. So if your bite is the deadliest but you don’t bite all that often, that makes you less dangerous than a snake with a slightly less potent venom but that is much more aggressive and eager to attack. Still, 40% of the world’s most lethal slithery venom dispensers is nothing to scoff at.
Australia also has the very venomous blue-ringed octopus and the Sydney funnel-web spider which is named after a major metropolitan, the second-biggest city in the country. That’s not something terribly common to most other parts of the world, it’s not like there’s a Sinister Santiago Scorpion or Murder Wasp of Madrid. And to round it out, Australia has great white sharks and the also quite dangerous bull shark, the latter of which was actually responsible for those Jersey Shore Shark attacks that inspired Jaws. So, you know, it’s not like we’re exactly short on deadly animals over here in America as well. But, for comparison’s sake, where we here in the states have alligators, elsewhere, including in Australia, they have saltwater crocodiles, which are routinely bigger, more powerful, more aggressive, and overall deadlier.
Hence, similar to how Africa has Gustave, Australia has its own named and famous and large crocodile, Sweetheart. The difference, though, is that while Gustave has reportedly killed hundreds, Sweetheart never actually killed anyone, even though he did attack fishing boats and dinghies. Still, you can’t let the legend of a large and notable member crocodilia go to waste, particularly not if you’re Australian director Greg McLean, who broke into the cinema world with the brutal indie slasher, Wolf Creek.
His crocodile film, very lightly and loosely inspired by Sweetheart, is Rogue, and its setup is splendidly simple. A group of people on a boat tour go to investigate the site where a distress flare went up. They soon find themselves stranded after a large and territorial crocodile attacks and sinks the boat they’re on. They take refuge on a small river island that will be underwater once the tide rolls in. And as far as the premise goes that’s essentially all you need to know.
But decisions and details, as much as ideas, can often make or break a film. An important thing about Rogue’s group of tourists is that they’re not at all unlikable. In fact as a group they’re generally relatable, and even the people who turn into jerks for a moment only do so for a moment, and it’s usually understandable given the stress they’re under. Even the man who appears to be the designated jerk when you first meet him proves immediately selfless as soon as he realizes the direness of the situation. This is something that many horror fans know isn’t always common to the genre. It feels like there is typically at least one obvious irritant in any group of potential victims, if not several. I feel like it’s more common to see a group largely or entirely comprised of petty, mean-spirited, or otherwise irritating characters than it is to find the inverse, as you have in Rogue.
For instance, early in the film, a woman and her husband ask another woman if she wouldn’t mind not smoking around them as the smoke is bothering them. And many, many other horror films would take this opportunity to make one or all parties involved disagreeable. The people bothered by the smoke would rudely tell the smoker to put out their cigarette, or the smoker might refuse their request even if they were polite about it, or both. Instead everyone proves reasonable. The smoker even at first is willing to share a cigarette before she understands what’s actually being requested of her, and then she just moves upwind of the couple, so as not to bother them.
This isn’t a huge thing but it’s important because I think it makes the characters seem less like characters and more like people. Yes there are real people who are rude and aggravating to deal with, but in fiction it often comes off as forced and overdone–it’s less something that they are in the moment and more something that they are as a character. You might as well trade out their names for what they’re being. This is the Annoying Couple, this is the Rude Lady, and so on. Instead we’re dealing with Mary Ellen and Everett and Gwen. You’re dealing with people who don’t have to be incredibly charming or witty, just human enough that you might get invested in their survival.
Because this is a survival horror story. This is an escape room scenario taken to horrifying extremes. You’re trapped on a small piece of land that will effectively disappear soon. And there’s an animal out there so dangerous that even getting a little too close to the water might put you between its teeth. So when these human beings do things that might come off as frustrating, it’s at least understandable. When a woman freezes with fear while trying to make her way to safety, it’s not just because she’s been a nuisance the whole time. It’s because she’s scared to death of being devoured alive, and I can relate to that. When a man tries to rush her across so that he can get his wife and child to safety, jeopardizing everyone else in the process by potentially destroying their only means of escape, I get that as well. I know it’s a bad decision, a rash decision doomed to fail, but I get why he’s doing it. It’s not just because he’s written this way, it’s because this is how a person might genuinely react when they’re scared not just for themselves, but for their loved ones. And there’s definitely a difference between a character behaving a certain way because that’s just what the author wanted, and because that’s what the author has earned but on what they have done previously.
And I’m lingering on all of this humanization for a reason, I promise.
The first person to die in Rogue does so in a stunningly understated and effective manner, especially given this is a killer crocodile movie. The character doesn’t die off screen due to budgetary constraints; the movie definitely isn’t shy about showing gory details later. They die this way to enhance the impact of the suddenness of their death. They’re here one moment, and then when everyone’s just barely distracted for a second or two, the first victim is gone. In fact, the first three people to die in the film all seem to disappear as if swallowed whole by the wilderness.
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If you hear about someone who died in an animal attack, they were often by themselves in some remote area. They were last seen alive on their way to do something recreational. And then they encountered a part of nature we were never equipped to outrun or fly away from or counterattack. Something that can’t begin to understand our language, much less care if we try to tell it we don’t mean it any harm, we encountered it by mistake, we’ll turn right back around and walk away. And when you think of it that way it can make an animal seem even more alien than the aliens presented to us in fiction or in purported extraterrestrial encounters. Or maybe we’re the aliens, you know, think of that how you will. Extraterrestrials in fiction often exhibit intelligence well above that of a human being and yet relatable to that of a human being. Animals have an intelligence apart from a human’s.
A crocodile will never need to think of how to tie a rope between two high points to cross a dangerous path. It never has to learn how to pilot a tour boat. It has no sense of wonder about its environment that might lead it go on a tour that could then lead into a dangerous situation. Its intelligence and wordless thoughts can be reserved just about entirely to focus on its day-to-day, moment-to-moment survival tasks. And in the moment it encounters you those tasks are lurk, spring, bite, wound, kill or capture…eat.
In Rogue we eventually learn that the crocodile has a lair in a cave which sets up an exciting final showdown between the croc and the unlikely hero. It’s thrilling and intense and more than a little over the top, but I think the movie earns it. Still, if you’re in the mood for something a little bit more down earth, the other Australian crocodile attack film from 2007 might be what you’re looking for. Of course, as that film’s name implies, part of what makes a croc attack so frightening is that you might not be able to see what you’re looking for under the water’s surface until it’s too late.
Black Water is probably the least known of the three crocodile attack films to come out in 2007, but here in the year 2020 it is also the only one of the three films to receive a sequel. I haven’t seen the follow-up, but I can say that if it’s even just a small step down from the first film it could still be worth a watch.
Again the setup for Black Water is very basic and reminiscent of Rogue’s, except the scale is smaller. The boat is significant smaller, and the number of survivors stranded in the river is cut to less than a third. The crocodile is smaller as well, but still big enough and powerful enough to kill. And, as the film’s name suggests, on top of the physical advantages it has, it also has stealth on its side. The water may not literally be black, but given its impenetrable visibility it might as well be. This isn’t even water deep enough to necessitate swimming, but you don’t dare walk through it because of what you can’t see just a foot or even less beneath the surface.
So, instead of an island, our characters–two sisters and one of their husbands, take refuge in a tree wondering how best to try to escape to safety. No one’s coming to get them, and they can’t afford to just try to wait it out indefinitely. There is no tide coming in, but time is not on their side nonetheless, because the crocodile can wait them out. It is at home whereas they are not, and it isn’t motivated by anything that might make it lose interest.
A crocodile–like any other killer animal–is not a malevolent force. It is not behaving immorally when it kills anything. It is, again, not a serial killer. It essentially can’t afford to be. To survive in the wild it doesn’t have time for torture chambers or elaborate murder plots or psychotic fantasies. It doesn’t have a dark ego that feeds on death, it has a need to feed on what it can kill. Even animals that kill for “sport” are stated to do so primarily to either gain experience–sharpening their skills–or to generate a surplus of food for themselves or for their offspring to eat later. They’re not just in it for the “fun” or so they can mount a trophy or trade stories with a fellow hunter. This is what they do to live. The people in Black Water are trying to survive, and in its own way the crocodile is trying to do the same, and that’s terrifying in a different way–not necessarily worse, but different–than when you’re dealing with a human killer.
I’m not interested in sharing much of my personal life on this podcast–or most other platforms for that matter–but I will share that I once was attacked by a man with a knife, and I’m not much of a fighter despite my size, but part of why I think I fended him off was simply that I wanted to protect myself far, far more than he could ever want to hurt me. But if he had truly had an animalistic mentality, killing out of survival, not out of any human emotion or motive, things might have gone worse. He’d have had a better shot at exhausting me, that’s for certain. This is an added element of danger the characters in Black Water are faced with. They have to sleep. They have to rest. Because that killer croc is not going to tire out before they do. And when they’re engaged with it, its fight or flight response is kicking off just as hard as theirs.
This all drives the urgency of the situation in Black Water, prompting the man of the trio to try his plan, which is simply to turn the capsized boat back over so they can use it to get out. Simple enough, except the boat isn’t exactly light, and just wading through the water might generate enough ripples to make the crocodile return, so imagine what overturning a boat will do. This being a horror movie about an animal attack, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that the first plan they try doesn’t go smoothly, and soon the group is separated with the sisters remaining the tree.
Interestingly, ten years later, in the summer of 2017, two more movies would be released that featured the specific trope of two sisters trapped while surrounded by water, fighting for their lives, both of which were named specifically for the depths of water they were dealing with, to boot. 47 Meters Down and 12 Feet Deep. Only one of these would actually feature a killer animal as the primary threat. Still, it’s an interesting coincidence. And it highlights that, as I’ve mentioned before, fear of anything is not necessarily just a matter of us being afraid for ourselves. We are sometimes afraid for family or friends or even just people we feel responsible for who otherwise might be strangers to us.
Eventually, Black Water–as well as Rogue for that matter–is not just a story about surviving, but trying to save others as well, and that can be scary when you’re feeling powerless to do anything, or at least not as powerful as the threat. Still, fear can drive us to fight, and fighting even without a strategy can sometimes be the difference between living and dying. Black Water and Rogue both see instances of characters fighting longer than what seems humanly possible. After all, once a crocodile clamps its powerful jaws around any part of your body it typically initiates what is called a “death roll” which, as you could imagine, is supposed to result in the death of its prey. And I recall more recently when the film Crawl came out there were some criticisms leveled at it for seeming to show a character surviving things that no one could possibly live through, including a death roll.
And yet, in 1985, Australian philosopher Val Plumwood did indeed survive a crocodile’s death roll. Three different times, in fact, during the same attack. In 2017 Malaysian ecologist Rudy Francis also survived an attack and a death roll. Both of them fought and clawed and resisted and did everything they could to survive, and were surely scared as hell the whole time, and in Val’s case she ended up requiring skin grafts and spent a month in the ICU, and in Rudy’s case he lost his leg beneath the knee, but they both lived to tell the tale. These are exceptional circumstances, that goes without saying, but many of the stories we love are all about exceptional circumstances. Hell, getting attacked by an animal in the first place isn’t an everyday occurrence I mentioned earlier. So I don’t fault films like Crawl or Rogue or Black Water for showing me the exceptional, especially when they get me to invest in the very frightened people they put in these horrible circumstances.
And the people portrayed in Black Water are very human, not just reductive character types, and as I said that’s just generally valuable for better storytelling. But it also serves as an interesting contrast in the way that people see each other, even the way we see people pretending to be other people, versus the way an animal might see us. In the aftermath of her attack, Val Plumwood talked about being reduced to just food for something else. The croc doesn’t care anything about your hopes and aspirations, the grief of the ones you’ll leave behind, the very concept of leaving anyone or anything behind. None of that matters to the croc any more than the life of a dead deer in the road matters to the average motorist. It matters even less to the croc in fact.
We fear animals that might attack us, and particularly are frightfully fascinated by those that might make a meal of us, in particular because we are not “human” to them. We call them “man-eaters” but to them we have no name, no species or order that we belong to. We are no one to them. We have no identity. We have a taste. We are meat and bones and blood. And they only thing they might “remember” about us is that we made for satisfactory eating, and might have even been a relatively easy kill. So if they should happen upon another one of us, they’ll know to treat the next one just like the last one.