Tombstone says George Jackson is right!: on the liminal settler self-awareness of being an apocalypse

For Chris Geovanis, one bad motherfucker who hosted me while I wrote some of this and also once saved my life.

If it’s possible to have spoilers for a popular film that has been around for decades, this essay definitely does. I rely heavily on the works of Christina Sharpe, Sylvia Wynter, Vincent Brown, Joy James, Bedour Alagraa, Patrick Wolfe, Sekou Sundiata and George Jackson even if not all are directly cited. Anything useful in what follows should be credited to them, blame for the rest lies with me. Special thanks to Zoé Samudzi and Briana Ureña-Ravelo for insight into the Christians! Feedback whether in-, con- or de-structive is always appreciated.

The 1993 film Tombstone opens with a group called “The Cowboys” – that a narrator tells us is an early example of “organized crime” in the US – killing several police who had previously killed a couple of the Cowboys. A priest at the site of the killing quotes the Christian religion’s biblical Book of Revelations, “Behold the pale horse. The man who sat on him was Death. And Hell followed with him.” The full verse in the King James biblical edit reads, “And I looked, and behold, a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” This scene sets up the film’s last act where, in the opposite of subtext, Wyatt Earp rides a horse while killing people by the dozen in order to establish “the law”.

Tombstone was officially directed by George Cosmatos, unofficially co-directed by lead Kurt Russell, from a script by the originally intended director Kevin Jarre. It tells a story of Wyatt Earp (Russell) and his brothers as they head to Tombstone, Arizona colony, in 1879 seeking riches from the colonial silver mines and the economic boom surrounding them. There they find conflict with The Cowboys – Hollywood shorthand for the Cochise County Cowboys – and the Tombstone Sheriff affiliated with them. The Earps and the Cowboys provoke each other into increasingly violent encounters leading the Earps to become cops and use their state power to kill some Cowboys at the now famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral (which didn’t actually take place at the O.K. Corral). The Cowboys take revenge by shooting one of the Earp brothers, and killing another one. Wyatt Earp then gathers a posse and carries out a slaughter of dozens of Cowboys. Through all of this Wyatt is in the process of cheating on his wife and his friend Doc Holliday is fighting a losing battle with tuberculosis. The film ends with much of the cast dead as Earp and his new wife dance giddily in the magical snows of Colorado as Holliday takes his last breaths and a narrator celebrates the death by overdose of Earp’s cast aside ex-wife.

Tombstone has a devoted following and has had a second life in memes and GIFs but is uneven and unremarkable as a film. It does have elements to recommend. First are the mustaches. They’re terrific and frequently have more charisma than the people wielding them. Sam Elliott just oozes his Virgil Earp character and Val KIlmer rightfully garnered praise for his performance as Doc Holliday. Really though, it’s mostly the fine mustaches the performers grew that carry the day. Otherwise it’s an overwritten and overacted chore with its fandom primarily based on rather absurd posturings of frontier masculinity and the occasional cute piece of dialogue, mostly from Kilmer as Holliday. There is a lot of men-dominating-men with a studious unacknowledgement that the homoerotic tensions didn’t have to be resolved with a murder spree. It’s only “homoerotic tensions” at play and not also a material conflict between rival frontier gangster capitalists because, in the film, the Cowboys are called “outlaws”, but it’s never even inferred what their criminalized acts are. In material history it was mostly cattle rustling. In Tombstone they’re just kind of assholes which is lazy storytelling and, for the audience that adores it, lazy storywatching.

The film is historical in the limited sense that it has to do mostly with people who existed, but it’s concerned with mythologizing those people and not telling plausible tales of their being. For example the Earps were a gangster capitalist enterprise who captured the backing of a section of the colonial government, just like the Cochise County Cowboys did with Sheriff Johnny Behan in a different section. The only hint of this in the film is very early on, where Wyatt repeatedly strikes a faro dealer, steals his job and, with that violence, procures 25% of the profits in the saloon where the dealer formerly labored. The film portrays this as heroic and oh so macho. In the film the Earps are hero lawmen and it neglects to mention that Doc Holliday and Wyatt finish the film in Colorado colony because there were murder warrants out for them in Arizona stemming from their rivalry with the Cowboys. Wyatt Earp made friends in Hollywood in the autumn of his life which helped shape the later misunderstanding of him, along with becoming the subject of at least three, substantially fictional, lionizing biographies. Had Behan or Ike Clanton made those connections instead, Earp’s image would be much the worse. When Wyatt Earp died he was known, to the limited degree he was known publicly at all, mostly for his role in rigging the 1896 Fitzsimmons vs. Sharkey heavyweight boxing fight, since, by then, regional memory had long faded of his earlier years spent pimping in Illinois and Kansas.

Despite this, Tombstone has a lot of truth to it that it seems largely unaware of. Or, perhaps, Tombstone knows something is going on but thinks it’s something more superficial than what it actually is despite thinking this superficiality to be profound. So what is going on? 

Tombstone is set during the Closing of the American Frontier, a period of colonization where the form of colonial war in the USian West finished shifting from conquest and enclosure of territory to counterinsurgency and enclosure of populations. As Vincent Brown notes in Tacky’s Revolt, this, a long war ongoing for centuries before the current Long War that it prefigures, was put into place first in the construction of the plantation. Which is to say that framing Tombstone’s narrative requires engaging both the destruction of the native world(s) and construction of the anti-black one(s) despite all characters with significant speaking roles, apart from Paul Ben-Victor in brownface as Florentino Cruz, being white settlers.

The central narrative backdrop of so many western genre stories is “the law coming” or another type of institutional regimentation like a railroad or other industrial capital. The television show Deadwood was backdropped by both the threat of the law or army arriving as well as industrial capital represented by George Hearst. Sergio Leone’s classic Once Upon a Time in the West has a railroad bringing pacification. But what is being pacified if, in so many stories covering this period, the native population is narratively absent entirely or rendered peripheral and there are few to no black characters? It’s the “frontier rabble”, the violent packs of settlers of which both the Earps and Cowboys were a part. Per Patrick Wolfe:

Rather than something separate from or running counter to the colonial state, the murderous activities of the frontier rabble constitute its principal means of expansion. These have occurred “behind the screen of the frontier, in the wake of which, once the dust has settled, the irregular acts that took place have been regularized and the boundaries of white settlement extended. Characteristically, officials express regret at the lawlessness of this process while resigning themselves to its inevitability.”

In a storytelling genre sense, westerns like Tombstone seem at first glance to be post-apocalyptic, bringing order in the wake of the violences of settler conquest. But it is not like the settlers returned the land to apocalypsed populaces; there is no post to the apocalypse’s effects. And in destroying native worlds to build anti-black ones, it is in the wake of settler conquest and also, per Christina Sharpe, in the wake of the slave ship. So this genre is apocalyptic but it is not post-apocalyptic, rather it is the apocalypse’s ordering. It is the shift from the fires of conquest to the “long war” of counterinsurgency. The apocalypse shifts from something the settler society inflicts to something it lives. And the western genre through its focus on the law coming describes the shift from the violent events of the colonial encounter to their structuring into colonial rule.

Tombstone does this structuring by having Wyatt Earp and his posse massacre the Cowboys, over twenty in the film’s final act. It is portrayed as heroic even as they kill Cowboys at the barber, the opium den and other decidedly non-combat locales. The film begins this at a train station where the Earps who survived the Cowboys revenge are on a train out of town. Some Cowboys lie in ambush to kill the remaining Earp gang members. Wyatt, revealing himself to be newly deputized a US Marshall, kills one Cowboy – who is also a Cochise County Sheriff deputy, then screams at another who lays disarmed on the ground:


Hell comes with the law. Two decades before Tombstone was released, George Jackson wrote about this scene where “the law” begins to massacre a competing faction for the plunder of frontier pacification:

Every time I hear the word “law” I visualize gangs of militiamen or Pinkertons busting strikes, pigs wearing sheets and caps that fit over their pointed heads. I see a white oak and a barefooted black hanging, or snake eyes peeping down the lenses of telescopic rifles, or conspiracy trials.

The law in the western genre story is the arrival of the counterinsurgent violences of the plantation, the ordering of the apocalypse the settlers will then live. Calgacus described the Roman Empire’s plundering as “they make a desert and call it peace.” If we include Brown and Sylvia Wynter’s insights into Calgacus’s formulation, we might say of the US settler empire, “They make a desert and call it piece,” or pieza, the Spanish system of ordering the African slave trade.

Tombstone relays explicitly only part of what is above but that still teaches us something about both the film and its audience. Specifically it teaches us that the US settler society has at least a liminal knowledge that it is an apocalypse and celebrates itself on those specific terms with imagery like Wyatt Earp’s revenge ride. The Christian Book of Revelations and the story of the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ – of whom Death with his Pale Horse is the final – is popularly known at a superficial level at least in the United States. They appear in song as with Johnny Cash’s 2002 ballad “The Man Comes Around” and in popular television shows like Supernatural and Sleepy Hollow and in professional wrestling with The Four Horsemen and the Horsemen of Apocalypse in Marvel comic books. These Christian pop culture adaptations are before even considering the dispersal of biblical knowledge of the Book of Revelations through church sermons, study groups and leisurely reading.

The US settler society broadly understands Death and his Pale Horse as cataclysmic, as apocalyptic, whether as allegory or prophecy, whether superficially or studiously. When Wyatt Earp and his gang on horseback slaughter over twenty people while he brings “hell with [him]”, he is fulfilling the apocalyptic role foretold in Tombstone’s opening scene. But Earp, representing “the law”, is not bringing nor ending the apocalypse, but ordering it in a way meant to make the apocalypse heroic to its audience. Through ordering the apocalypse, Tombstone and similar stories (re)produce a timeline where settler violence was solved rather than ordered, keeping settler self-awareness of being an apocalypse at the periphery of knowledge. Sekou Sundiata described this as how power says. “That was then, this is now. Take time off-line. Break the bridge.” By imagining the ordering of the apocalypse as its end, Tombstone helps invisibilize the counterinsurgency that succeeded conquest. But the law coming doesn’t bring peace and Tombstone doesn’t hide this. Indeed, the film agrees with George Jackson; fascism is ‘the law’. Thanks for reading.

Not so great white

Great White

2021 | 91 min

Dir. Martin Wilson

A struggling Australian tour company gets a call to take a couple out to a beautiful remote atoll to spread the ashes of an ancestor. There are five people: two couples, both of whom have relationship tensions and a super hot fifth wheel. This sounds like a set-up for a relationship drama, perhaps something about connecting with nature and ancestors, perhaps a violent jealously narrative, or something else. The options for a compelling story are endless. Instead…a shark takes down a plane.

Charlie (Aaron Jaubenko) and Jaz (Katrina Bowden) operate a tour business at a crossroads, just as their relationship is. They get a timely call from Michelle (Kimie Tsukakoshi) and Joji (Tim Kano) ordering their deluxe tour package. When they get off the seaplane at their destination they find the remains of two people who were killed by a great white shark. They get back in their plane but the shark attacks it and it doesn’t get less ridiculous from there.

I’ve written before that nearly all shark attack movies are both silly and impossible. They’re impossible because those few sharks that do on rare occasions bite people are incapable of eating a whole adult person and even the largest would struggle with a child older than around seven or eight. They just can’t eat enough to keep a conflict going. They’d be full before the first film’s act ends. And they’re silly because, to repeat myself, people go fishing, fish don’t go peopling. As in, you have to keep finding ways to put people in the shark’s way even though people don’t live in the water and sharks do not live on land. Even compelling shark attack movies like Jaws come up with pretty bizarre circumstances to get people into the water like a shark sinking a large fishing trawler. So sharks need bottomless stomachs, need to be able to capsize boats and sink planes and people need to just fall into the water at every chance in order to maintain the drama.

The maneuvering in Great White to keep people in the water is as follows: boom knocks woman into water, shark sinks plane, person drops paddle and has to go get it, jealous man pushes hot fifth wheel out of the boat, shark capsizes boat, person falls out of boat, another person falls out of boat, another person falls out of boat, boat sinks, person falls off little island, person falls off little island. Perhaps one of them is believable.

Katrina Bowden was already in a film that pointed out how nonsensical most of the events and decision making in horror films are. In the very fun Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, they take a series of preposterous coincidences and create a horror film out of the nonsense by playing to the comedy inherent in that nonsense. Shark attack movies almost never do this. They take the utterly bizarre turns necessary to keep people in the path of a shark with a bottomless stomach and pretend that they’re plausible. Which is why so much of shark attack cinema sucks. Adhering to a formula is going to fail when the formula itself is bad. Great White is also bad for other reasons like mediocre CGI and a bad script. But given its premise, it could have only been mildly good if everything else went perfectly.

Dud in the water

Blood in the Water

2022 | 78 min

Dir. Dominic Nutter

At one point in Blood in the Water, the villain has a short soliloquy where they repeat the misconception that sharks have not changed since before the dinosaurs. Sometimes we hear versions of this about crocodiles and other species as well, usually those called “perfect killing machines”. It’s not true. While the general form of sharks existed before the dinosaurs, no currently existing shark species existed then, most currently existing genera didn’t even exist. Sharks have been changing this entire time because time produces mutations. That’s why so many different kinds of sharks exist ranging from ambush predators that camouflage while resting on the sea floor like the wobbegong to very fast fish hunters like the mako to giant filter feeders like whale sharks. If it seems like I’m talking more about sharks than the movie, trust me, it’s better this way. The movie sucks.

The film’s basic premise is a sort of Saw knock-off where the villain makes a mechanism that will feed people to a shark if they don’t fully confess or something. It’s ridiculous and neither interesting nor fun. But what kind of shark?! It’s hard to say but since it’s in captivity we have to assume it’s a bull shark. No other shark species known to kill humans without provocation can survive in captivity. But if the bull shark ate the person it kills at the beginning, it’s still eating them at the later date the others show up. That’s enough food for a maximum size bull shark for about two and half weeks. Bull sharks can only eat around three percent of their body weight at a time and don’t eat daily. So this cannot be a bull shark either since it eats a bull shark’s entire body weight within the span of the film, mostly within a few minutes. Instead the filmmakers have a monster and shark monstrosity is the technological fulcrum upon which the plot and the entire genre of shark attack cinema operate.

Blood in the Water is corny and boring. The performances are about the best you can hope for with the material given and do not come close to redeeming the film. Don’t waste your time.

Man oh Maneater


2022 | 89min

Justin Lee

Let’s get this out of the way first: the shark in the movie is very specifically not eating people. So why is this movie called Maneater? Anywho…a group of mainland colonizers are in Hawai’i to help Jessie (Nicky Whelan) get over being left at the altar. The friends arrange for a boat trip to an unnamed small island to hang out with dolphins and tortoises. As is common for films about vacationing friends there is booze, sexual intrigue, some jokes and, as is less common, a giant shark.

Maneater’s central conflict gets started in the second scene where Harlan (Trace Adkins) wishes his kid good surfing before she goes out and gets chewed up by a great white shark. We learn shortly after that pieces of his daughter were found all over the beach. This leads Harlan to suspect the shark was hunting for sport and not for food. While losing his daughter is obviously horrible, his opposition to sharks sportpeopling is less relatable. There are countless social media feeds, TV programs, books and magazines dedicated to people sportfishing. Harlan even wears a hat with shark teeth on it to brag about his own sportfishing. It’s only fair that fish go sportpeopling as well. Harlan pursues a revenge trajectory and goes off looking for a great white shark that, for some reason, has lots of stretch marks or wrinkles on its face.

Jessie and her friends take off on their trip and share some stories and drinks and make it to the island where they camp out. The next morning the shark starts picking them off, sometimes one by one, sometimes two at a time until what remains of Jessie’s party links up with Harlan and they face off against the shark.

It’s hard to know where to start with this film. There’s just so much that is bad with it. The script is terrible and makes all the dialogue seem forced and, often, incoherent. Take this exchange between Jessie and Harlan:

Harlan: It’s that fucking monster did this.

Jessie: It’s not a monster, it’s the devil.

Harlan: Devil’s don’t bleed. It’s just a fish.

Is it a devil, a monster or a fish? And do devils not bleed but monsters do? Do the poor performances make the script seem worse than it is or is it the other way around? Or are they both bad. Some mysteries just aren’t interesting enough to try to solve and that is one of them. But some of the performances are bad. Trace Adkins has the charisma of a toilet plunger handle and Porscha Coleman gives a visibly effortful turn. The film seems like exactly the kind of result you’d expect from a director who made four feature films in the same year, which director Justin Lee did. At least it could be bad in a fun or interesting way. But it’s just dull.

One of my interests is looking at how films make monsters out of sharks. The usual way they imagine sharks as a perpetual threat is by giving them bottomless stomachs. In film, sharks don’t have to digest their food nor is there a buffet that they cannot exhaust. Maneater gets something right in the process of getting everything about sharks wrong. When Harlan confronts a biologist about the shark eating his kid he asks why so much of his daughter washed up on the beach. Harlan insists that it’s because the shark was sportpeopling and wasn’t hunting for food. In reality, an adult great white shark around the maximum plausible length like the one in the film simply isn’t capable of eating his entire daughter. Great white sharks eat around the same percentage of their body weight as people do. They are much more massive than even the largest people, but not enough so that they could eat an average sized person and would struggle with even fairly small persons. But in Maneater the shark is not eating people at all, just killing them. And given the quality of the film, it’s hard not to be on the shark’s side.

Peeling back an onion with one layer

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

2022 | 140 min

Rian Johnson

The first film in the Knives Out franchise portrayed itself as an underdog story where an undocumented white migrant inherits a fortune from a wildly white rich man who hates his pampered, obnoxious children. This was a very conservative sort of economic redistribution where an aristocrat gets their way even as it mildly dings the liberal democracy version of a noble family. And, like European social democracy, the redistribution all happens inside whiteness, upholding class through caste while projecting an image of messing with it. Beyond that, it was a very fun and silly murder mystery with a terrific ensemble cast. The sequel, Glass Onion, is even better.

Glass Onion is not a profound film and it does not pretend to be one. It has the great idea of taking a linearly obvious killing and turning it into a whodunit for the sole reason that it’s too obvious and unthoughtful for anybody to believe it could actually be so simple. Building narrative complexity around thoughtlessness – the film uses ableist slurs when it finally gets around to this –  is a neat turn but that’s not what makes Glass Onion engaging. Instead, it’s a script long on good jokes and a committed cast.

Daniel Craig revisits his Knives Out role as Benoit Blanc, a world famous Sherlockian detective hired by Helen Brand (Janelle Monáe) to investigate the killing of her sister Andi (also Janelle Monáe). The set up is a classic Agatha Christie type idea, a bunch of people in a confined space and there’s a murder. A group of Andi’s friends are there and all of them have motives for a killing. Birdie (Kate Hudson) can’t stop being racist on twitter or hiring out to notorious sweatshops and needs the support of Miles (Edward Norton), who is targeted for murder. Claire (Kathryn Harn) owes her political career to Miles just as Duke (Dave Bautista) needs Miles to further his misogynist youtube channel. And last is Lionel (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a tech genius Miles rescued from a substitute teaching job and took with him to the heights of industry. All of them are sequestered on Miles’ private Greek island for a weekend.

Critics have been celebrating Janelle Monáe’s performance ever since Glass Onion premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and, if anything, that praise is understated. They steal every scene they’re in and carry a bunch of great jokes like how their investigative powers continue to grow as they drink ever more of “Jared Leto’s hard kombucha” and the drama of a scene where a drop of hot sauce inches ever closer to their nostril. Kate Hudon is wonderful as Birdie who just refuses to understand anything at all. Edward Norton’s turn is amazing and Kathryn Hahn continues her career long refusal to not be terrific. It’s hard to even properly celebrate what the performers do without giving away plot points because the story and performances are so well integrated but let me save a sentence for Jessica Henwick as Birdie’s assistant who just can’t believe what Birdie does in one of the film’s best jokes.

My personal preference leans towards stories making ethical points and Glass Onion doesn’t really do this and it doesn’t really matter. Rian Johnson makes a vague and correct point about the rich being terrible and assembles an entertaining story around it. Bringing hilarity to an audience is point enough for a story. It does point to the carceral state as an addendum at the end of the story after accountability has already been sought and, perhaps, achieved and it doesn’t need the ableism. But for a mainstream film, those are surprisingly small quibbles.

Sharky vs. Drago

Shark Lake

2015 | 92 min

Jerry Dugan

In a northern Nevada lake town, sharks have people on the menu. Clint (Dolph Lundgren), an animal smuggler, loosed a bull shark in the lake five years ago before a jail term prevented him from delivering it to a local crime boss. The shark was preggers and now it and its grown pups are busy snacking on people. Deputy Hernandez (Sara Malakul Lane) is tasked with finding the sharks and is also Clint’s ex with a creepy age difference between them that suggest that the sharks aren’t the only predators around.

Going into the plot more than this is just a waste of time. The story is bad. The directing is bad. The acting is bad. The effects are bad. The score is perhaps the worst part. It’s just a bad film all around. Perhaps with enough drugs the brief scene where Clint wrestles and punches a shark could be mildly entertaining. But otherwise it’s not even bad in an interesting way. Instead, it’s just a project that somehow got funded with the help of grants and tax breaks and a bunch of people got paychecks for it. I’m happy for them.

Shark Lake could have been fun had the sharks been munching on the rich who have taken over Lake Tahoe and most other waterfront spaces in the US. They certainly have it coming. But that’s not what happens. Instead we have bull sharks living somewhere where bull sharks cannot live and eating quantities of people that bull sharks cannot eat and generally doing things sharks cannot do. You can tell the screenwriter just phoned it in. You can tell the rest of the production did as well.

Nothing too deep in The Shallows

The Shallows

2016 | 86min

Jaume Collet-Serra

There is a subgenre inside animal attack movies where someone has to conquer grief by conquering a killer animal. The Requin (2022), Jaws: The Revenge (1987) and Bait (2013) are some examples where a shark attack is balm for the soul somehow. It’s a sort of conquering one’s self through conquering nature. Even where the main characters are women it’s still what Val Plumwood called a “masculinist monster myth.” Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows is very much one of these stories.

Nancy (Blake Lively) is a med student mourning the loss of her mother and taking a break from school. She and a friend take a trip to Mexico to visit a beach her mother did while she was pregnant with Nancy. The trip to the beach is good and funny with Nancy mangling both spanish and corrections to spanish from her ride who is humoring her. She’s the very mildly annoying and slightly racist tourist that wouldn’t leave an impression on anyone. Nancy browses her phone and wistfully remembers her mum before making it to the beach and going out for a surf.

Nancy eventually finds herself alone near a humongous whale carcass where a great white shark is feeding. This is where everything goes wrong for Nancy and the film. Instead of continuing to feed on the mineral rich marine mammal blubber that great white sharks thrive on and heavily favor as their preferred food, the shark goes and knocks Nancy off her board and for the remaining hour in the film, it’s Woman vs. Shark.

All this might not be a problem if most of what you know about sharks comes from shark attack movies. A lot of people know that surfing is an activity where many of the infrequent real world shark attacks take place. The film is gorgeously shot, well paced and Blake Lively’s performance is tremendous. There’s a lot to like and the plot makes sense at a very superficial level. But if you know even a tiny bit about shark ecology the film becomes odd quickly, and by the end farcical. By this I don’t just mean little things like how you can see the base of the dorsal fin above the surface several times but never any part of the tail fin.

The shark in the film appears to be around 16ft long so probably weighs around one ton. This means it needs around sixty pounds of food every few days. And it has been feasting on a whale carcass. So why would it even bother Nancy? Or kill three other people, presumably eating some of them at least. It’s not just that a shark wouldn’t do those things, it’s that it couldn’t do most of them. A shark cannot eat two and a half people over a period of hours. It’s simply not capable of it. An adult great white shark could not ram a huge whale carcass from the bottom and lift it into the air. The film shark continually circles the rock where Nancy is stranded. Why? The shark instantly goes after people as soon as they get in the water. Why? Sharks don’t, and often can’t, do any of this.

The big problem here is that the shark isn’t a metaphor nor is it a spirit haunting the bay as with folk horror. It’s supposed to just be a shark. But this isn’t a shark, it’s a monster. And because it’s a monster, Nancy cannot simply be rescued, she has to kill the monster. Collet-Serra can’t figure out how to create effective drama in an encounter between a giant fish that is, in very rare circumstances, actually dangerous to people and a surfer, so he has to enact a series of increasingly ridiculous scenarios to move the story forward. He takes a great performance, solid effects and good photography and wastes it.

Clean up in aisle 4!


2012 | 93min

Kimble Rendall

You know that old fisherman’s story? The one about the fisherman who, when trapped next to a car in an underground carpark, braced his feet under shark’s jaws, put his shotgun under its chin and blew the shark’s brains out? Haven’t heard that one? Clearly you don’t hang around the docks. What about the one where the fisherman flips into the air like a gymnast, latches his legs onto sprinkler system pipes then tases a breaching great white shark? Haven’t heard that one either? Well, no worries. It doesn’t matter that you’re clearly out of touch with the lives of ol’ salty sea dogs you drylander because Bait has all of the above and more for you.

Bait opens with Josh (Xavier Samuel), fresh off his buck’s night, too hungover to go check a buoy at an ocean beach where he works as a lifeguard. His future brother-in-law heads out to do it for him and then gets eaten, along with another fellow, by a great white shark. Fast forward to twelve months later and the engagement is long broken off and Josh is toiling at a supermarket, living in tortured guilt. Things aren’t going great then along comes an earthquake and tsunami and suddenly the store is flooded. With the ocean water comes a great white shark into the supermarket as well.

But it’s not just great white sharks, an earthquake, a tsunami and Josh’s ongoing depression. The tsunami interrupted both an armed robbery and, separately, petty shoplifting! Also Josh’s ex-fiance Tina is in the store! And so is her new boyfriend! And the shoplifter’s boyfriend works at the store! And also it interrupts some car sex in the underground carpark! And there’s another great white there! If this sounds like there’s a bit too much going on in this film, it’s because there is. And the convolution takes a lot of the fun out of what could have been a supremely silly creature feature or disaster film.

The basic idea behind Bait is: sharks are hunting people in a supermarket. No matter what you contrive in order to get there, that premise is fundamentally silly. You can lean into the silliness or you can play it straight and juxtapose the weirdness of what follows. What you cannot do is try to squeeze an emotional action-drama out of it. It doesn’t matter how good the performances are and, apart from a cartoonish robber, they are fine performances. When the script demands nonsense and silliness and you turn in a dramatic man’s conquest of nature with ninety-four subplots, you’re gonna flunk.

Like all shark attack movies, Bait fails to ask: could a shark even do any of this? In the opening scene the shark eats two adult grown men in under one minute. A shark couldn’t eat one of them in that time nor could it eat one of them entirely at all. An exceptionally large great white, stretching the boundaries of possibility, could possibly eat most of a globally average sized woman but it would take a little while. Once they’re in the supermarket, the shark, estimated in the film to be around 12ft long which means it weighs approximately 1000lbs, eats its body weight in people. It is a mark of both laziness and incompetence that filmmakers struggle to create effective drama around a human/shark encounter. Instead, they create monsters in the shark’s place. That doesn’t mean the film can’t still be fun or compelling around that monster. But it’s neither in this case. Just a bland, overstuffed turkey.

Big fish, little plot


2013 | 90min

Larry Fessenden

While studying the nature horror subgenre of animal attack movies I’ve watched over two hundred films, most of them multiple times. By number these are mostly shark attack movies but also include various killer crocodilians, lizards, birds, insects and more. Most times I end up rooting for the animal. Rarely do I root for it so strongly as I do for the big ass fish that is eating bratty teens in Larry Fessenden’s Beneath.

Beneath opens with a group of white teens organizing an outdoor party. To get to their preferred party spot they have to cross a lake. One of the kids stops the boat mid-lake to go for a swim against the recommendation of another kid who is suspiciously opposed to both stopping the boat and swimming. He knows something. That something is the lake hosts a fish monster that doesn’t appreciate company in the water.

In most animal attack films one of my central concerns is: can the animal in question actually do any of the things iit does in the film? Can any fish really eat three people? That’s not relevant to Beneath. The fish isn’t supposed to be a real fish. Rather than nature horror, the film is closer to folk horror with the killer fish being a lake spirit and not a piece of nature for heroic men to conquer.

Like a lot of horror films, Fessenden’s point isn’t really that a monster is hunting them. Instead he is more interested in how monstrous people are to each other. It’s all very Stephen King. It’s clear Fessenden doesn’t like his characters but it’s hard to tell if he is making one of those misanthropic ‘human nature’ stories about trying situations bringing out the absolute worst in people or if he just wanted to make a film where a bunch of assholes get eaten by a big fish. This is the central failing of Beneath. It’s really easy to root for the fish when the kindest character in the film is a sex pest who doesn’t abide boundaries and it’s clear we’re not supposed to root for the people. But after that, it’s not at all clear what we’re supposed to do with the story. And there goes all the fun.

Haunted by a better idea

Ghost Shark

2013 | 87 min

Griff Furst

If you’ve ever seen competitive downhill skiing you know about the slalom. Skiers race down the hill while going in between a series of poles. The point is not to engage the poles, but to go around them. In Ghost Shark there are a bunch of good ideas and they are the poles in a slalom race. The filmmakers work hard to speed past all these good ideas without letting them affect their result.

Griff Furst’s film opens with a shark poaching a fish off some anglers’ line and the anglers avenging their lost catch by shooting the shark several times with a large pistol, a speargun and, finally, throwing a grenade in its mouth. The shark survives the grenade attack long enough to swim about a half-mile into a cursed cave where it dies. Some cave magic happens and from that point on it’s Shark’s Ghost vs. The People of Smallport.

The actual story isn’t worth going into much but we can hit some of the major points by lamenting what it could have been.

  • A shark needlessly killed is the hero avenging the violences against it? No, it’s still the bad guy.
  • The mass deaths via shark attack during the Middle Passage leave the sharks haunting the slavers’ descendents? Nope.
  • The violences inherent to settler colonialism that left, in this instance, also the early colonists who cursed the cave also dead haunt today’s settlers in the form of a shark? Nope. The early colonizers’ deaths are just a sad thing.
  • A man who murdered his wife and is never accountable haunts the town with his misogynist violence and sees a shark ghost everywhere? No, he’s just a sad drunk.

All of those would be much more interesting than what actually happens and could give a thin story depth. And the story actually touches three of the four but just breezes past them. Apart from the mediocre special effects the film is competently short and not boring visually. The performances are as good as the script allows apart from Richard Moll who overacts pretty badly at times. The big problem is that the film studiously avoids exploring any of the ideas or characters it presents (plus the one better one I added above lol). So nothing is ever fully developed and it just kind of goes through the motions of being a movie. Maybe I’m asking too much of a film about a ghost shark. But at least it could’ve been fun.