The Reef: Stalked Delivers Bare-Minimum Shark Thrills

There’s always something exciting about the prospect of a new shark-attack thriller. Lucky for us fans, they seem to come annually or even biannually. Of course, a high bar isn’t cleared every time—there’s a Ghost Shark and The Requin for every The Shallows and The Meg—but if a shark is hunting beautiful people, we’re there. They can be nerve-jangling survival stories that actually strive for genuine terror, or they unapologetically go full-on gore-palooza. But whatever tone or aim, all shark-centric movies know not to even try touching that big granddaddy of ‘em all (hint: a scrappy kid named Steven made it in ’75 and scared audiences out of the water). 

After Open Water but before 47 Meters Down, there was the 2010 Australian import The Reef. Directed by man-vs.-nature story filmmaker Andrew Traucki, it was a no-frills, reasonably tense survival thriller that doesn’t make you want to sail on a yacht along the Great Barrier Reef any time soon. To complete his track record of making an in-name-only-with-a-colon follow-up to a based-on-a-true-story nightmare (Black Water and Black Water: Abyss), writer-director Traucki is back for The Reef: Stalked, a decent but technically uneven time in the water that only does the bare minimum. 

Four women stand at the ocean shore with kayaks

The setup is a little like Neil Marshall’s The Descent: a group of girlfriends goes scuba diving in the ocean instead of spelunking in a cave system before a family tragedy changes everything. Instead of a Final Destination-style car accident, Nic (Teressa Liane) ends up finding her sister, Cath (Saskia Hampele), dead in the bathtub, having been drowned by Cath’s abusive husband. The writing was on the wall, but Nic was too late. Nine months later, Nic is still unable to process what happened to her sister. We know this because Nic can’t even put her head underwater without picturing her poor sister taking her last breaths. 

For a hopeful PTSD recovery, Nic reunites with friends and fellow divers Jodie (Ann Truong) and Lisa (Kate Lister). As a surprise, Nic’s younger sister Annie (Saskia Archer) joins the group, so they can all pay tribute to Cath. They decide to take out their kayaks and do some diving, but wouldn’t you know it, “the Man in the Gray suit” (to you, a shark) isn’t far below. Will they survive this?

As it should, The Reef: Stalked begins right in the water, but the first antagonist isn’t even a shark. The film initially wants to be a domestic drama, perhaps connecting an abusive spouse to a giant fish that’s apparently stalking these women, hence the Stalked subtitle. An exploration of trauma wouldn’t be off the table, but Nic’s grief is mostly treated as a heavy-handed gimmick when a little more sensitivity and subtlety may have brought much-needed nuance. 

The character dynamics are fairly straightforward, but at least there’s something between these potential victims. Nic is still traumatized by her sister’s murder, the aftermath of which she witnessed. Annie has always felt like the odd sister out between Nic and Cath being the adventurous types. Jodie is the de facto leader of the group, always making the plans and calling the shots. Then there’s Lisa, who seems to be the most fun-loving and least distinct of the bunch, so the odds of her survival aren’t as high.

One woman on a boat stares at another woman at the stern of the boat.

The performances are also earnest and believable enough to outweigh the occasionally wobbly dialogue, but if we wanted clever, sparkling writing, we’d go elsewhere. For the most part, Traucki will let his performers do the heavy lifting, trusting their mournful and/or terror-stricken faces. Other times, the maudlin music will swell to overwrought effect, and his reliance on flash frames of Cath being drowned is just too much. 

Now as a pure shark-attack movie, The Reef: Stalked wrings some reliable tension out of a fin surfacing and then going under, or a hand reaching for a paddle, or two kids playing too far from shore on top of a wooden raft. When sticking to what he does effectively, director Traucki teases us with close calls and plenty of underwater stalking shots. 

It does help that there’s more rooting interest in these women than the human chum in other recent shark movies. Taking into account that most of us would probably be the shark’s first meal, these characters don’t make too many boneheaded mistakes, either. Their biggest fallacy comes much later in the film when the surviving members of this lady gang think their plan to get rid of Mr. Shark works, so what do they do? They prematurely dispose of their other kayak, which was stabilizing their leaking dinghy boat, before even reaching the nearest island. At worst, the film could initiate its own drinking game for every time the ocean calm is suddenly broken by the shark ramming the kayak and sending another character right into the water.

Photo of a great white shark

For every moment that does work without even seeing the shark in full, the seams really do show when our ocean stalker comes up, expecting Chief Brody to dump chum. Discovery Channel-type footage of the predator underwater is sometimes seamlessly mixed in with the action, and glaringly not so much in other moments. There’s one particularly amateurish use of a lightning-fast CG shark silhouette that doesn’t earn a scare so much as a bad laugh. On the whole, this is one of those times when mechanical Bruce the Shark is far more frightening than watching shots of a real living, swimming shark.

A lot can usually be forgiven in a shark movie, but when the basics of what makes a shark movie effective aren’t all that refined, it’s a total letdown. The Reef: Stalked isn’t one of the good ones, nor is it a complete wash. Whereas The Reef was more technically accomplished, this one is just…seaworthy enough. 

RLJE Films and Shudder are releasing The Reef: Stalked in theaters, on-demand and digital, and streaming on July 29, 2022.

The poster for The Reef: Stalked

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Written by Jeremy Kibler

Jeremy is a film graduate from Penn State University, an Online Film Critics Society member, and altogether a film obsessive. He lives to watch the latest horror releases and write about them.

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