– Famous last words, in Rogue
So…how fast can you swim?
According to Greg McLean’s exceptional horror movie, Rogue, these ancient animals can swim underwater at twenty miles-per-hour (without leaving even a single ripple on the surface…).
Worse, these two-ton predators have perfected the art of the hunt after “200 million years” of practice and so they’ll watch and wait…patiently learning your routines.
So if you don’t vary those routines, you’re gone in a single gulp; swallowed down the gullet of a 20-25 foot, prehistoric dragon.
These alarming statistics are likely enough to make Phagophobics very, very nervous. And for the rest of the audience, director McLean also delivers the goods; nudging his finely-crafted cinematic ship into the chaotic terrain of sheer terror; conjuring an unbearably tense, incredibly suspenseful “when animal attacks” movie.
I was perched on the edge of my seat for well-over half of Rogue’s running time; and during one harrowing set piece (involving a thirteen year-old girl and her father traversing a rope bridge strung across shallow water…), my wife Kathryn had to get up off the sofa and walk away. She’s a veteran of horror movies like I am, and the last time she had to absent herself from the action was during 2006’s The Descent.
So long story short: Rogue is that scary.
McLean — who directed the very impressive, very disturbing Wolf Creek (2005) — is the writer, producer and director of this remarkable genre effort, one set entirely outdoors in the remote Australian Outback. The action and horror commence as a travel writer named Pete McKell (Michael Vartan) arrives at a scenic river and boards The Suzanne, the small river boat belonging to cute tour guide, Kate Ryan (Radha Mitchell).
Along with Pete and Kate, we are introduced to a group of colorful tourists who — in short order — form the movie’s victim pool (otherwise known as lunch). There’s the aforementioned teenager, her mother (who is sick with cancer…), a burly American dude promptly nick-named “John Wayne,” a quiet nerdy-type delivering his wife’s ashes into the river, and an obnoxious, loquacious vacationer who’s quick with a quip. For good measure, there’s also a cute, loyal dog named Kevin, and the Suzanne encounters two Australian rednecks on the water…among them Kate’s ex-boyfriend, Neil (Sam Worthington).
The river tour goes smoothly until, on the way back to land, one of the tourists spies what appears to be a flare in the distance, up in the beautiful blue sky. Kate is duty-bound to respond to any call for help on the river and navigates her small ship down the river, into “sacred land.”
While investigating a capsized boat in a small inlet, the Suzanne is violently struck by a territorial crocodile and irreparably damaged. Kate and the tourists quickly evacuate to a small slice of land in the middle of the river, while the crocodile circles…and hunts.
Unfortunately, as one of the tourists points out, this tiny sanctuary is a tidal river, meaning that by nightfall, the entire island will be submerged…gone The tourists now have a choice: wait until dark and swim to land then (when they can’t see anything…). Or try to get to land now, with the crocodile nearby.
As the tide rises inch by inch, shrinking the island, Neil determines that he can swim to shore. He plans to attach a rope to a tree, and build a make-shift line for the other tourists to traverse. The rope dangles dangerously low over the river — and we’ve already seen crocs leap four feet out of the water.
And then the first tourist across, Mary Ellen, loses her nerve and freezes…half-way to land. Then, a tourist on the island panics and jumps on the rope, adding weight. And then he makes his teenage daughter join him on the rope too, adding additional weight….
…Well, let’s just say it’s a comedy of errors and mistakes. And with an avaricious crocodile — “a fucking steam train with teeth” –stalking his prey on his own home turf, those mistakes prove fatal to more than just one tourist.
This excruciating, perfectly-executed sequence of survival, death and more death represents everything I love and admire about the horror genre. In Rogue, fate is cruel, surprising and unmerciful; actions have unintended consequences, and those who survive the longest are those who quickest accept the reality of their situation and attempt to think their way out of it. Unpleasant alternatives (like feeding poor Kevin to the crocodile as bait…) are countenanced, and the entire world seems to shrinks down to a simple mathematical equation: man against monster; human mind against reptile mind. Which is the superior species?
McLean successfully layers on shocks and jolts — at an alarming pace — leaving you shaken, uneasy and occasionally breathless. Yet his greatest achievement in Rogue involves the successful engagement of the audience’s imagination (and fear response).
Learning a valuable, timeless lesson from Steven Spielberg and Jaws, McLean never reveals much of the crocodile until the shocking climax (set in the crocodile’s underground lair). Instead, he shows us other crocs in action; provides scads of factoids about these salt-water monsters, and reveals their nasty handiwork (mainly popping boats out of the water…). By the time McLean reveals his impressive monster, we’re already hooked, and terrified. The sequence in which Vartan attempts to slip by the sleeping juggernaut, one agonizing step at a time is a modern masterpiece in provoking anxiety.
McLean also succeeds due to a skill he clearly developed on Wolf Creek. He understands how to fashion a striking “sense of place” on film. Rogue’s Northern Territory landscape (and waterscape) is an important character in the film, and accordingly we get beautiful views of natural vistas and local wildlife. The swooping aerial shots and other impressive nature shots serve a critical purpose beyond the picturesque: they establish — beyond doubt — the isolation of the trapped tourists. As we plainly see, even if our protagonists could get off the tiny island to shore, they’d still be surrounded by forest.
And surrounding the forest are high mountain peaks.
And beyond those canyon peaks are miles of desert.
Seeing this rough, inhospitable terrain, we begin to comprehend why only ancient, hardened crocodiles call this prehistoric world home. The battlefield is a treacherous one.
If you see just one “when animals attack” movie in 2009, see Rogue . It’s an accomplished horror film, and…a fucking steam train with teeth.