What’s worse than dealing with a shark attack? Dealing with a giant shark attack. And what’s worse than dealing with a giant shark attack? Dealing with a giant demon-shark attack. And this isn’t your average giant demon-shark, no, this is a giant demon-shark, called forth by a vengeful Aztec deity, that makes people hallucinate and have horrific visions. In addition to all the usual destructive giant shark shenanigans.
That’s the basic gist of The Black Demon, the latest from Rambo: Last Blood director Adrian Grunberg. Here’s the thing, however, there’s not all that much giant shark action. It makes sense, this isn’t a high-budget affair after all, and special effects are expensive. Instead, the film uses the monstrous beastie as a nature-takes-revenge force launched against the people behind a manmade environmental catastrophe. The problem is those ideas are never explored in any depth and the human story they’re couched in offers little of any interest.
The movie revolves around Paul Sturges (Josh Lucas, Sweet Home Alabama). He works for a sketchy oil company. When he and his wife, Ines (Fernanda Urrejola, Fist of the Condor), take their kids Audrey (Venus Ariel) and Tommy (Carlos Solorzano) to visit their mother’s home, work calls and Paul must go inspect an offshore oil rig. The script then does some serious plot gymnastics to get the rest of the family onto the rig. Besieged by the aforementioned demon-shark, only two men, Chato (Julio Cesar Cedillo, Sicario) and Junior (Jorge A. Jimenez, Machete Kills), and their tiny chihuahua, Toro, remain. From there it’s a fight to survive.
There are some potentially interesting elements to The Black Demon, even beyond the giant shark, and quite a few off-kilter bits of weirdness. Locals turning to an ancient god to exact retribution on those who ruined their village and destroyed their ecosystem is an idea ripe for exploration. As is the running thread of corporate greed and reckless disregard for both employees and the natural world. Even the hallucinations are cool as hell—think a horrific image of children swimming in a sea of dismembered body parts. The movie even begins strong, cranking up a sense of eerie tension as the family enters this village that’s clearly fallen on hard times and harbors a not-so-subtle hostility.
But none of this amounts to anything substantial and carry no weight. The visions only pop up when convenient and fall by the wayside most of the time. Other themes and concepts arise, but the movie never makes more of them than what they are on the surface The whole picture eschews the most fascinating parts in favor of half-baked shark attacks and it all bogs down in tepid family drama and a rote survival narrative. Though a rote survival narrative punctuated by scenes with a feisty and adorable small dog.
In addition to his directorial output, Grunberg has worked as an AD on tons of big movies—Jarhead, Master and Commander, Man on Fire, to name a few—and The Black Demon is shot well and a nice-looking movie when not marred by dodgy digital effects. But like the rest, the pieces simply never come together in any meaningful way. There’s something modestly compelling about watching The Black Demon, there are enough off-the-wall flourishes that it’s never dull, but it never becomes more than a series of missed possibilities. [Grade: C]