It’s the mark of a great thriller when it hits the most well-worn horror tropes and you barely notice, nor care at all.
Intrepid scientist Siobhan (Hermione Corfield) here embarks on a trawler west of Ireland with a very sea-worthy crew in Neasa Hardiman’s latest. Collectively encountering an unknown, expansive sea creature lurking beneath, ensconced with parasites, it soon wreaks havoc where no one can hear them scream.
The Alien set-up, here much closer to home, will be familiar from many other creature features significantly more derivative of the classic. For what it’s worth, for this author, who’s seen the classic and it’s progeny many a time, it hardly registered and only after the fact.
Conversely light on creepy-crawly horror and gore, for which when it does recur registers all the more, Sea Fever is more akin to the tone of classic Doctor Who and centrally Season Four and the late-Tennant era. Here there are similarly science fiction and fantasy elements at play but it’s all grounded within the implicit understanding that if even we can’t immediately reckon with something it’s of our realm rather than that overly fantastical or that with which we can’t fathom.
Lovecraft fans, morever for the imagery and great use of a limited special effects budget, will thrive in this space. There’s too an eeriness to the lapping of the waves captured whether it be night or day, alike the vastness that might characterise a deep dive into a crevasse, hitherto untrammelled plane or indeed the expanse visaged in so many space flicks.
Moreover, Doctor Who fans will find herein that analogous with Midnight; a now early episode where travellers on a cruise are slowly overtaken by an unseen creature overwhelming their mental and physical state. To this end and in a similar vein, the scientific methods by which the team address their conundrum, like the mainstay of decisions witnessed and actions undertook, actually make sense and are thrilling to watch.
Parallel to this interpretation, a fair reading is that Sea Fever is primarily pursuing a simile of Irish legend; here situating the mythos within it’s contemporary setting. One particular tale, referenced obliquely throughout and overall by the thrust of the narrative, resonates to the extent that one is familiar with it whereas many an audience will likely remain unbeknownst. As a universalistic and more obvious parable the presence in the ocean and denouement will better register and more so for the film’s sensitive and clever deployment of both, and separately, characters’ superstition and reckonings with the function folk and lore play in many a life.
On this matter, and uncommonly so, it is here the traditional realist, in the guise of the scientist, who is both first exposed to the surreal and ethereal and forced to internalise it. Rather than her traditionally fulfilling the function of pessimist and naysayer, it better speaks to the contemplative, surrealist levels this film is working on and realities it causes us to question.
Corfield and cast carry this material well, as does Dougray Scott emerging from the stern as a weary sea Captain alongside an always excellent Connie Nielson. Also heaped with a few horror greatest hits, there’s one guy who, as underlined, has a family waiting for him at home, while another just can’t wait to have sex. Recurring vignettes in this sort of fare, their familiarity doesn’t add anything here while in the context of such a well-constituted thriller neither detracts.
Having said this, the ‘Barb’ effect is on full show here with a character we’re not supposed to care for, albeit one we don’t know anything about, being the first to demonstrate just how bad things can go before the people we’re meant to be invested in start getting picked off. It’s not such an issue given the manner in which the narrative transpires, which again here owes a debt to Alien, but the extent to which it doesn’t apparently affect the characters who should be impacted by this is frustratingly obvious.
Finally, in light of the pandemic in which we find ourselves Sea Fever takes on an unusually well-timed significance. Being about an easily transferrable deadly force, much of the action rests on precautions passengers can take to remain uninfected and protect themselves and each other; an unintentionally relatable aspect of this horror. Eerier still, the central tension, separate to whether we all make it out of this, harks to whether each and everyone speedily headed back to land has a broader responsibility to ensure this doesn’t spread beyond them, the propensity for this to happen and what this means for their own lives; an extreme and immediate version of a discourse sure to get a nod or shiver from any viewer.
‘Sea Fever’ is now screening online as part of the Sydney Film Festival 2020 ‘Europe! Voices of Women in Film’ program