(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror with your tour guides, horror experts Chris Evangelista and Matt Donato. In this edition, Matt takes a swim in “The Shallows.”)
Under the sea, life is not better. Do you know what lives down there? Have you seen “The Shallows”? Or “Jaws”? Or countless other aquatic horror films? Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” live-action update will lie to another generation of young moviegoers who should be terrified about what lurks under the surface leagues-deep. There’s still an overwhelming percentage of ocean depths that humankind has not explored, with so many horrors left to encounter. In honor of “The Little Mermaid,” let’s highlight just one of those nightmares.
We all can agree “Jaws” is the best fin flick of all time, but what about second place? I’d argue that Jaume Collet-Serra’s “The Shallows” is a snout’s length ahead of the pack, bringing all the ferocity we’d expect from a predatory shark attack movie based on relatable fears. The Great White that hunts Blake Lively acts with aggression, mercilessness, and pure hunger, rarely letting audiences catch their breath. Collet-Serra keeps the pedal pressed from start to finish, and there’s one sequence that brings intensity unmatched that we should honor here on “Scariest Scene Ever.”
Blake Lively stars as medical student Nancy Adams, who’s grieving her mother’s death. She travels to Mexico with a friend but takes a solo trip one morning due to her companion’s debilitating hangover. Nancy wants to visit the same beach her mother did years prior when she was pregnant, and hitches a ride with friendly local Carlos (Óscar Jaenada). After surfing the day away with new friends, she video-chats with family and then heads back into the water to cruise some final waves — which turns out to be the biggest mistake of her life.
The Story So Far
Nancy notices the carcass of a young humpback whale, which probably isn’t a great sign. There’s danger in the water when Nancy is knocked off her board and bitten by a twenty-three-foot Great White shark, thus kickstarting her struggle for survival. Nancy uses the floating whale corpse, a protected rock formation, and a nearby buoy as safe zones, doing her best to avoid becoming a shark snack. She makes friends with a seagull (Steven Seagull, duh), watches two unaware surfers die horribly, and records messages on a GoPro, eventually reaching a point where she has to get to shore because the tide keeps rising. How can Nancy evade Big Chompy? Easy, jellyfish! No, seriously.
While perched atop the rocky peak keeping her above water, Nancy spies the buoy floating in the distance. Around her are jellyfish, swimming like a tiny electrified minefield. Nancy glances at her bleeding coral-scratch wound and remembers the shark backing off due to the coral’s jagged nature. Why? Because it stings like jellyfish, Nancy calculates.
She reaches a moment where the rock is now under the waves, and she’s no longer safe. Nancy sees the Great White a little ways off, so she takes advantage and dives into the jellyfish army that’ll hopefully scare away the shark. It’s a flimsy plan at best, but Nancy’s only plan. The shark diverts attention to the human meal swimming into a horde of jellyfish like protective bodyguards.
One of the jellies wraps its tentacles around Nancy’s arm, and she screams as air bubbles race toward the surface. Nancy swirls in place, trying to lock eyes with the Great White, but the now-glowing jellyfish — like pieces of a Lite-Brite somehow individually illuminated — only enhance the further darkness around them. We’re stricken by submerged beauty like a college dorm blacklight poster for a brief moment, only for the shark to finally break through the jellyfish barrier. Lights go out, and Nancy has to move. The buoy is her only option.
Off she races, swimming above water for her life. The shark does the same from another angle, hoping to intercept Nancy before she can climb onto the steel platform. She does — well, almost. The shark knocks into the buoy with a bodyslam as Nancy reaches for the last run, which snaps off and sends her falling backward on top of the Great White. Back into the water, back with the demon.
Luckily, Nancy has a steel weapon that she stabs into her alpha attacker. The buoy bobs back and forth as waves keep crashing, which allows Nancy to heave herself atop before one last leaping attempt from the shark to feed on her flesh. For a second, we can breathe again.
The Impact (Chris’ Take)
Ever since “Jaws” invented the summer blockbuster, killer shark movies have become their own cottage industry. In fact, there are so many movies in this subgenre that I’m pretty sure you’d need years to watch them all. Some of these movies have their charms (I’m looking at you, “Deep Blue Sea”), but a lot of them are pretty damn bad. So when “The Shallows” arrived back in 2016, I had my doubts, and didn’t run out to see it — I waited for Blu-ray.
Well, as it turned out, “The Shallows” is a blast. I had never had one opinion or another about Blake Lively, but she makes for a great heroine here, and we’re rooting for her every step of the way as she deals with that very persistent shark. Would a shark really stick around in one spot so long to get one pesky surfer? I have my doubts, but it doesn’t matter! Because in the world of this movie, it makes perfect sense, and we buy every minute of it.
As for the scene in question, I love how it blends beauty with terror. The jellyfish look gorgeous, but I particularly enjoy how the movie portrays them as big, stinging jerks — like hey, could you cut Blake Lively a break, guys? She’s going through some stuff right now.
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