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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Black Demon Review

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The Black Demon opens in theaters on April 28, 2023


Meg 2: The Trench doesn’t need to worry about Adrian Grunberg's much smaller-scale The Black Demon stealing its megalodon movie thunder. Writers Carlos Cisco and Boise Esquerra adapt Mexico's ferocious El Demonio Negro legend into a generic eco-aquatic-thriller, pulling from fishermen stories about a freakishly large great white or megalodon that haunts its waters, including the Gulf of California. Unfortunately, inspirations from whispered tales don't amount to excitement due to a host of issues that plague most swing-and-miss shark movies that come out nowadays. Aztec mythology only keeps the outrageous shark-attack-on-a-mostly-vacated-oil-rig premise afloat for so long, since mentions of Tlaloc (God of Rain) or symbolic idols aren't interesting enough to distract from the waterlogged nonsense of this anti-corporate commentary with rows of dull teeth.

There are characters you love to hate, and then there are characters who hang around and drag a movie down when all you want to see them become is shark food. Josh Lucas stars as oil company exec Paul Sturges, one of recent memory's most detestable lead characters. Cisco and Esquerra purposely overwrite him as the outsider who won't acknowledge the harm his corporation brought to an otherwise peaceful Mexican fishing village, but he's just abysmally grating. He embodies the stereotypical caricature of the bullish and disrespectful American abroad, treating locals and their beliefs like washed-ashore garbage to a distracting degree. "Take your superstitious Aztec bullshit and shove it up your ass," he tells the local workers, despite just witnessing a larger-than-life shark swallow a small boat. It's horrendously exaggerated for too long, making for laughable plot advancement as Sturges dooms everyone while they shrug and obey.

He's there to assess if his pride and joy oil rig should be decommissioned, only to encounter an enormous, shark-like beast dubbed The Black Demon that has killed most of the crew and scared the rest away – so we probably missed the best part of the story. Action stuffily takes place around the rusty, chewed-apart structure which was built to withstand category 5 weather conditions – but not a massive maneater that keeps bashing support pillars at ramming speeds, it seems.

These are some dummy characters.


If anyone stands out, it's veteran Mexican actor Julio Cesar Cedillo as Chato, one of two survivors left on the rig when Sturges arrives. His camaraderie with best buddy Junior (Jorge A. Jimenez) is an enjoyable double-team against Sturges when he starts spouting vaguely xenophobic nonsense, echoing the frustrations of foreign towns upended by companies that promise job-building prosperity only to leave territories in worse shape. Cedillo rises as a voice for the voiceless in a story about cultural selfishness over all else, while Sturges' accompanying family becomes lost in a script that continually uses them as verbal punching bags barely worth a mention. These are some dummy characters, with many examples that begin with Sturges' first idea after seeing the Black Demon being that Chato and Junior should dive into the oil-clouded depths and hope for the best.

The Black Demon never looks great but is especially poor during outdoor shots on location in the Dominican Republic as the blazing sunlight washes out the screen with bright whiteness that stymies cinematographer Antonio Riestra. It's not a particularly attractive oceanic horror film, as the type of camera used seems to change scene by scene, along with picture quality. The beaten-and-battered oil rig setting at least values production design that feels dystopian at sea – like the metal hideaway far removed from civilization – but other deep-dives or nighttime sequences can't hide the claustrophobia that’s born of filming in studio pools. There's a heavy emphasis on digital effects, to much disappointment, which extends to the little gore present in a movie with such a teeny body count.

Digital effects are underwhelming, just like those in so many shark thrillers that’ve come and gone.


Then we have the Black Demon itself: a computerized meanie that leaves floating chunks of human flesh behind to signify a villain killing not to eat, but for sport. There's nothing special about the animation, nor are the mythical creature's abilities adequately explained. When characters hallucinate everything from jellyfish to rescue boats, that’s apparently the demon's trick? Digital effects are underwhelming, just like those in so many shark thrillers that’ve come and gone, from inauthentic shadow splotches that don't naturally blend under choppy waves to scant violence that thrashes around with a chaotic cartoonishness (frantic edits, restricted effects capabilities). Between a diving bell that can't withstand the Demon's jaws to one or two more overboard close calls, opportunities for excitement are limited – and Grunberg fails to capitalize.

The Black Demon Images

Verdict

The Black Demon is yet another in a procession of not-good-enough shark attack movies that repeats the same frustrating motions. You’ll remember Josh Lucas’ performance as Paul Sturges for the wrong reasons, derived from a place of resentment – and not the deliciously watchable kind. Another computer-generated finned monstrosity fails to impress, much less bridge chasm-sized gaps between fun-filled creature frights and dramatic commentary about impoverished nations preyed upon by greedy megacorporations. It’s safe to say that The Black Demon won’t satiate the hunger of aquatic horror fans.

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