(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: 47 Meters Down has one of the most terrifying horror movie moments in recent memory.)
Two summers ago, director/co-writer Johannes Roberts’ small budget shark survival thriller 47 Meters Down quietly released into theaters and became one of the highest-grossing indie films of 2017. A feat its sequel, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, is aiming to duplicate or surpass at the box office this summer. It’s not hard to understand its success; movie audiences have been obsessed with shark horror ever since Jaws introduced a new kind of movie monster in 1975.
Like Jaws, 47 Meters Down kept the appearances of its sharks minimal. Instead, Roberts trapped the film’s protagonists underwater for most of the movie, focusing on the various obstacles to survival that accompanies humans out of their element. An element that happens to be the dominion of apex predators, portrayed as relentless killing machines. Roberts combined survival horror with summer’s favorite movie monster to deliver one of the scariest scenes in horror.
American sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are on vacation in Mexico, which mostly consists of lounging poolside with an endless flow of cocktails within the bounds of a cozy resort. For Lisa, that’s about as outside of her safe place as she prefers to go; the older and far more reserved of the bonded pair, Lisa’s overly cautious nature tends to frustrate the more adventurous people in her life. Including her boyfriend, who dumped her prior to her vacation because of her conservative personality.
In an act of defiance, Lisa allows Kate to show her the ropes of living on impulse. Lisa tamps down the warning alarms in her head to push past her comfort zone, giving in to her sister’s assertive lead and passion for living. Naturally, in horror, that leads to catastrophe.
The Story So Far
Lisa and Kate accept an invitation to shark dive from two men they just met at the club. Lisa has never dived before, and relies heavily on Kate’s experience as they’re lowered in a shark cage five meters below the surface to get up close and personal with great whites lured by chum. It’s an exhilarating excursion turned into a harrowing fight for survival when the cage’s cable snaps and the sisters are dragged to the bottom of the ocean, 47 meters below. It’s a depth that leaves them cut off from the surface and presents serious risk for oxygen deprivation, narcosis, and the bends if they rise to the surface too soon. But between the cage’s door being wedged shut, and hungry sharks on the prowl, getting back to the safety of the boat is an extremely dangerous endeavor. Things go from perilous to panic inducing when Kate is attacked by a shark, leaving the inexperienced Lisa alone and trapped in the cage.
After finally freeing herself from the cage, Lisa finds Kate alive but bleeding profusely from her shark attack. The seriousness of her injuries leaves the sisters no choice but to swim for the surface. The blood, of course, attracts sharks. Gripping Kate with one arm and lighting flares with the other to ward off sharks, they ascend high enough for communications with the boat to kick in again and help guide them back to safety.
Roberts builds the tension of this key scene with wide shots that contrast how small and insignificant the sisters are against the vast darkness of the ocean at this level. So dark that we can only make out Kate and Lisa’s diving masks and air bubbles illuminated by the dim light of a flashlight and the red glow of a flare. The rest of their bodies are completely enveloped by the inky blues of the deep sea.
He cuts to close-ups of their exhausted and frantic faces not just to illustrate the severity of their need to surface, but to show how little they can see past the intense flame. The frame reverts wide again as the girls reach the 20-meter mark, the point at which they need to stop and tread in place for about 5 minutes to stave off the bends, leaving them even more vulnerable to the circling predators in the dark depths.
Tension coils tighter as the countdown begins. A short span of time stretched into an infinite chasm in the face of mortal peril. The suspense builds to a climax as the flare fizzles out, leaving the sisters in the pitch black and frantic to light another. Lisa fumbles in the dark, dropping a flare and scrambling for another, creating an almost unbearable level of dread as Lisa and Kate’s one talisman against the sharks has failed and left them exposed.
It’s at this precise moment, when the suspense is pushed to its breaking point, that Lisa finally succeeds in lighting the last flare. Its brilliant flame exposing three massive gaping maws that were on the cusp of reaching their prey, rows upon rows of shark teeth poised to rip into their flesh. The abruptness causes the sharks to turn away, but they haven’t given up their pursuit. The haunting score reaches a fever pitch of frenzy as Lisa desperately waves the flare at the sharks to shoo them away. Its eerie red glow against the coal black water, giving only barest glimpses of deadly foes biding their time in close proximity. An eerie red glow that fizzles out once more just as their countdown ends, allowing the girls to break for the surface.
The film’s psych-out ending has rubbed many the wrong way, and it doesn’t waste any time on character development before jumping into the deep end of survival horror. But it’s also that simplicity that works in many ways, including the delivery of this extremely effective scene. Roberts took a fear of the dark to terrifying new heights (or lows) by using an underwater flare as a nightlight to ward off the boogeyman. In this case, the boogeyman happens to be a trio of monstrous man-eating beasts. This scene is constructed in a way that it’s clear that these sharks are always there, lurking in the dark, even if you can’t see them. It’s bone chilling.
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