The sea is big business in horror right now, from the ocean-adjacent but dripping-in-brine nightmare of The Lighthouse to the claustrophobic indie shocker Harpoon, and even the big-budget blockbuster Underwater, which stars Kristen Stewart as a Ripley-esque scientist battling against terrifyingly tentacular creatures. Sea Fever, the latest feature from Irish writer-director Neasa Hardiman (whose most recent work, curiously enough, found her directing a handful of episodes of Marvel’s Jessica Jones and Inhumans), actually incorporates elements from all three movies. Though entirely its own beast, the film has the spirit of John Carpenter and the soul of traditional Sean-nós stories, albeit with a darkly expedient and resolutely downbeat twist.
Hermione Corfield portrays the heroine Siobhán, a shy research assistant forced into a sojourn on a grimy trawler by her well-meaning professor. She doesn’t like people and would rather keep to herself, standing back and observing because that’s what she’s good at. Indeed, Siobhán foregoes dinner with the crew, claiming not to be hungry, in order to eat alone in her bunk, bulky research texts as her only company. There’s another issue with poor Siobhán being coerced aboard this boat: she’s a redhead. According to sea-faring lore, redheads are bad luck. So, naturally, when things start to go awry, the finger is pointed squarely at the outsider. Even excluding Siobhán’s supposedly unlucky presence, tensions mount as the skipper intentionally sails into a no-go area to ensure the catch of the day is theirs and only theirs. And what’s that massive thing lurking just below them on the scanner?
Sea Fever establishes early on that everything about being aboard a rickety old ship like the Niamh Chinn Óir (named after a famous character in Irish mythology) is potentially dangerous, whether it’s getting cut by ropes, drinking contaminated water (Siobhán is offered a can of Carling, which is even worse) or plunging into the depths below. The water is shot as though it’s always about to encroach on the ship, almost like it’s a predator in itself. Its presence is foreboding, even before the walls start leaking green ooze and the crew realizes something is clinging to the vessel. The unearthly goop doesn’t take over the ship, though. Rather, it cleverly clings to areas where nobody will notice it, like the bottom of shoes, leaving a stripe of sickly color in its wake. Where it comes from won’t be spoiled here, but suffice to say this stuff is about quality rather than quantity.
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Sea Fever is a creature feature at its core, and the massive, jellyfish-tentacled creature — barely glimpsed, as all the scariest monsters are — is brilliantly rendered by top-notch VFX. Hardiman takes her cues from classics like Jaws and The Thing, establishing early on that it’s the crew who poses the biggest threat to each other rather than anything lurking just outside their periphery. There’s a real grit and a texture to everything, particularly in one moment of ocular trauma-based body horror (the most gruesome the movie gets), which feels doubly disgusting because of the wet filth leaking out from the screen. Sea Fever’s doomed voyage believably strands its characters at sea, rather than in a massive tank with fluffy robes just out of shot. Likewise, the body count is impressively high for a movie with little in the way of gore or violence, again recalling the best that’s come before (Underwater is similarly ruthless in how it picks characters off one by one, albeit in a less considered manner, as befitting its blockbuster credentials).
There’s nary a weak link in the small cast either. Corfield, who impressed in another female-directed horror movie, Rust Creek — as a tough-as-nails young woman stranded in the wilderness, rather than at sea — is hugely likable as the reserved but resourceful Siobhán. She’s the smartest person on the boat, but her instinct is to help rather than lecture. As Siobhán grows closer to the crew, and her commitment to protecting them at all costs comes to the fore, there’s a softening of Corfield’s physicality too, like she can finally un-hunch her shoulders. Corfield’s Irish accent is dodgy at times, though not nearly as bad as another Brit, Holliday Grainger, in the recent Animals (she modeled it off Saoirse Ronan, which was her first mistake). At first, Corfield over-pronounces her “Ts” but, as her character finds her footing in the ship’s difficult environment, she settles into something resembling an Irish brogue. Hardiman could’ve had her using her own accent, though, to make Siobhán even more of an outsider, but needs must.
Less successful is Scottish actor Dougray Scott, gifted the all-important “and” credit here, which suggests his involvement as a big-name star was too important for anybody to tell him that’s definitely not what a Cork native sounds like. Scott’s leader is sometimes Russian, sometimes full-on “begorrah” like Gerard Butler in P.S. I Love You, and sometimes it’s hard to even make out the words he’s saying. Regardless, his attempt at an Irish accent is an insult to the entire population of County Cork (check out Extra Ordinary for an idea of what Corkonians actually sound like, but also just because it’s great). Scott’s performance on the whole isn’t terrible, but that blasted accent keeps robbing his scenes of any tension, particularly with the terrific Connie Nielsen, playing his wife and second in command.
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At least the reliably brilliant Olwen Fouéré, who impressed most recently opposite Nicolas Cage in the bonkers Mandy, gets to use her own accent for once. Positioned as both ship matriarch and unlikely foil to Siobhán, Fouéré imbues her performance with more than 50 shades of gray, while her younger cohorts, played by the charismatic Jack Hickey, Ardalan Esmaili and Elie Bouakaze, provide ample support in Sea Fever’s toughest moments, and in scenes of levity, without all melting into each other as personality-less underlings.
Anybody could be next in Sea Fever, and it’s to Hardiman and her cast’s great credit that the fate of the boat and its occupants remains foggy right up until the movie’s beautifully downbeat ending. Speaking of which, Sea Fever recalls Carpenter’s The Fog in one key sequence, but otherwise it’s essentially The Thing at sea, which is meant as a compliment rather than a dismissal. The discussion about self-quarantining is queasily timely, but the movie’s message about banding together and staying strong in the face of an encroaching, unknowable evil (and about the indomitability of the human spirit) resonates just as strongly. In these increasingly confusing times, taking solace anywhere we can is more important than ever, and it’s impressively weird, intelligent movies like Sea Fever that offer such comfort.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.