‘Killer animals’ are a staple of horror. By the end of the 1940’s, the Universal Monsters’ grip on horror had loosened. Gothic monsters gave way to atomic monstrosities in the 1950’s. A giant spider in Tarantula, oversized ants in Them, a prehistoric preying mantis in The Deadly Mantis – post-WWII horror and science fiction played on new cultural anxieties. But as the environmental movement took off in the 1960’s and 1970’s, horror ‘monsters’ looked a lot more … regular. Eco-horror was born and nature revolted against humanity on the big screens. While eco-horror arguably hit its zenith in the 70’s, ‘killer animal’ movies have never gone out of style. Sadly, ‘tiger on the loose’ thriller, Burning Bright, fell under most horror fans’ radars when it was released. Now with Netflix’s Tiger King captivating audiences, it feels like a good time to re-visit this hidden gem.
After her mother’s death, Kelly is left caring for her autistic brother, Charlie. Meanwhile, her stepfather, John, piddles away his time on building a ‘safari ranch’. When Kelly tries to admit Charlie to a special care facility so she can go off to college, she finds the family bank account empty. To boost interest in his new venture, John’s bought a Bengal Tiger with a deadly reputation. Later that night, Kelly bunkers down with Charlie in their boarded up house to wait out a hurricane while John drinks the night away at the local bar. But as the storm rages, Kelly discovers the tiger is loose in the house with them and no way to escape.
Burning Bright a Suspenseful Thrill Benefiting from Clever Filmmaking
Given its simple premise and thin story, Burning Bright needed a steady diet of convincing tension to work. Like other ‘killer animal’ movies, this in part meant putting a convincing creature up on the screen. Even Spielberg kept his Great White Shark hidden for most of Jaws. Thankfully, rather than relying on shoddy CGI effects, director Carlos Brooks used real tigers for Burning Bright. Yet in spite of the limitations imposed by working with live animals, Brooks employs clever filmmaking and camera tricks to keep audiences invested.
…Burning Bright is a lean, tightly-paced thriller …
First and foremost, Brooks illustrates a good grasp of the material with which he’s working. That is, Burning Bright is a lean, tightly-paced thriller that comes in at under 90 minutes. Brooks cues his tiger’s entrance fairly quickly, rarely allows the cat-and-mouse game to subside, and wraps things up before things get stale. Second, Brooks cooks up multiple ‘life-and-death’ dilemmas for his heroine without recycling scares. Stand-out scenes include one in which Kelly and her brother are trapped under a bed with the tiger crouched on top and a kitchen sequence where Charlie demands ‘lunch’. Courtesy of some camera trickery, Brooks mostly succeeds at convincing you that Kelly is in harm’s way. And in those few moments where Burning Bright isn’t as convincing, Brooks compensates with a mastery of basic film-making suspense.
Briana Evigan ‘Burns Bright’ in Tiger Thriller
On paper, Meat Loaf is arguably Burning Bright’s biggest name performer. Of course, audiences under the age of 40 may not recognize him and he’s on screen for all of maybe five minutes. Veteran Garret Dillahunt (The Last House on the Left) lends his experience as slimy stepdad, John. But it’s Briana Evigan (Sorority Row) and Charlie Tahan (Ozark) who are tasked with carrying Burning Bright’s drama. Netflix audiences may recognize a much younger Tahan, who currently plays Ozark’s Wyatt. Child actors can be hit or miss, but Tahan is spot on with his portrayal of the autistic, Charlie. After watching Burning Bright, it’s not surprising to see that Tahan’s career has taken off.
…Evigan keeps us reeled in with her performance.
Still, when Brooks isn’t tricking us into believing his tiger is really stalking narrow house halls, Evigan keeps us reeled in with her performance. In fact, Burning Bright’s barebones story greatly benefits from Evigan and her character’s conflict – both internal and external. She’s vulnerable and torn early in the movie, exhibiting both love and frustration with her brother. Yet Evigan also infuses Kelly with grit and determination, making her character easy with whom to identify. It’s somewhat of a mystery as to why we haven’t seen more of Evigan.
Burning Bright a Simple, But Effective, Thriller
Part eco-horror, part home invasion thriller, Burning Bright is a simple, but effective, thriller. Though there’s few surprises, Brooks maintains a taut pace and cleverly works around the limitations of using real tigers. Even when some of Brooks’ camera tricks are evident, Evigan’s strong performance heightens the suspense, thus making it easier to suspend disbelief. In spite of budgetary restraints, Burning Bright is consistently edge-of-your-seat thrills once Brooks lets the tiger out of the cage. This is one of those movies that sadly fell through the cracks, but will hopefully find an audience as its availability on streaming platforms increases.