Early in 2020, before theaters closed, Kristen Stewart’s Underwater re-introduced us to aquatic horror. Too bad critics and fans gave it a soggy response. On a side note, Underwater was actually quite good. Yet somewhere below the radar another aquatic horror movie fared better on video on demand (VOD). After a 2019 debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, Irish horror movie Sea Fever earned strong word of mouth. With a premise touching a nerve in this COVID era, Sea Fever promises some quiet unnerving horror amidst our current pandemic.
Hoping to study sea fauna behaviour, marine biology student Siobhan buys herself a spot on a fishing trawler, the Niamh Cinn Óir. In addition to being socially awkward, Siobhan’s a redhead, which the crew takes as bad luck. Soon superstition gives way to genuine misfortune. A Coast Guard broadcast warns the Niamh Cinn Óir that their destination is an exclusion zone. Ignoring the warning, the ship’s captain takes them into the zone where they discover a seemingly abandoned ship. Beneath its hull, Siobhan discovers the tentacles of a large unknown sea organism. The same tentacled creature latches on to the Niamh Cinn Óir, breaching the hull with a glowing blue slime that quickly infects some crew members. With no treatment and no way of knowing who may be sick, the surviving crew fight to outlast the spreading illness.
Sea Fever Exploits Tight Spaces for Slow-Burn Horror
Even if Sea Fever was streaming outside of a pandemic, it would still qualify as effective slow-burn horror. But its timing only increases the movie’s steady dread. The isolation and confinement, fighting an unseen threat, helplessness – we’re all too familiar with these feelings now. Writer and director Neasa Hardiman also recalls past classic monster movie classics like The Thing and Alien. That is, Hardiman strands the Niamh Cinn Óir‘s crew in confined spaces with a slowly growing threat. Though Sea Fever takes a quieter approach to its material, it similarly exploits the fear of not knowing who may or may not be sick. Early tensions amongst the crew foster mistrust and paranoia in the movie’s second half.
There’s less focus on ‘who’s next’ and a more uncomfortable ‘will anyone survive’ feel to the proceedings.
As mentioned above, Sea Fever is a quiet, methodically paced horror movie. Hardiman eschews jump scares and cheap shocks for a cerebral take on the material. Specifically, she relies on those early tensions and tight spaces to create a feeling of discomfort. It’s this uncertainty that keeps the story moving forward. There’s less focus on ‘who’s next’ and a more uncomfortable ‘will anyone survive’ feel to the proceedings. Sea Fever places very little emphasis on gore, so when Hardiman opts for a more visceral approach it feels all the more shocking.
Sea Fever Gives Us Characters Worth Caring About
With its slower pace and reduced focus on visual horror, Sea Fever turns its attention its characters. On one hand, Sea Fever’s characters all feel familiar – Hardiman’s screenplay keeps the characterizations lean. However, like the movie’s ship and setting, the characters feel real and raw. Nothing feels exaggerated for the sake of drama. As a result, the character’s fear and losses feel all the more authentic. And the central conflict between getting home and curbing the spread of a deadly virus hits home in ways Hardiman could never have imagined.
Yet in spite of the character’s early emotional coldness, Corfield brings a compelling earnestness to the role.
A capable cast keeps this brimming conflict afloat in the movie’s quieter moments. Following small supporting roles in some big movies, Hermione Corfield makes the most of an opportunity to headline a movie. And she has a challenging character. Yet in spite of her character’s early emotional coldness, Corfield brings a compelling earnestness to the role. It’s her character’s arc – a growing humanity in the worst of conditions – that anchors the movie. In supporting roles, Dougray Scott and Connie Nielsen equally impress adding more emotional gravitas to the crew’s worsening situation.
Sea Fever Effectively Blends Monster Movie Tropes with Psychological Horror
In a quiet year for movies in general, Sea Fever was among a handful of independent horror movies that filled a void. Both its subject matter and quiet unnerving approach will surely resonate with audiences more than ever as a result the current pandemic. Yes, some viewers will find the more deliberate pacing and lack of overt horror to be frustrating. But Hardiman’s grounded approach and emphasis on psychological tension arguably elevate Sea Fever beyond generic monster movies.