Humans, both as species and as individuals, don’t always make the best choices. We act out of greed, fear, self-preservation, and sometimes we’re just far stupider than our awesome brains would otherwise suggest. This fundamental truth plays a major role in horror movies as most horror scenarios could have been avoided with just a little more rational thinking and a little less impulsive behavior. Sea Fever, a new ocean-set chiller from Ireland, balances out that reality with some welcome smarts resulting in a tensely engrossing face off between humans and something… else.
Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) is a scientist who’s most comfortable working alone in a lab, but she can’t say no to an opportunity for research aboard a fishing vessel off the coast of Ireland. The married captains, Gerard (Dougray Scott) and Freya (Connie Nielsen), welcome her aboard as they need the money that comes with it, but some of the crew members aren’t as thrilled. Siobhán is a redhead which means bad luck out at sea, and it’s not long before the superstitious among them feel justified in that belief. The trawler hits something where nothing should be, and they soon realize that thing is a biological creature that’s taken hold and won’t let go. That’s just the start of their troubles as soon eyeballs are popping, people are dying, and madness begins staking its claim. What was in the water is now inside them.
Writer/director Neasa Hardiman is clearly (and wisely) a big fan of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and that love sees some inspiration seep into her horror feature debut. There are no violent monsters here, though, as the focus is instead parasitic enemies nearly naked to the human eye. The ocean animal here is simply looking for food — a goal no different than the fishermen and women out trawling for big catches — and the carnage that follows is less intentional than, well, natural.
As with Carpenter’s classic, decisions are made that accidentally begin a chain of infections, and once one young man’s eyeballs literally explode outward sending small, wriggling worms into the boat’s water supply it becomes a nightmare of who’s affected and who isn’t. Talk of quarantine will feel familiar to today’s audiences as the film releases during a pandemic, and while the events here are more immediate and bloody it remains a horror film with a worthy message. Some want to rush to shore while Siobhán stands alone knowing that the crew holds the safety of everyone back home in their hands. Her message is simple — quarantine for yourself, but more importantly, quarantine for your loved ones and those you don’t even know. Good luck with that.
The film draws sharp contrasts between science and pure belief, and that extends to both superstition and more accepted forms of it like faith, but rather than criticize them it instead finds warmth and opportunity to grow. One crew member who violently blamed Siobhán for what’s happening apologizes when she learns the truth, and a moment with the captains praying once they resign to the idea of death touches the heart in their moment of sad acceptance. Loss and sacrifice are affecting beats among the isolated and alone.
At under ninety minutes, Hardiman keeps the film’s pace moving with new discoveries and threats punctuated with moments of hope and adrenaline, and her cast does strong work with what could easily be generic throwaway characters. Olwen Fouéré stands out as an earthy firebrand, while Ardalan Esmaili finds heart as a smart engineer desperate to get home to his pregnant wife. They feel like a family, one that welcomes in Siobhán, albeit with reservations, and none feel wasted. Scott and Nielsen are especially good as hints of past loss and current desperation make their choices tragically inevitable. (I also hope Scott and Corfield swapped stories from their respective Mission: Impossible adventures.)
Budgetary restraints result in some sketchy effects at times, but they’re minor distractions at worst. Other effects beats work well to suggest the size and scope of the both the large creature beneath them and the smaller ones inside of them. Cinematographer Ruairi O’Brien and composer Christoffer Franzén both do strong work creating a haunting sense of isolation and find equal parts hope and defeat throughout.
Sea Fever succeeds in delivering both energetic thrills and a squirm-inducing paranoia stemming from infections, blindness, and the inevitable one-two punch of madness and exploding eyes. Tension is ratcheted up, characters behave like real people, and in the end, choices must be made regarding personal well-being and the possible safety of the human race. It’s a tight, entertaining, and unsettling horror/thriller, and it would make Carpenter proud.