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Sea Fever
by Neasa Hardiman

Horror is at its best when it exploits something primal, something we’re genetically and ancestrally conditioned to fear. If you can hook a concept that speaks to everyone equally, you automatically escape a niche in which horror can often find itself. That’s not to say going niche can’t work (2010’s Rubber, anyone?); and conversely going wide doesn’t always work either. Aquatic Irish chiller Sea Fever goes wide and gets a lot right in ways that, perhaps, it might have not even intended.

When socially-challenged researcher Siobhan (Hermione Corfield) boards the trawler Niamh Cinn Óir (‘Golden-haired Niamh’, one of the many wonder women of Irish Mythology), she and the crew are unwittingly taken into a ‘no fish/no travel’ exclusion zone by opportunistic Captain Gerard (Dougray Scott), in which, they are quickly immobilised by a large, unknown and seemingly novel organism. A series of events leads one of the crew to become infected by the parasitic entity, and the race is on to understand it, contain it, and, failing that, eradicate it. Tensions inevitably start to run high and motives collide; what follows is a story that has already drawn ominous parallels to the current global situation, and rightly so.

It’s almost impossible to separate the building paranoia and the crew’s emphatic desire to return to land, despite Siobhan’s protests, from similar deranged actions currently unfolding in front of our very eyes. We’re almost too aware that people will prize autonomy over altruism; the classic quarantine trope has now been fully realised and, it’s safe to say, we’ve all but failed the test. However, given this was filmed in 2019, there are moments where this sense of panic doesn’t quite gel. We’ve all experienced our own ‘cabin fever,’ it’s not just a speculative exercise anymore and we will, henceforth, demand a little more from such depictions on the big screen. This is nothing for which Sea Fever can be held accountable, however. Neasa Hardiman’s writing and direction are subtly superb and Sea Fever is a welcome return to her working on her native Irish shores. And what a chilling and timely homecoming it is.

While we’re offered little in the way of backstory of the characters, we know enough and are shown enough to believe their bond. It’s a tight ship in both camaraderie and square footage and in both these regards the film sets a perfect stage for the erosion of the status quo. Poor Siobhan is the consummate outsider; a redhead on a ship of superstitious souls (a bad omen of the highest order for Irish fishermen), and in this Hardiman’s script boasts a sincerity and uniqueness that puts it head and shoulders above other closed-room offerings.

This and other superstitions shared by the group play well into the burgeoning paranoia (fishermen are a particularly superstitious lot) and it helps seal the crew into its own microcosmic bubble for society en-masse while lending a sense of conflict and otherness with the well-intentioned Siobhan. Their ship, their rules, and god help anyone that dare speak sense.

There are a few moments of well-placed body horror, but Sea Fever largely stays away from the effects-heavy scenes that made The Thing (to which many are already drawing parallels) a visually memorable classic. This works in its favour. For one thing you'd have to be clinically insane to try and rival John Carpenter and Rob Bottin in the creature feature stakes. For another, the movie works best in the moments between the shocks. The build and release of tension, sparse lines of humour and heated clashes as we barrel toward the climax are the true revelations. This ominous presence isn't a predator in the truest sense, anyway. Humanity trespassed into its territory, and from then on it followed its natural instinct to survive. Really, so did the crew, but they were more of a dick about it. While it may be cliché to scream out "MAN IS THE TRUE MONSTAAAAA," Sea Fever never feels like it's leaning on a trope.

It's a bit of a shame, then, that a moment toward the end leans a little too far into the 'creature as malevolent foe' idea seemingly out of nowhere. Nature is not vengeful, nor is it rebellious, but this does little to retroactively harm the impact of the movie to that point, and that's a testament to the solid foundation it builds.

Confident, beautiful, and scathingly pointed in the current climate, Sea Fever is a tense exercise in a subgenre that rarely gets the chance to surface these days. With people like Neasa Hardiman working at their craft, any future attempts at deep-sea danger will have a lot to live up to.

Sea Fever is out on DVD and On Demand now.

Ryan Kennedy, HMS

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