A woman travels somewhere new and finds herself thrust into a high-pressure situation which probably won't end well. That could be a basic description of The Shallows or, alternatively, The Neon Demon, two of this summer's most hyped horror movies and both survival flicks of sorts, if very different in DNA.
Having watched these movies in the same week, I was struck less by the fleeting similarities between them than by their vastly different attitudes toward providing the horror thrills that the genre demands. Is it possible to pit them against one another (not unlike the would-be supermodels who populate The Neon Demon) and find out which is really the superior summer horror movie? Let's find out.
What's The Story?
In The Shallows, med school dropout Nancy (Blake Lively) travels alone to a stunning, secluded beach in Mexico to catch the surf and reconnect with the memory of her dead mother. Alarm bells start ringing almost immediately, when Nancy's friend bails and her driver refuses to share the name of the beach. Later, when a shark appears from the depths of the blue, Nancy is forced to take refuge on a tiny rock. Day turns to night, the tide rises, and Nancy is forced to think strategically and employ her smarts to survive the attentions of the hungry great white.
Conversely, Jesse, the heroine of The Neon Demon, is not reliant upon her brain. An aspiring model who moves to LA to follow an opportunity and quickly finds herself rubbing shoulders with girls who've been hustling in the industry for a while, Jesse (Elle Fanning) has one particularly illuminating scene early in the movie. On a rooftop with Dean, an aspiring photographer who seems to have some chemistry with her, Jesse spells out her motivation for chasing a modelling career in brutally self-deprecating fashion (check out the scene below):
"I can't sing. I can't dance. I can't write. No real talent... But I'm pretty, and I can make money off pretty."
But, while The Neon Demon spends 45 minutes or so building the foundations of what could be an interesting narrative, it flips a switch thereafter and becomes a series of surreal images with little in the way of story, and as Jesse is consumed by her own ego and her own intoxicating beauty, it becomes difficult to care. In one scene, a fashion designer humiliates one of Jesse's fellow models, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) by stating that her beauty is artificial and incomparable with Jesse's, despite clear visual evidence to the contrary.
The Shallows, on the other hand, never loses sight of its endgame, and its heroine only becomes easier to root for as she goes to increasing extremes to survive the harsh weather conditions and her predator's relentless bloodthirst. As a story, it's superior to The Neon Demon on every level.
Turning On The Style
In his cult classic neo-noir Drive, director Nicolas Winding Refn announced himself as a director with a superb visual eye. Like that movie, Demon is almost shockingly gorgeous. Every color and texture practically bleeds sex and seduction. Every frame looks like a Vogue spread, if Vogue was infinitely more demented. Refn transforms his 17-year-old lead actress physically, making her sudden transformation from wide-eyed country girl to world-class narcissist more believable.
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The Shallows is also great to look at, and not just because of Blake Lively's obvious appeal — I'm going to need the name of that secret beach in Mexico. But almost immediately after establishing this as paradise, director Jaume Collet-Serra tears that notion apart with the introduction of the shark, and from that point on The Shallows' priorities have shifted. When it comes to style, The Neon Demon is the clear winner.
It may be true that a movie lives or dies by how entertaining or unique its story is, but horror fans generally come in with a different set of expectations. Above all else, a truly great horror flick needs to be scary or intense on a psychological level.
The Shallows makes it clear from the foreshadowing in the opening scene that Nancy is going to be tested, and from the moment the shark first appears, the tension never lets up. Apart from a couple of jump scares, most of the frights are derived from what isn't seen — we know the stealthy hunter is circling, somewhere just beneath the surface of the ocean, but the deep blue of the ocean provides excellent camouflage. Collet-Serra milks this fear for everything he can, but The Shallows is not scary in the way a horror movie like The Babadook is. The thrills come in short, sharp bursts, and your stomach unknots itself pretty quickly.
The biggest fright The Neon Demon serves up is in seeing how freakishly little it takes for the vicious modelling industry to chew Jesse up and spit her out as a far more grotesque, self-obsessed being. When that thrill fades, the movie changes course and starts dabbling in body horror. A scene with an intruder and a knife is pretty scary, but the sight of a gorgeous young woman casually munching on a human eyeball elicits laughter more than anything else. In terms of sheer fear factor, The Shallows probably tips the scales here to take a narrow victory, but neither movie is among the year's most downright terrifying horror flicks.
WTF Just Happened?
Mild spoilers ahead... Both The Shallows and The Neon Demon make up for that, though, with a number of scenes designed purely to deliver some prime WTF?
Just as Nancy starts to wonder if she might be well and truly fucked, the sight of a vagrant on the beach gives her fresh hope. She signals for the man to take her phone from her bag and call for help. Instead, he steals her bag, and then heads into the water to grab her surfboard. Karma is an instant bitch, apparently, because the shark strikes, tearing the man's torso clean from his lower body. Not quite ready to die, the man just... keeps on crawling, while his severed stomach and legs remain exactly where they are. It's a jaw-dropper.
The aforementioned eyeball incident isn't even close to being the most WTF moment of The Neon Demon. After a romantic rejection, Jesse's "friend" (nobody is really friends with anyone in Refn's cynical world) Ruby heads to her day job at the morgue and begins to tenderly kiss a corpse. As the necrophiliac make-out session becomes more intense, Ruby slips her fingers down her skirt and brings herself to climax. It's the moment you realize this movie simply does not give a fuck, and it's possibly the most genuinely horrifying thing you'll witness all year. For sheer, gross-out WTF-ery, The Neon Demon is the easy winner here.
We Have A Winner
So, that's scares, story, style and insanity covered. Any great horror movie should bring at least three of those ingredients to the table. Ultimately, though, we're talking about a hugely subjective genre. One man's pleasure is another man's pain, and only one of these movies was pleasurable enough to demand a second viewing.
The Shallows takes gold. It's good to look at, skilful in the way it builds tension and a breakout performance from Lively has you genuinely rooting for Nancy to escape with her life. The Neon Demon is stylish as hell and has some moments of genuine shock, but a game-changing event during the final act feels too jarring. Strip away the dazzling visuals, and you're left with a movie with too few ideas. The Shallows is a more entertaining movie in almost every respect, and if you didn't already, it's the one you should see while we cling to the last vestiges of summer.
Just make sure you do so on dry land.
Did you prefer Blake Lively's shark trauma or Elle Fanning's twisted journey into the world of fashion?