It’s summer, so shark movies abound, notably Meg 2: The Trench (Ben Wheatley, 2023) and The Black Demon (Adrian Grünberg, 2023). Both films feature not just a shark but a megalodon, suggesting the need to up the ante when it comes to shark fare – the ante, in this case, being the shark’s size. Neither film is faring terribly well at the hands of critics, although The Black Demon seems to be marginally more highly-praised. It’s not, in truth, a very good film. It is, however, an interesting one.
The Black Demon is set off the coast of Mexico (although it’s actually filmed in the Dominican Republic). With a screenplay by Boise Esquerra, the film follows an inspector for Nixon Oil, Paul Sturges (Josh Lucas), his wife Ines (Fernanda Urrejola) and their two children, Audrey (Venus Ariel) and Tommy (Carlos Solórzano), as they combine a work trip for Paul with a vacation for all. They travel to a small Mexican town where Paul and Ines once took a holiday and that is close to the offshore oil rig, El Diamante, which Paul monitors. When they arrive at the town, however, they find it to be very far from a thriving tourist location; businesses are boarded up – and the locals stand and stare at them with suspicious hostility. The family notices, moreover, a strange ‘primitive’ painting on a wall (more will appear), amplifying the sense that this is not the welcoming vacation paradise Paul and Ines remembered.
The Lucas family decides to adjust their plans and, after Paul has spent the afternoon at the rig, to drive on to greener pastures. But Ines and the children are harassed by some of the villagers at a bar, while waiting for Paul, and so Ines quickly commissions a boat and she and the children follow her husband out to the rig. And thus begins the main action of the film: the family discovers that only two workers remain on the rig – Chato (Julio Cesar Cedillo) and Junior (Jorge A. Jimenez) – and that the rest have died as a result of the attacks of el demonio negro, the black demon. The ensuing plot is fairly predictable, with the requisite number of scenes of marauding sharks and of heroic self-sacrifice.
If the plot, script, and acting leave something to be desired (though they are serviceable), the interest emerges from the way in which the shark is framed, which is, I argue, within a folk-horror narrative as much as straight horror, action, or disaster. Typically, shark films explain their antagonists scientifically. In Jon Turteltaub’s The Meg (2018), for instance, scientists launch into a helpful bit of exposition about the creature they’ve encountered: The megalodon is the “largest shark that ever existed. It feared nothing. It had no predators. Its jaws were stronger than any other animal ever. The meg could bite a whale in half.” The megalodon has also been extinct for over two million years. This action-movie-audience-appropriate scientific discourse is accompanied by images from websites that highlight the shark’s size and powerful jaws.
El demonio negro, however, is never really a shark, even one that’s been extinct for millions of years. It’s, well, a demon – framed within the folkloric traditions of the local villagers. According to them, it has been summoned by a god, Tlaloc, as punishment for their ecological depredations and can be banished only through sacrifice. While Paul claims that what attacked them was “some kind of shark,” Chato insists, “This is not just any shark, not a megalodon . . . It’s much more than that. It’s a curse . . . El demonio is an extension. It’s the vengeance of an old god.” He goes on to say that el demonio negro was “brought out of extinction by Tlaloc himself,” the god of rain. Tlaloc demands that humans only ask for what they need. Local lore tells that, in the past, thousands of years ago, they grew greedy – “People took too much. They chopped down all the trees, killed all the animals, tried to control the rivers and the lakes.” They thought “that we were the gods.” As retribution, Tlaloc sent floods, “brought on not by nature but by wrath.” The same thing is happening again, Chato insists. Humans have created a “wasteland. Everything that was sacred or gave us life has been killed.” The primary culprit, of course, is the substandard oil rig that Paul and Nixon Oil built in substandard fashion and failed to regulate – and which has been leaking oil. “We are destroying Tlaloc’s world,” Chato says, “and now the demon has come back to protect it.” They can kill the demon (el demonio negro), but Tlaloc will only stop when “an ultimate sacrifice has been made.”
Everything Chato says shifts the register of explanation from science (and thus human control) to the sacred and supernatural. Indeed, science, as well as the global industries that emerged from it, and the control and domination integral both, has been precisely the problem. The megalodon – like the floods thousands of years ago – is not of “nature” narrowly (scientifically) understood but embodies the wrath of the “old gods” – and must be propitiated.
Along with Chato’s explanations, the mise en scène of The Black Demon is replete with sacred symbols and figures, which also serve to shift the film from horror/action to folk horror terrain. After all, Paul and his family are the consummate outsiders, traveling to an isolated community structured by ancient religious beliefs, by “old gods,” and that is, at least at first, inimical to them as outsiders. The conflict between these two ways of life – ‘modern’ and ‘primitive’ – is exemplified by Paul’s utter scorn for Chato’s explanations about el demonio and Tlaloc, all of which he predictably calls “superstitious nonsense” and “bullshit Aztec superstition.” But, despite his disbelief, the narrative drives toward the conventional end of folk horror, what is perhaps the defining trait of folk horror – the ritual/sacrifice. Despite his disbelief, Paul is caught up in this sacrifice.
What is still more interesting is that The Black Demon grounds its folk horror in an ecological critique; it demonstrates, in other words, that folk horror and ecohorror are very much adjacent forms. When the Sturges family arrives at Bahia Azul expecting to find the convenient and luxurious trappings of the tourist industry, they find only shuttered businesses, dusty streets, and angry locals. The community, we learn, has been destroyed by the oil industry that promised (and at first even delivered) jobs. Paul has been instrumental in that destruction by failing to correct or even acknowledge any of the problems with the rig, which was constructed “just outside of federal regulations.” Indeed, Paul describes what is the intentional strategy of corporations to “come down to places like this” and implement their own (non-existent) “self-inspection procedures.” The damage done by Nixon Oil – synecdoche for all global fossil fuel and extractive industries – is what has brought down the wrath of Tlaloc, and the film includes a striking montage of shots of climate catastrophes from across the world – all being avenged by the titular megalodon.
I have written elsewhere about the uncanny way in which folk horror often seems to take place in “sacrifice zones,” which Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, define as those areas “that have been offered up for exploitation in the name of profit, progress, and technological advancement.”[i] We see it in Peter Sasdy’s 1972 Doomwatch, in which an island community has been devastated by spilled oil, radioactive waste, and abandoned manufactured growth hormones; we see it in Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983), which takes place in a region where indigenous peoples were brutally massacred by white settlers; and we see it in folk horror films such as The Devil Below (Bradley Parker, 2021) set in Appalachian coal mining regions. I argue that in these films, the ritual sacrifice central to folk horror gets displaced onto a landscape that has already been ‘sacrificed’ in the name of economic development: the typical sensational and singular violent sacrifice of folk horror gives way to the slower, inexorable violence of ecological destruction.[ii] This is exactly what has happened to the community and land of Bahia Azul in The Black Demon.
Indeed, The Black Demon goes even further in its particular version of folk horror – showing how nature violently demands a compensatory sacrifice to atone for its own slower, more endemic sacrifice at the hands of humans. This latter sacrifice – the sacrifice of land, environment, and people – may not be intentional, but it is often enacted for the selfish reason Paul uses to justify his own actions in ignoring problems with the oil rig. As he says to Ines, “I had no choice. I did it so we could have a better life.” The “better life” demanded by the wealthy global North is precisely the justification that drives ecological destruction. Ines, who has already accepted that “mother Nature is holding us accountable,” retorts by telling Paul that, in fact, he – not the shark – is the “monster,” shedding her own responsibility a bit too easily but otherwise articulating what is, in the end, The Black Demon‘s message.
[i] Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (New York: Nation Books, 2012), p. xi.
[ii] See Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).