This summer brought Alexandre Aja’s nail-biting alligator thriller Crawl, and this coming January sees the release of deep-sea creature feature Underwater. Smack in between is J.D. Dillard’s Sweetheart, an aquatic horror movie that’s equal parts creature feature and survival horror. Despite positive buzz out of the Sundance Film Festival for its world premiere, including a rave from our own Meredith Borders, the island-set horror movie was quietly released on VOD a couple of days ahead of its October 22 street date. Like Crawl, Sweetheart offers up another solid entry in aquatic horror that makes this writer hopeful for a serious resurgence.
Sweetheart is minimalist horror at its best. It’s a simple story with very little dialogue, but it’s executed well. Think Castaway, for at least a large chunk of the runtime, but without any volleyballs or seagulls for its lead protagonist to befriend.
The opening frame shows Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) waking on the shore of some nondescript island. She finds another washed up person, someone she knows, but he’s got one gnarly chunk of coral lodged in his ribcage. He has about enough energy to mutter, “Did you see it?” before succumbing to his wound, leaving Jenn shipwrecked alone. While the adaptable Jenn quickly sets about trying to survive alone on a small island, she learns soon enough what her fallen comrade meant. She’s not so alone after all.
Every night something prowls the island for food. It’s big and it’s deadly.
For a brisk 82-minute runtime, the film is pretty much void of dialogue for roughly half of that. A lot of it is dedicated to Jenn formulating plans and simply trying to survive. Which isn’t to say that it’s without tension or that nothing interesting is going on- Dillard is adept at knowing when to layer in story clues- but that the minimalism likely won’t be for everyone.
Dillard is also the type of filmmaker that understands how frustrating it can be to show too little or too much of the creature in a creature feature. He also gets that too much ambiguity can be annoying. All of which to say that we get to glimpse the film’s monster in subtle teases, at first, resulting in one breathtaking creature shot for the ages. It gradually increases until we see a climactic showdown that shows artist Neville Page’s creature design in all its glory.
When asked about the film’s title at a recent screening, Dillard simply stated that he wanted to keep audiences in the dark as much as possible to preserve the surprises. The nonexistent marketing does effectively preserve mystery; the only stills available pre-release were of Clemons’ character in the ocean. Odds of unsuspecting viewers stumbling into this movie thinking they’re going to get anything but horror are probably pretty high. Sweetheart deserves a much better fate.
Crawl left viewers on the edge of their seats, using hurricane flooding to unleash a congregation of aggressive alligators upon a trapped father and daughter. The suspense was so taut and consistent that Aja didn’t seem to want viewers to catch their breath. Sweetheart is something wholly different. Dillard uses a pared back story to let his leading lady and the monster she’s forced to battle shine. It’s simple, yet extremely well-shot. It bides its time to pack a powerful punch where it counts in the third act.
While there are still a few months between us and the release of Underwater, all marketing seems to indicate that it’ll be a massive underwater creature feature, popcorn style. If that’s the case, that means a trio of diverse aquatic horror films, all tackling various corners of the subgenre. It’s the beginning of a beautiful new wave of aquatic horror, or at least the potential for one.
Here’s hoping the resurgence continues.