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By KJ Doughton | August 6, 2004

“Jaws” is and always will be the greatest horror film of all time. Don’t get me wrong. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, “Re-Animator,” and “Psycho” aren’t slackers, either, and there have been enough recent fright films clawing their way out of Japan alone to fill up a samurai cemetery (Audition, anyone?). But Spielberg’s film nails the primal horror of not knowing what’s beneath the surface – literally and figuratively. Even though modest Bruce the Shark dodged paparazzi until well into the second reel, we knew something rotten was churning in the Amity Island surf. And rotten he was – a big bastard with teeth the size of shot glasses and an appetite for prune-skinned tourists.

This summer, we have Open Water, a clever spin on the theme of ocean dread. Director Chris Kentis claims that his film was never intended to be a “shark movie,” and in a sense, he’s right. It’s really a film about the surface-level phoniness of today’s capitalist yuppie culture, where cell phones and laptops take priority over interpersonal enrichment and meaningful conversation. Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan) are an affluent, good-looking couple embarking on a long-overdue vacation. They’re not a particularly sympathetic team. “I wanted to go skiing,” Daniel whines en route to a tropical beach resort, where they plan to forget their problems and go diving.

They board a dive boat and travel with other underwater enthusiasts several miles out to sea. Urban stress begins to melt away while the comforting sun warms their neoprene-suited bodies.

But there’s a whale-sized fly in the ointment.

After surfacing from a pleasant bout of gawking at moray eels and Skittles-bright tropical fish, the lovers scan the horizon. Where the hell is their boat? Nowhere to be seen. Having miscounted his returning divers, the craft’s distracted skipper has forgotten Daniel and Susan, leaving the panicked customers to whip around with the whitecaps.

And when the first of many covert dorsal fins swipes the water’s surface a few feet away, all of the couple’s previous concerns are suddenly irrelevant. Business appointments and stock options don’t hold the same importance when a 15-foot gray reef shark is cruising two feet in front of you. Having no control while stranded twenty miles out to sea is every anal-retentive’s worst nightmare.

Which leads us back to the “Jaws” connection. Since the release of Spielberg’s classic, we’ve had a septic lobster tank full of pathetic sequels and cheap imitators. Deep Blue Sea (1999), Renny Harlin’s mackerel-scented misfire about mutant mako sharks, is a classic example of how low these cinematic crab-bait carcasses have sunk. (I’ll never forget the climactic scene of Saffron Burrows sacrificing herself as a Christ-like distraction, so that Thomas Jane can get in one more harpoon shot and bag the last of the film’s shoddy, CGI-generated villains.) Meanwhile, all of this scum-laden flotsam and jetsam simply confirms how great “Jaws” truly is, in comparison.

Open Water finally breaks this mediocre, post-“Jaws” mold. Kentis, alongside wife and producer Laura Lau, has stripped down the man versus shark premise to the bone. Keeping his production afloat with a modest budget of $300,000 and shooting in digital video, there’s no high-tech bullshit to distract us from the couple’s isolated plight. To the filmmakers’ credit, we’re invested in their terrified, overlooked characters throughout the one-note “concept” tying “Open Water” together – basically, the notion of throwing two people into the ocean for an hour and a half and seeing what happens.

One can see how this idea could be easily pitched to a studio. And when the moviemaking husband and wife described their technique for obtaining shark footage – by chumming the water around their actors with bloody tuna, and using real man-eaters for the shoot – the suits took notice. Indeed, Lion’s Gate won a veritable feeding frenzy of bidding at 2004’s Sundance Film Festival, and bought distribution rights for a reported $2.5 million. Since then, Kentis and Lau have been scrambling from one film festival to another, powered by praise for “Open Water” (most reviews have been favorable), while weathering a small storm of naysayers (some scribes have complained about the movie’s washed-out, digital video look).

Fielding interviews at the Seattle International Film Festival, Kentis and Lau appear to be a good team, often finishing each other’s sentences. There’s a synergy between them which reveals their relaxed partnership. And they’re remarkably cheerful for two people whose movie has just been given the grade of “F” by an unforgiving daily newspaper covering festival screenings.

Chances are, they’ll survive such negativity and helm “Open Water” to deserved success. More recent prints of the movie have reportedly shed its earlier, much-criticized grainy look, and an aggressive ad campaign is pushing the intense scare-fest as the next Blair Witch Project. Both director and producer share their thoughts on digital technology, Dogme 95, and wearing chain mail suits when surrounded by man-eating predators.

Get the interview in part two of BIG FISH: CHRIS KENTIS & LAURA LAU ON “OPEN WATER”>>>

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