Does anyone remember Open Water? You know, that movie that was supposed to redefine the horror genre and give audiences a jolt of primal terror like they'd never experienced before? Then it turned out to be a relationship melodrama with stock footage of sharks spliced in. (To be fair, the last minute or so really did invoke a primal sort of fear ... but ONLY the last minute or so.)
Well, whomever made The Reef obviously remembered Open Water and decided they were going to make a movie that actually fulfilled its promise.
The Reef starts by introducing us to the Meat. They are a group of friends getting together to go boating. They evidently aren't very good at it because they run the boat aground on a reef. Four of them decide to try swimming to an island they passed earlier, while the fifth elects to stay behind with the capsized, slowly sinking boat and hope for rescue.
The four swimmers encounter a large sea turtle that has been bitten nearly in two. Unnerved, they swim past it and try not to think about the implications. One of them happens to look back just in time to see the turtle's carcass dragged beneath the water. Uh-oh. From that point on out, the group is hunted by a great white (or possibly more than one). Will they make it to their island? Well ... probably not, no.
The Reef succeeds where Open Water failed mostly by actually having the shark and the cast in the same shot! The sharks in Open Water appeared in the same shot as the doomed couple only a few times. The Reef has the menacing great white constantly interacting with the cast, in a believable manner, to boot. It notices them, swims around to figure them out, takes an experimental bite, decides it likes them, and picks them off at its whim. And there is absolutely nothing any of the humans can do about it. All they can do is keep swimming and hope they make it. Having somewhere for its cast to "make it" to is another way in which The Reef is superior Open Water. Whereas the couple in the older movie just kind of floated around waiting to die, the characters in The Reef have a means of saving themselves, if only they could reach the island. That ratchets up the tension considerably. Also, not inconsequentially, the characters don't spend the movie b***hing at each other. No, in the first part they are friends who get along quite well and, once the shark shows up, they are too scared to spend any time fighting with each other. It's so refreshing to see a low-budget horror movie that doesn't have the characters picking at each other as a way to shoehorn in cheap melodrama.
On a side note, I like the fact that the movie doesn't make a big deal of its monster being a great white. No one in the movie even acknowledges what species the shark is. It's big, it's toothy, it's much faster than they are, and that's all that matters. It could just as easily have been a mako, a tiger, or even just a couple of blue sharks.