Monday, June 21, 2021

We're Gonna Need a More Infrared Boat

As I said recently when discussing Sweetheart, island-set horror is a rare, but almost always interesting exercise. The endless openness of water and the sense of being trapped on land can often work together to maximize any genre threat. It's often a pricey, dangerous choice for a filmmaker to make, particularly on a small budget.

Sunhats off to Josh and Tess Gerritsen for giving it a sail.

Quick Plot: A scientist is alone on the water, intensely studying her radar and rigging some kind of marine trap. Before we even learn her name or prey, an unseen force seems to take her overboard.

Some years later, we land on a remote island off the coast of Maine, a one-diner community primarily populated by some frustrated fishermen. Marine biologist/Richard Dryefuss long-lost cousin Sam is on hand to lend some advice about where all the sea-dwelling creatures have gone, but his scientific theories can only go so far when the island becomes cut off from the rest of the world.

It doesn't take long for Island Zero to challenge Cabot Cove for the title of deadliest New England town. Invisible (to the human eye) creatures seem to be tearing through the local populace, leaving behind little but a whole lot of goo.

The ragtag band of survivors is small but fierce, composed of a few pleasantly strong character actors (including the lovely Laila Robins, lending respectable gravitas) and, if IMDB trivia is to be trusted, several local citizens who turn in refreshingly natural performances.

Directed by Josh Gerritsen from Tess Gerritsen's script, Island Zero is a far cry from Jaws (a film it clearly adores, right down to its wool-cap wearing old man delivering a monologue about a previous big sea creature run-in) but a genuinely wonderful example of how to make a low budget creature feature with a lot of brains and heart. Perhaps knowing that it couldn't afford to give us elaborate violence, the film instead prioritizes character, spending nearly a full hour introducing us to the various island occupants about to be turned into ceviche. We know their names when we hear of their fate, and it's rare for modern horror audiences to be trusted to care.

Most of the horror elements are smartly done with a variety of tricks, from heat sense cameras to establish their threats to enough justified explanation that the monsters can't be seen with a human eye for us to accept an actor's screams as they battle invisible foes. It works because the combination of good character work and a well-crafted story makes us care, right on down to a surprisingly abrupt, probably frustrating to some but weirdly satisfying to me ending.

High Points
As a deep, DEEP fan of Murder, She Wrote (did YOU cut your wedding cake to the opening theme song?) I have an admitted soft spot for New England-isms, and it's utterly charming to have real accents at play, especially when helped along by the stabilizing force of "real" actors Laila Robins and Adam Wade McLaughlin, who turn in their own dedicated performances 

Low Points
I heartily admire just how smart the Gerritsens were in establishing their island horror without showing much of anything, but yes, at a certain point, I had to wonder if I was genuinely enjoying or just more appreciating their various methods.

Lessons Learned
You can't count on anything when you live on an island

Always peek at your Christmas presents. You never know if they include technology that might save your life

The best way to honor your dead mom is to wear the same haircut

I can't say that Island Zero will work for every horror fan, but there's a lot here to enjoy and even more to respect. Give it a try, now streaming on Amazon Prime. 


  1. My curiosity is piqued, I might give this one a try. But more importantly, now I want to know where your intense love for Murder, She Wrote comes from. I mean, playing the theme song at your wedding, that's serious. I only vaguely remember the show from my childhood. It's a silly question to ask a clear mega fan but -- should I watch it??

    1. So here's the crazy thing: I NEVER watched it as a kid. I wasn't a big mystery fan, and it was always more a punchline (that's something for OLD people) than anything my friends or family watched.

      So flash forward a few decades into my wooing of my now-husband, when I catch him streaming it and mercilessly mock him for being old. For whatever reason, he convinces me to watch an episode and in 45 minutes, I am HOOKED.

      THIS SHOW IS EVERYTHING! Fun mysteries, BATCHES of before-or-after-they-were-stars guests, supreme '80s into '90s fashion, and Jessica F*CKING Fletcher, my absolute hero.

      So I mean YES, I would HIGHLY recommend trying out a few episodes. They're prime comfort viewing, and since the show was on for a million years AND had TV movies after AND an ongoing novel series, you'll never run out of content (I still haven't actually seen every episode). I know it's currently streaming on Peacock, and usually shows up on Hallmark Mysteries or the Cozi Channel if you have cable.