TIFF Review: Sea Fever is nerve-wracking environmental horror

Visceral and bone-chilling, Sea Fever borrows from body horror classics but has a timely message and narrative approach that’s all its own.

There’s a reason why fishermen are traditionally superstitious. The sea is vast and mysterious — when you’re out in open waters you feel like you’re alone, but you aren’t. You just can’t see what’s really out there.

In the film Sea Fever, Siobhan (Hermione Corfield) is a young marine biology student who has a rough start to her time studying aboard a ramshackle fishing vessel. Her red hair immediately sets her off on the wrong foot with the sailors, who regard redheads as the worst form of bad luck at sea. There’s talk of refusing to let her sail, but the crew is in dire financial straits, and they can’t afford to turn down the fee she’s paying to tag along.

They’re a tight-knit family unit from which she is an obvious outsider, and her focus on logic and science is in direct conflict with their superstitions as old as seafaring itself. Siobhan struggles with social interactions, a problem that is only exacerbated by the insular community of fishermen. Still, she begins to connect with members of the crew, especially the handsome young sailor Johnny who takes her under his wing. Things seem to be going swimmingly.

Then Gerard (Dougray Scott), the ship’s captain, receives a message from the Coast Guard telling him to avoid a certain area, which happens to be where they would be able to pull in the biggest haul. He promptly ignores it and steers their boat into the forbidden zone, the rest of his crew unaware.

They catch plenty of fish, to be sure. But they also bring something else on board, a creature more dangerous and unpredictable. Immediately, the crew are thrown into a crucible of fear and suspicion. How can they tell who has been infected by this mysterious parasite, and how do they prevent it from spreading?

The horror films that stick with you use their monsters and demons to tell a larger story. Sea Fever is a tense, emotionally distressing piece of body horror, but it also serves as a cautionary tale. It explores the ramifications of the choices we make in exploiting the environment for economic profit, with particular relevance for the dying fishing industry, who on a daily basis face the decision of whether to feed their families or pursue environmental protections.

It also has a lot to say about the ethical implications of putting yourself and your immediate personal needs above the larger good of the planet. And the message is simple: when you pursue self-interest to the detriment of the world around you, bad things can happen.

Still, Sea Fever has a tremendous amount of empathy for the sailors, and acknowledges the untenable situation they’re put in by circumstance. These are not immoral people, messing with Mother Nature to make themselves rich. They’re just desperate men trying to keep the boat that has been their livelihood afloat. They have nothing in savings, and are relying on the profits of this voyage to pay off debts from previous ones. It’s easy to see the appeal of cutting corners and violating Coast Guard instructions. After all, what’s the harm?

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Sea Fever borrows stylistically from The Thing, but with director Neasa Hardiman’s keen eye and passion for this story, it’s nonetheless a fresh, original genre film that breaks new ground. In a world that seems eager to push itself further and further towards the precipice of irreversible climate change all in the name of profit, Sea Fever may be the most timely horror film of 2019.

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