By Gen Terblanche11 July 2023
Primal fear: Test your limits with these terrifying thrillers
While stylish, relentless action films like John Wick 3: Parabellum and Bullet Train are a joyful thrillride, and horrors like Nope and Halloween Ends could have you smashing the escape button, nothing has the primal power to get your heart racing like a tale of human versus nature. Our lizard brains take that stuff personally! Here are five elemental challenges to jolt you awake this winter.
The butt-clenchingly tense film gets a heart-stopper health warning for anyone who’s even a little afraid of heights. Daredevil best friends Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) and Hunter (Virginia Gardner, Halloween) are always looking for the next thrill. But they might have found their last one when they climb to the top of a remote, abandoned TV broadcasting tower in the desert. It’s a great day out until the tower’s ladder collapses, leaving them stranded on a platform the size of a stovetop, over 600 metres above the ground (around the height of the Abraj Al-Bait Clock Tower in Mecca, the fourth tallest building in the world).
They’re at the mercy of the elements, with limited supplies, and one of them is keeping a shocking secret. Tension ratchets as they try every way of escaping or reaching out for rescue. PS: Fall was filmed on a physical tower set built on top of a hill, so you really do get that dizzying sense of dread when they force you to look down. It’s an hour and 46 minutes of that feeling when you miss a step while walking downstairs … plus some unexpected laughter.
Pulse-pounding surfing HBO documentary series 100 Foot Wave S1-2 follows Garrett McNamara’s 10-year mission to prepare to surf the gigantic waves that form at the cliffs in Nazaré, Portugal. The series begins with Garrett successfully surfing a six-metre wave (the size of a standard shipping container) in Hawaii’s Jaws surf site. And from there it moves into him and his team testing the waters at Nazaré as they build up ways of not actually dying while pursuing their goal. By the second episode Garrett had ridden a wave over 24 metres tall (the height of an eight-storey building – it looks as surreal as riding a Sandworm in Dune). But the storyline becomes more complicated after we see his disastrous day at Mavericks in California, when a wave skips him like a pebble before pounding him, dislocating his shoulder and breaking his arm.
From there, we follow Garrett’s determined recovery before his return to Nazaré. As Season 2 begins, Hurricane Epsilon brings monster surf to Nazaré along with dangerously crowded surfing conditions, before Covid shuts down the site, and we see the impact of the illness on Garrett’s pregnant wife Nicole and his kids. The back end of the season tackles the daring rescue teams at Nazaré as surfers reflect on why they’re drawn to the dangerous waves. Aside from director Chris Smith (Tiger King) taking us inside the nuts and bolts of the business end of competitive surfing, 100 Foot Wave is dazzling to look at. Fast-evolving surf camera work is eye candy on even a mild day, but when you’re capturing the cliff-high waves at Nazaré, the undertow pulls you right into the action.
Rock climbing survival movie The Ledge combines a rape revenge thriller with an edge-of-your-nails cat-and-mouse chase up a cliff face. When Kelly (Brittany Ashworth) is caught filming sociopath Joshua (Ben Lamb) murdering her friend Sophie (Anais Parello) after raping her at a tourist cabin in Italy’s Dolomite mountains, she has to flee Joshua and his three equally awful friends as she bolts up a sheer cliff face.
All five are skilled free climbers, but the mountain itself is the deadlier than any human, protecting and threatening Kelly at every move with everything at nature’s disposal, including snakes. What a film like Fall does for falling down, The Ledge does for climbing up, bringing a sweaty sense of terror to an already tense visual experience, especially when Joshua and his friends get ahead of Kelly at one point, trapping her on the tiny ledge mentioned in the title.
If you’re peering over The Ledge but want something without the rape element, Infinite Storm has all the tension, but the drama is about rescue and compassion rather than a catch and kill. The film is based on the real-life experiences of a nurse and mountain guide named Pam Bales. Experienced hiker and search and rescue volunteer Pam (Naomi Watts) is near the peak of Mount Washington when a blizzard blows in (if you’re an experienced hiker and the terrain looks all wrong, that’s because it was really filmed at Kamnik and the Velika Planina trail in Slovenia).
But as she turns around and starts down, she comes across a stranded man. “John” (Billy Howle) is barely conscious, injured, unprepared for the terrain, and showing signs of disorientation but Pam manages to convince him she can help. Together, the two tackle a series of deadly obstacles on the way down, including freezing snow, 140 kph winds, slippery footing, and a torrential river. They’re also racing the clock because if nightfall traps them on the mountain, it’s certain death. This winter is the perfect time to catch Infinite Storm, but make sure your viewing space is well equipped with hot drinks and blankets.
Surfer Blake Lively in a bikini vs killer shark! Perhaps your palms are already sweaty but if they’re not, hang ten, because this 87-minute pure action thriller will get you. Medical student Nancy (Blake Lively) has a gorgeous day surfing at her late mom’s favourite beach in Mexico, unaware that a whale carcass has lured a gigantic great white shark to the area. One encounter with the shark later, Nancy is stranded, bleeding on a small rocky outcrop and fighting for her life without her board to take her back to shore.
The deadly predator turns the shallow lagoon area into its personal buffet as it takes down anyone who gets in the water. Nancy has to figure out its patterns and plot a way to get past it to the shore, or find a way to outwit the shark and raise a possible rescue. Like Deep Blue Sea or the classic Jaws, The Shallows will convince you that sharks have an agenda. And primal fear will soon have your critical thinking clocking out. If you were ever convinced as a kid that a shark would attack you in a swimming pool, get ready to shriek at your screen.
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