Beelzebub? Belial? Chris Brown?
The Black Demon (2023): 5 out of 10: Paul Sturges (Josh Lucas), an inspector for Nixon Oil, sets out to a quaint Mexican town in Baja California with his family to inspect the offshore oil rig, El Diamante (The Diamond). The vacation mood quickly diminishes as they find the town devastated and the locals hostile, particularly towards Paul, who represents the company that neglected the burgeoning catastrophe unfolding from the oil rig.
Despite the ominous welcome, Paul proceeds to the rig to evaluate its condition, leaving his family in the eerie town. The rig is a stark epitome of corporate negligence with an encompassing oil spill, and is manned only by two desperate workers, Chato (Julio Cesar Cedillo) and Junior (Jorge A. Jimenez), alongside their loyal chihuahua.
Threatened by rape and violence by the local Mexicans, his family flees after him, only to be intercepted by the 70-ton megalodon shark, known in local lore as the Black Demon (El Demonio Negro). As they grasp the grim reality surrounding them, Chato unveils the sinister truth: Nixon Oil was well aware of the havoc wreaked by the oil spill and deliberately overlooked the safety reports, all of which were accredited to Paul. The revelation shakes the Sturges family, confronting Paul with the dark reflections of his acquiescence to corporate malfeasance.
A fresh torrent of danger emerges as the two remaining oil rig workers, Chato and Junior, dive underwater to restore power to the rig. Their folklore ties the megalodon to Tlaloc, the god of rain, implying a divine retribution for human greed. Amidst the peril, Paul uncovers a demolition bomb attached to the rig by Nixon Oil, a sinister plot to eliminate him as a loose end, now that the fallacies of the rig were poised to become public.
The Good: The Black Demon has some really good parts. On the acting side Fernanda Urrejola (Cry Macho) is excellent as wife of Nixon Oil executive Josh Lucas. She switches from happy wife on a second honeymoon to hard ass native senorita who will take your eye out with a broken beer bottle on a dime. And she does so believably. The Black Demon’s script gives Fernanda some heavy lifting and she handles it extremely well.
The other outstanding acting job is from Julio Cesar Cedillo as one of the two oil workers left on the otherwise abandoned rig. Actually both workers do an outstanding job but his partner Jorge A. Jimenez gets significantly less screen time as a result of what I think we will call plot reasons. In fact Julio is so reasonable and such a presence in the movie I half expected a reveal that he was some sort of benevolent spirit. Alas no.
The opening of The Black Demon is pretty standard fare for an action horror thriller creature feature. With two divers setting a bomb on what we learn later is an oil rig (It’s night and their location is not clear) only to be eaten by a mysterious creature that we late find out is a megalodon that is the spirit expression of the native Aztec god of rain Tlāloc. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom in particular had a very similar opener that worked well.
What sets this one apart however is that the shark attack is not really shown on screen. Instead we get a psychedelic journey with tons of CGI fish out of a Disney movie. (I compare it to Finding Nemo in a picture quote below). The scene really creates a sense of mystery and unease that sets up the film perfectly. Making everything a bit off center.
And this off centerless continues as oil oil guy Josh Lucas, his wife Fernanda Urrejola, and their two young children (Venus Ariel, Carlos Solórzano) enter what could only be described as a latin flavored Innsmouth. In fact fans of the movie Dagon will quickly realise that this is more than a town that hit hard times.
Through a series of events that might be chalked up to horror movie protagonist syndrome. Paul heads out to the rig leaving his wife and children in a small cafe surrounded by hostile possessed locals. One attempted rape and a broken beer bottle later and wife and children are fleeing towards the dock in a desperate attempt to reach the safety of the oil rig. The scene is so well built up and with such natural tension that it is truly frightening in a way only the best thrillers can accomplish.
The Bad: Our lead is Josh Lucas and honestly he is all over the place in this movie. I am not sure how much of this is the actor’s fault. For one thing the script has him make some really odd choices early on. Forget leaving my family alone in such a town. I wouldn’t park my car there. He should have been more Clark Griswold “okay kids lock em” in the first minute not hey let us let these weird locals know we work for the oil company and have money.
Then his “ride” to the oil rig only takes him like twelve feet before announcing he will not go any further because ghosts or something. (Geographically the oil rig is confusing. At one point in the movie it is easily visible from shore but once it is time to go out to it it seems well beyond the horizon.)
Then there is the way Josh acts on the rig. I don’t know if this is the actor? I get a feeling that they moved things around in the script a bit and so there are scenes where he seems hostile to everyone and then scenes where his buddy buddy with everyone and the next thing he’s hostile to everyone again. I think that’s just them moving the scenes around rather than the actor or even the script being schizophrenic. He might have been done dirty in the editing bay.
Bottom line is Josh Lucas is a unlikable protagonist that the movie tries to force a heroes ending unto that is truly undeserved.
The Black Demon is a surprisingly talky film. This by itself is hardly a deal breaker. Alas so much of the talk is in one ear out the other nonsense. The background on the god Tlaloc and its manifestation as a megalodon are particularly unclear. Often the exposition dump is given in fits and starts by the youngest kid. The only thing worse than an exposition dump in the middle of the movie is an exposition dump that leaves you less clear on what is going on.
Actually there is one thing worse than an exposition dump in the middle of the movie. A preachy exposition film in the middle of the movie. There is this weird Greenpeace video in the middle of The Black Demon like something one would have seen in Prophecy or On Deadly Ground.
The Ugly: Okay fine The Black Demon has problems but even a bad shark attack movie is still a shark attack move? Right? Right?
James Bond films such as Thunderball, Licence to Kill or The Spy Who Loved Me are not primarily shark attack films. Yet surprisingly they have better and some might argue more shark attack scenes than The Black Demon.
Zombi 2 has one of the best shark attack scenes ever filmed and even it is not a shark attack movie. (Spoiler alert. It’s a zombie movie. I know.) Again nothing in the Black Demon comes close.
Even The Meg which features a megalodon has better shark attack sequences. (What is that? Really?) Okay apparently The Meg is a shark attack film… barely. You know what is not a shark attack film? Yup.
And yet the marketing emphases the shark attack nature of The Black Demon so strongly one cannot help but be disappointed at the outcome. Making the shark a megalodon in particular seems a bit desperate.
In Conclusion: A shark attack film without actual shark attacks, a preachy message shoehorned with all the subtly of a no smoking PSA and a main character that is unlikable. I can understand why people hated this movie. Still I see the potential and enjoyed certain scenes and performances.
The Black Demon had the potential of a Lovecraftian classic with just a little more time in the oven and a lighter touch.