Running time: 86 minutes, Rating: PG-13 for terror/violence and some language. Directed by: Carlos Brooks, Written by: Christine Coyle Johnson, Julie Prendiville Roux.
Starring: Briana Evigan, Garret Dillahunt, Charlie Tahan, Meat Loaf, Preston Bailey
It is a dark and stormy night. Outside, the hurricane winds beat against the boarded windows and doors. Inside, the house is empty, save for the teenage girl, her near-mute and erratic brother, and the half-starved Bengal tiger hunting them.
There it is, then; the plot of Carlos Brooks’ hoary new thriller, Burning Bright, the tale of a hot girl and an autistic kid fighting for their lives against a big, muscular cat with a hankering for human flesh. To my surprise, it’s one of the most effective and unnerving thrillers of the year.
Visually referencing Bulwer Lytton’s infamous first line and borrowing its title from William Blake’s ode ‘Tyger, Tyger,’ Burning Bright overcomes its hysterically mounted premise and indie roots to deliver a home invasion film that will have the hairs standing up on the back of your neck. Briana Evigan stars as Kim, a young woman struggling to care for her impaired brother Tom after her mother’s tragic suicide. When her creepy stepfather, Johnny (Garret Dillahunt), withdraws all the money from Kim’s account to buy a cast-off tiger for his Safari attraction, she confronts him. A few hours later, Kim and her brother wake-up in the house alone, and the tiger, Lucifer, is prowling around freely in the foyer. Johnny is nowhere to be seen and outside there’s a hurricane raging; when the siblings try to escape, they realize all the doors and windows have been boarded up against the storm.
Only a film obstinately committed to realism could wring any suspense from that scenario, and for the most part, Brooks and his team succeed. Opening with the swirling cacophony of the hurricane, Burning Bright sets the tone immediately, defining its melodramatic imagery as concrete right from the get-go. A few minutes later we meet the tiger, at a dusty roadside rendezvous, hours before the storm hits. Johnny is buying the beast from a sly old barker, played by Meat Loaf. It’s the only scene that the rocker-turned-actor has, but in this film it’s important. We don’t see Lucifer at first, listening as the Loaf recount a tale of why the animal has been dispelled from the circus. In a PG-13 film with few expendable characters, we need to fear the tiger, and he frontloads the restwith plenty of menace and foreshadowing. It’s not quite Quint’s monologue from Jaws, but it does the job just fine.
The rest of the suspense comes from the portrayal of the characters and the staging and pacing of the central cat-and-mouse game through the house. Briana Evigan hasn’t had a distinguished career so far, showing up mostly in low rent horror duds like Sorority Row and S. Darko, but in Burning Bright she carries the movie and proves she could easily have a future playing the beautiful, tough woman-of-action. She makes Kim a sympathetic and smart hero, and one not entirely selfless. There’s not much dialogue, but like Weaver in the first two Alien films, she does a lot through her body language and in physically manifesting fear and primal defensiveness. Evigan isn’t a scream queen—one shriek or wail would bring Lucifer down on her with a vengeance—but she convinces us that not only is she really living through this situation, she might be capable of surviving it as well.
Charlie Tahan as Tom (looking a bit like a child version of Steve Zahn) gives an almost wordless performance, but he takes the absurdity of an autistic kid wandering through a house with a tiger and makes it rather compelling. He and Evigan have a good, plausible chemistry together and it elevates the movie considerably. Dillahunt’s Johnny is the token villain of the piece, and he is written in a peculiar way, somewhere between evil fairy tale step parent and hapless backwater lout. Dillahunt never plays him completely one way or the other, and he transitions to each at startling moments. I found myself surprisingly curious about how he was going to finish that last sentence.
Finally, there’s the tiger himself and the way the filmmakers deal with his stalking of Kim and Tom. This is the meat of the movie, and what solidifies it as a first-rate thriller. The movie is slight and there’s not much else, but the sparsest of circuses can still shine if it’s got a killer main attraction. Burning Bright does, and the master stroke that saves it is the use of real tigers for almost all of the scenes. There’s precious little cgi, or even puppetry/animatronics. Yes, some of the shots have the tiger awkwardly shoehorned in, but each time you are looking at a real animal and you know it. Even the strange collage work has a certain kind of old-school beauty to it. Instead of the abstract terror of a theoretical tiger, we have the living, breathing thing padding up the hallway as Evigan stands cowering in her nightshirt, weapon in hand.
The cinematography and direction are excellent, and Brooks deserves top credit for the way in which he has designed the film; he demonstrates a master’s hand in framing the fearful symmetry of his carnivorous menace. Whether we are watching Lucifer’s shining eyes regarding a trembling, sweating Evigan jammed in a ventilation duct, or observing the animal climb slowly across the dining room table behind Tahan, there’s an unsettling normalcy to the images. Looking at these compositions reminds me of the children’s book artist Chris Van Allsburg, who has a habit of rendering life-like scenes of the mundane with one fantastical element disrupting the whole. In fact, Burning Bright better captures the odd adventure of his book Jumanji than its own 95 adaptation did. Brooks never dawdles over details, but fills in the landscape as we go. By the end, I felt like I knew the layout and geography of this house perfectly, and as a result I was right there with Evigan, knowing what the options were, expressing panic at blocked exits, formulating my next move. Few films ever make us feel intuitively the spaces they occupy.
It would be easy to gush over Burning Bright, as it comes out of nowhere and does so very much with so little. However, that would do the film a disservice, hyping it as the next great horror movie, because it isn’t, nor does it aspire to be. What it does is the tricky job of taking a plot that’s the kind of gothic trinket that Saki, Edgar Burroughs or Stephen King would try their hand at, and brings it growling and panting into the real world. Brooks raises the hysteria to a level where rational thought itself seems like the most insane course of action. At that point, all that matters is getting out of the house and away from that damn tiger.
Well done, guys. Well done.