A Bengal tiger, having been rejected by a circus, is offloaded for a small fortune by animal handler, Howie (Meat Loaf), to shifty Johnny Gavineau (Garret Dillahunt) who wants a star attraction for a planned safari park that he intends to build on the Montgomery County estate of his recently deceased wife who, apparently, committed suicide by drug overdose. Johnny wants something fierce and “scary”. “Mr. Gavineau”, replies Howie, “the only reason we are talking, is because last month this cat attacked a circus horse while three hundred of your tourists ran screaming for their lives… Went sixteen feet over a cage, past eleven other horses, just to get to this one. Silver Dollar was her name. He broke her spine so that she couldn’t move and then… he ate her alive. You ever heard a horse scream, Mr. Gavineau? You wanna know why he went after that one? Because… she was the pretty one… This cat is not scary. He’s evil”.
Meanwhile, Gulf Coast residents are advised to board up all windows and doors as a category 3 hurricane is making its way towards them. “Get ready for a wild ride”, the radio announces. Already in a spin is Johnny’s estranged stepdaughter, Kelly Taylor (Briana Evigan), who has been appointed custodian of younger sibling Tom (Charlie Tahan) following her mother’s recent death. Tom suffers from autism and is about to be entrusted into the private care of a specialist hospital whilst his sister resumes her studies, but plans are put on hold when the hospital informs Kelly that her bank have withheld payment of the funds originally set aside for the siblings by their late mother. Having been told that her account has been emptied by her stepfather for the funding of his safari park, an angry Kelly sets off with Tom to her former home to confront him. Events continue to conspire against her and Tom when, alone, and locked in the boarded up house at night, they discover they have a hungry big cat for company.
BURNING BRIGHT (the title is taken from the main refrain of the William Blake poem entitled “The Tiger”), comes as a welcome dose of fresh air to a film genre in dire need of revitalization. Previous entries in the “animal on the loose” category have tended to either exaggerate their subject’s size (ALLIGATOR; FOOD OF THE GODS; GRIZZLY; JAWS; KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS; KING KONG; ROGUE), behavioural patterns (BEN; THE BIRDS: FROGS; THE PACK; WILLARD; THE WOLFEN), have them genetically altered (PIRANHA; BLACK SHEEP) or simply overwhelm us with an invasion of the species (SLUGS; SQUIRM; THE SWARM) and as a result these unlikely scenarios have, with rare exception, caused audiences to laugh rather than thrill to the monstrous events that unfold before them.
The decision to make the animal authentic by writers David Higgins, Christine Coyle Johnson and Julie Prendiville Roux is the masterstroke here, for there is no cause for the suspension of viewer belief during the confrontations between protagonists and beast. As a result, the terrors are fully realised and prove instrumental in amplifying the suspense of the situation. Additional realism is provided by the fact that the film utilizes very little CGI, instead opting for the filming of a real tiger on a locked set (the credits reveal that three were used for various scenes). In fact, the only computer generated images involve additional salivation of the tiger’s jaws.
All important, too, is the realism afforded to the reactionary emotions of the characters; Kelly displays both automatic anger and heart-felt sympathy for young Tom and his affliction; mentally jostling with the unenviable task of his immediate welfare with the need to improve her education in order to avoid an impoverished future together. The film slyly draws parallels with the behaviour and needs of Tom and the tiger; both are outsiders, exhibiting similar responses to those around them; neither likes to be touched, both require regularised feeding controls in order to keep their emotions stable; both are prone to violent outbursts/attacks if their “normal” routines are interfered with; and they are inevitably destined for institutionalisation for some or all of their lives. This spiritual bonding of boy and beast is embellished by Tom shortly after he has encountered the caged animal for he begins to impersonate its growls, and prowls his new home: a boarded up “cage” from which there would appear to be no escape.
Equally impressive is the way director Carlos Brooks plays with traditional horror tropes. Like the characters in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Kelly and Tom find themselves trapped in a remote rural house in fear of a flesh-eating foe, but unlike Romero’s survivors who need to stay put as the horror lurks outside, Brooks’ protagonists wish to escape the building, for their monster lurks within. Conventional ‘final girl versus killer’ clichés are transgressed; we have Kelly hide in wardrobes, under the bed, in the laundry chute, freezer, and chased around the kitchen whilst she is armed with a knife, but the predicament and outcome of each situation does not accord to previous horror film conventions.
The acting is uniformly fine throughout, with Briana Evigan especially convincing with her portrayal of a young woman desperately trying to protect herself and her brother, against the odds, in a way that is both smart and resourceful.
Uncharitable members of the audience might be put off by the film’s substitution of suspense in place of gore, but intelligent viewers will no doubt delight in watching a cerebral thriller that defies expectations. Final kudos must go to the subtle ironies of the closing scene that pays extra dividends for the observant. BURNING BRIGHT is a film worth catching, and it’s exciting to know that the horror genre can still come up with an original take on a dated theme.
Carl T. Ford
Directed by Carlos Brook
English language with optional English subtitles/ USA / 2009 / 80 Mins approx / Colour / Rated 15
Region 2 / PAL
A Momentum Pictures DVD release
Region 2 DVD (UK)
Release date 6th September, 2010