“Tyger Tyger burning bright…”
The 1794 poem by English wordsmith William Blake provides the title and much of the inspiration in this modern thriller/man vs. nature film by director Carlos Brooks. It’s only the director’s second feature film. There is very little experience among the many writers of the story and screenplay. Excuse my jaded reviewer skepticism, but this was not a film I was particularly looking forward to seeing. I expected this to be on par with the beast-of-the week scenario that those made for television SyFy films have been putting out for years. While I don’t think I’ve seen a tiger in a house film in that muddled muck of mediocrity, I suspected I wasn’t about to see anything new with Burning Bright. Fortunately, while my expectations might have been at rock bottom, my mind is always open to being surprised. It rarely happens these days. But rarely is not never. And while Burning Bright is no Jaws, it is a rather effective thriller with some genuine moments that will not fail to entertain you. You might even catch a fright or two.
Kelly (Evigan) is about to go off to college to claim a prestigious scholarship. It’s really the only good thing she has going in her life right now. She has been caring for her 12- year-old autistic brother since their mother recently took her own life. Tom (Tahan) is a handful. He has a ton of fears and quirks. His lunch has to be just right or he’ll go off in a terrible tantrum. It doesn’t help that their stepfather Johnny (Dillahunt) is a complete loser. Afraid to leave Tom in his care, she tries to arrange for him to attend a special school while she is away at college. But it turns out that both Tom’s care and college, for that matter, are now in jeopardy. Johnny has emptied her bank account to buy a tiger that was too mean for the circus, in order to start a safari attraction. It appears Mom never left a will, at least not one that wasn’t on a post-it. To make matters worse, there is a major hurricane bearing down on their town.
It turns out that Johnny has his own solution to the Kelly and Tom problem. With the two inside the house, Johnny boards up the windows and doors tightly. It would appear he’s prepping the house for the killer storm. But Kelly and Tom aren’t the only ones locked in. He’s released the tiger into the house. The beast hasn’t been fed in two weeks, and Johnny’s hoping he takes advantage of the Kelly and Tom smorgasbord while he goes to a bar in a safe zone for a few drinks. Meanwhile Kelly must avoid the stalking tiger with no way out and no way to call for help.
You would think that staying away from a tiger in a house would be pretty easy. Just go into a room with enough supplies to ride it out and lock the door behind you. Okay, maybe you wouldn’t think that. But, I did. Who would have thought that those cats were so strong? They just don’t make doors the way they used to. Tension really does mount when you realize there really is no safe place in the house where the tiger can’t get you. I have to admit that the film does a wonderful job of building tension. The autistic kid adds that wild-card element, but honestly it was a device I don’t even think the film needed. The credit here has to go to the folks who did the editing on this film. We know that Evigan was never likely in any close proximity to the real tigers that were used on the film. Still, the cuts are so effective that you’ll swear that you saw them together. While there was no CG used for the tiger itself, there was plenty of green screen and CG effects for other purposes. Most of it was quite effective throughout the film. A glaring exception was one scene where the tiger breaks through a glass pane door. It looks really, really bad. It’s the only place where the effects looked blatant and obvious. Credit director Brooks for creating a truly frightening atmosphere here without always going for the obvious. The film is contained in the boarded-up house, but it never feels claustrophobic. For a young and inexperienced filmmaker, Brooks has caught a little lightning in a bottle, if not a tiger by the tail. This is a tiger that will catch you by its tale.
Briana Evigan is the daughter of Greg Evigan. Yes, the My Two Dads and BJ from BJ And The Bear fame. She’s made a little bit of a name for herself, often in small-budget horror films. She was one of the stars in the horrible Sorority Row remake. I have to say I hadn’t been all that impressed from what I’ve seen to date. Burning Bright might very well have changed my opinion of the young actress. She manages to carry a ton of emotion in this film, and most of it pretty much on her own. She had to react to nothing at all and make it feel like she was in peril from this ferocious tiger. I have to say that she had me convinced every step of the way. From what I had seen before I would never have believed she could carry a film, let alone with such intensity. I stand corrected.
The rest of the cast is fine. There’s a rather sweet cameo by Meatloaf as the guy who sells the tiger as the film opens. Garret Dillahunt was recently the big bad Terminator on The Sarah Connor Chronicles and appears to have the deadpan thing going quite well. I would have liked to have seen a bit more emotion out of him here. Still, he serves the purpose of the real bad guy. There were three tigers playing the beast in the film. They looked close enough alike that it would be hard to spot the changes. It appears that most of the close-ups were of the same tiger. The dude was supposed to look hungry. He convinced me.
Burning Bright is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. For a standard definition DVD, this film actually looks pretty good. The colors are quite realistic. There are close-ups of the tiger that are quite stark and detailed. The cats actually look too pretty at times. There is a life in the animal’s eyes that the transfer actually manages to capture quite impressively a few times. Black levels are fair. There is a bit of compression artifact. I’d love to see that cat in high definition.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is just as impressive. The surrounds are pretty aggressive from the first frames. There is a storm over the opening credits that gives a very realistic atmosphere. The tiger snarls are also very good. The film doesn’t go for a lot of the loud growls you would expect. Instead, the film is a lot creepier with these somewhat subtle snarls and groans the cat makes. It’s all presented quite well. Dialog isn’t a huge part of this sometimes quiet film. The score never intrudes. A lot of thought went into the sound production here, and it shows.
There is an Audio Commentary where the Masciantonio is joined by producer Charles Smith. They share quite a bit of banter and provide quite a bit of insight into the movie. We also learn that Masciantonio had a tumor on his tongue while they were talking. I hope he has good coverage, because we also learn he suffered from kidney stones during the shoot.
Special Introduction By Briana Evigan: (1:09) The actress reads the Blake poem off camera.
Forces Of Nature: (10:25) This making-of feature focuses on the tigers, as it should. Brooks makes it sound like tiger parks and hurricanes are routine here in Florida. Cast and crew offer a few surface insights. You’ll also meet the three tigers used in the shoot.
There aren’t a ton of truly original ideas being put on film these days. On the surface there isn’t a terrible lot of originality in Burning Bright. We’ve seen a ton of man vs. beast films before. The autistic or in some ways handicapped kid is no new turn of events. But this turned out to feel like a really original film. Outside of a bit of a pat and predictable ending, it seems like this movie never goes exactly where you expect it to go. The pace is actually quite tight. The 85 minutes zips by. The beginning is perfectly timed. It’s long enough to set up the situation and introduce you to the characters. It never ventures into that “let’s get to the good part already” territory. Brooks appears to have great instincts, and I look forward to his next film. Like the tiger in the film, I like it when filmmakers are hungry. They go that extra mile. Maybe he was just lucky, but my experience is that “a man makes his own luck”.