Scary Movies (and Super Creeps) — Burning Bright

Every week Robert Saucedo shines a spotlight on a horror movie worth checking out. Today: It’s Grrrrreat!

They’ve been dismissed as jokes for years. Made into breakfast cereal mascots, fashion inspiration for your overweight aunt, and sight gags in raunchy Las Vegas comedies; tigers have been the laughing stock at the Association of Giant Carnivorous Mammals Convention for some time now.

Burning Bright is a horror film that sets out to make tigers scary again. And guess what? It succeeds. It turned me into a ‘fraidy cat when it comes to giant felines with stripes. I can’t even look at my housecat without wetting myself a little.

Burning Bright is a 2010 film directed by Carlos Brooks from a script by Christine Coyle Johnson and Julie Prendiville Roux. David Higgins contributed to the story.

Briana Evigan plays Kelly, a young woman looking to enroll in college. Unfortunately, her mother’s suicide has left her the sole responsible caretaker for her young autistic brother. Kelly’s attempts to enroll her brother into a special school are dashed when she discovers her good-for-nothing stepfather has used all the money to buy a tiger for the new safari ranch he is building in the backyard.

Now, Kelly must return home with her brother and hunker down for safety as a hurricane prepares to blow through town. Unfortunately, her stepfather has more faults than simply being bad with money. Looking to cash in on the sizable life insurance policies he bought for his step-children, he sets the tiger loose in their house and heads to the nearest bar

The windows and doors boarded up to prepare for the storm, Kelly and her brother are trapped in the house with a tiger that hasn’t been fed for two weeks. Meow?

What may seem like a cheesy SyFy original movie is actually a taut thriller with some seriously sweet scares. I am astonished with myself over how much I enjoyed Burning Bright — but then again, I’ve always had a fondness for killer critter films.

With surprisingly effective special effects and camera tricks, the filmmakers never once drop the illusion that Kelly and her brother are trapped in the house with the tiger. The jungle cat used to film the movie may have been a real sweetie pie but the beast it portrays in the film — nicknamed Lucifer by his owner — is one scary mofo.

More so, the cat has character. Like the best movie monster, Lucifer is given the proper balance of attitude and menace as he stalks through the house after his prey. From using his gigantic tongue to slowly lap up the sweat that falls from a frightened Kelly as she hides in a laundry shoot to the way he seemingly plays with his two victims like your housecat might play with a bug, Lucifer is one scary pussy.

As its frightened victim, Briana Evigan does an admirable job channeling equal parts Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver — allowing herself some scenes in which she is a soaking mess of tears and fears and other scenes in which she takes charge and impresses the audience with her ability to kick some striped ass.

Young actor Charlie Tahan plays Kelly’s autistic brother. At both her obligation and her biggest weakness, the boy is prone to tantrums, wandering away and other assorted behaviors that would make him obvious tiger chow.

By making the boy autistic, the film seems a bit exploitative. At the same time, having to watch out for her young brother’s behavior — behavior that is extremely likely to get them noticed by the tiger and subsequently eaten — gives the film an added bit of tension. Making the boy autistic is a risky choice — one that I feel ultimately pays off and more than makes up for any insensitivity to the real illness that may be present.

Garret Dillahunt plays Johnny Gavineau, Kelly’s bastard of a stepfather. While I never quite buy his motivation — he doesn’t show audiences he’s evil enough to commit such a horrible act as he does — Dillahunt does a fine job with the role he’s given. There’s a great scene at the beginning of the film where Johnny buys the tiger from an ornery circus performer (played by Meat Loaf) that really sets the tone for the rest of the film. Full of overblown tension and exaggerated dread, the scene sets up the fact that Lucifer the tiger is one evil kitty — a killer who enjoys the hunt.

The real star of the movie is the tiger. Using a combination of real animals, animatronic puppets and CGI, the filmmakers were able to believable bring the movie’s monster to life. Lucifer is more believable a threat than most horror movie monsters you will see this year.

In case you didn’t recognize the film title’s reference to the William Blake poem, Burning Bright wears its self-seriousness on its sleeve — the film’s DVD opens with a reading of the poem itself. Thankfully, it is this same tone that helps the film from sinking into the realm of schlock and silliness that most killer animal movies dwell.

Burning Bright
takes itself very serious. Eventually audiences can’t help but do the same.
The film gets its cues from Jaws in that it features a slow burn on the path towards the full reveal of the film’s central monster. While Burning Bright doesn’t quite offer the same emotional connection with its characters as Steven Spielberg’s classic did, Burning Bright does successfully mimic the man versus animal terror that Spielberg mined so well.

Low on gore and high on concept, Burning Bright is a horror movie more than worth checking out. It features a great story, a ferocious monster and a beautiful girl who has to battle both inner and physical demons. What more can you ask for in a scary movie?

Robert Saucedo no longer trusts his house cat. Looks like somebody’s going on a trip to a farm upstate. Follow Robert on Twitter @robsaucedo2500.

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