Have you ever heard the one about snakes coming up through the plumbing? How about the giant alligator that lives in the sewer? Could you imagine being in a pool with a crocodile? What if the pool was massive, say, Olympic-sized, but the crocodile was massive too – an escaped fugitive, irritable and pissed off – what would you do? And what if the water in the pool were slowly emptying out and the two of you were stuck down there together, like some perverse urban legend?
If this sounds like a terrifying, claustrophobic, but ultimately fun premise, then the 2018 Thai escape room horror The Pool may be the perfect film for you, at least on the surface. The Pool takes the common enough occurrence of finding a reptile in your swimming pool and raises the stakes by about a million. Its original title translates roughly into Hell at 6 Metres, which is equivalent to about 20 feet. That’s how deep the pool in question is, only it’s empty, bone dry after a couple of scenes, and our protagonist has stupidly gotten himself stuck right at the bottom of it with a large predator. But why exactly does that all sound so unnerving?
In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva defines the abject as that which ‘disturbs identity,’ and ‘does not respect borders, [or] rules.’ It is ‘the in-between, the ambiguous.’ In life, the abject may take on simpler forms: the desperate immigrant, the dark-skinned youth, the transitioning female. These are not abject in and of themselves, but rather are made so by our choices – to shun them, shut them out or lock them in.
Whatever the dominant culture deems a threat to its fragile sense of national identity, that is in danger of becoming abject, the terrifying object of our misplaced scorn. While it may be that we often feel safer standing on either side of a long line drawn in the sand, we humans are also fascinated by and inexplicably drawn toward its fuzzy edges, where the absolute limit of one threshold blurs over and one boundary bleeds easily into the next. This is the true power of horror.
The Pool’s protagonist, Day (Theeradej Wongpuapan), is the handsome young art director for a commercial project being shot underwater at the beginning of the film. The shoot wraps and Day falls asleep aboard a raft as the decommissioned pool slowly empties out. He wakes up alone, finding the pool impossible to escape. Before long, Day has tragically knocked his phone into the water, injured his hand, nearly drowned, and missed an opportunity to alert a passing pizza boy to his desperate situation.
A short time later, Day’s startled girlfriend, Koi (Ratnamon Ratchiratham), hits her head on the diving board and she too falls in, unconscious. They are joined, however improbably, by a crocodile, escaped from a local zoo, who likewise stumbles into the shallow pool. Quite literally out of their depth, the film decides to show the couple a little kindness, as they are somehow able to pass their first night undisturbed, the crocodile remaining calmly hidden beneath the dark, thinning waters. As the sun rises on a completely empty pool, Koi remains out cold, but Day soon discovers the positive pregnancy test peeking out from her jean shorts, and the air at six metres becomes suddenly charged with a new kind of tension.
A flashback reveals that Day has been struggling with complex feelings of inadequacy throughout his relationship with Koi. He’s jealous of the “rich men” who once chased after her, and admits to a colleague that if she were to become pregnant, he’d tell her to have an abortion. The colleague takes the opportunity to remind Day that not only is abortion technically illegal, but it’s also a sin… As he ponders this troubling turn of events, the crocodile lies in wait, its duplicitous nature springing to life the moment Day disappears beneath the pool to investigate the open drain.
In perhaps no other subgenre is the abject horror of ambiguity most effectively deployed than in the aquatic creature feature. This broad category, which boasts as its stars the murderous sharks, alligators, and crocodiles, also includes a supporting cast of snakes, piranha, and octopi. But one could argue that it is not these animals’ razor-sharp teeth, their constricting strength, or lashing appendages, which we find so terrifying, but their rebellious, iconoclastic attitudes toward the supposed natural order. These aquatic animals in particular not only appear unfamiliar, even extraterrestrial, to our proud mammalian eyes, but they seem to operate under a whole different set of rules. Age and breeding habits can be a great mystery in their world, not to mention sexual difference, which is part of a far more mutable – and frankly exciting – spectrum than it is amongst humans.
To a casual reptilian observer, a large pool of alligators might be thought to contain only females, given all of their slit-like openings – the cloaca (Latin for ‘drain’ or ‘sewer’) – but the surprising truth is that the erect penises of the males can actually be hidden away within this orifice, protected one might say, in a leather coin purse of his own making. As we learned from Jurassic Park, control over the natural world is often an illusion, and if there’s anything more disconcerting to a modern audience than a female population it cannot control, it’s the shocking realisation that eventually, “life finds a way.” It is this chameleon-like ability to move amongst us, unknowably and largely unseen, this brazen challenge to power, which unsettles us so, and often casts these extraordinary creatures as the boundary-defying villains in our provincial, even bourgeoise tales of terror. One can almost feel that threshold buzzing to life again, shimmering and blurring as it bleeds profusely.
Back in The Pool, the crocodile advances on a still-unconscious Koi, wearing a smirk-like snarl on its computer-generated face, recalling the poorly restrained glee of a frat boy as he looms over his date. The delicate robe, draped over Koi’s sleeping body takes on the appearance of a dress, seductive and diaphanous. The crocodile slides its long, sinewy body effortlessly through the opening, penetrating the gap between her legs and nearly vanishing, engulfed by her nether regions in a strange, rape-like act. Koi’s head is thrown back in a position of calm, swoon-like repose, while her exposed legs are left suggestively akimbo, alluding to a state of post-coital recovery to come.
Day arrives just in time to snatch the crocodile by the tail and somehow hurl it out of the away before its jaws could snap shut on the unsuspecting Koi and her unborn child, its true target. The scene plays out as a humorous allusion to the dubiously contraceptive ‘pull-out’ method, a process which Day may now be wishing he had employed more strategically in the past.
Marine monsters have, in recent years, been finding their way from the swamps and the streams, right into our living rooms. Recognising the power of their box office draw, purveyors of cheap aquatic horror fare have sought new ways to imbue their fanciful animal monsters with increasingly exaggerated amphibious qualities, bringing us: sharks walking on land, flying through the air, attacking the slopes at a ski resort, even reaching the aisles of a flooded shopping centre. But as the shark film market dries up, alligators and crocodiles, inherent trespassers of that aquatic-terrestrial divide, may be uniquely suited to take up the mantle of realistic abject animal horror. The home-invasion-style drama of Alexandre Aja’s gator-infested Crawl is a perfect case in point.
With Koi finally coming to, Day embraces her warmly, confessing the true nature of his fears by declaring, “I thought he’d take the baby out of you.” A woozy Koi asks who he means but receives no answer. She repeats herself only to find Day stammering, his eyes glued to the floor, his mind racked with guilt and memories of the cartoonish abortion they’d just avoided. There is an implicit idea here of the crocodile as luxury object, a walking status symbol, even physical manifestation of Day’s sexual and financial insecurities. The crocodile is thus a doubly frustrating invocation of Koi’s former lovers and the possibility of their return as surrogate fathers, should Day still find himself unfit for the task.
Up to this point, the ambiguous sexual differentiation of the crocodile has served a specific purpose, common to films like Jaws and Friday the 13th alike: luring in the casual, adolescent male viewer (read: target audience) with a violent, penetrative sexual fantasy before spending the rest of the film examining the toxic, fragile nature of that same fantasy. While The Pool’s message is ultimately a conservative, patriarchal one, it still manages to play nicely enough within genre conventions to give audiences several captivating scenes of the castration-anxiety-laden gore, which makes up much of contemporary horror cinema.
Day’s admission that he feared the croc would take his baby (rather than simply killing it) is telling, implying that his own anxieties are broad enough to include the fear of abandonment and replacement, a kind of identity theft. It is clear that the reptile’s presence conjures up a constellation of masculine insecurities for Day, who can’t decide if the threat to his unborn child is in fact the presumed alpha male reptile in the pool, or his own selfishness. On the morning of the third day, Day wakes up and urinates alone in the corner like a castigated schoolboy. In Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia describes male urination admiringly, as ‘a kind of accomplishment, an arc of transcendence […] a form of commentary.’ Dark, yellow and trickly, Day’s stream appears to be a sad commentary indeed. He then collapses to the floor, unconscious again as the result of an unsatisfied insulin dependency.
The relationship between teeth and castration, whether literal or symbolic, has its roots in the classical Medusan myth, a story which, like a tendriled lock of serpentine hair, artfully interweaves themes of narcissism, spectatorship, arousal, and monstrous femininity. More recently, many of these associations were explored within Freud’s case study of Little Hans, a boy who at an early age became convinced that ‘widdlers’ (his word for penises), belonged to horses, little children, and mothers alike.
Upon catching him masturbating, Hans’ mother threatened him with castration, sparking a belief later on that the paltry size of his newborn sister’s own widdler was evidence enough that his mother’s was sharp, serrating, and terrifyingly horse-like. As he grew, Little Hans’ confusion of anxieties and curiosities metastasised into a persistent desire to compare widdlers with his parents and a full blown terror of horse teeth.
Lost In a diabetic delirium, Day receives an annoyingly unsubtle vision of himself trapped under dark, troubled waters. Like an arctic diver caught beneath a wall of thick ice, Day pounds his fists against the glassy surface, clamouring for Koi the way a baby might protest inside the womb, demanding not to be aborted. Later that night, after Day makes another passing reference to their scaly interloper as a “he”, Koi corrects him, pointing to a freshly manicured nest full of unhatched crocodile eggs.
“I don’t hate you because you’re fat. You’re fat because I hate you.”
Thus goes a beloved line from the teen comedy Mean Girls, one that contains an absurd, yet deceptively sophisticated nugget of wisdom. What is initially perceived as the cause of the offence, is actually its symptom. Similarly, the crocodilian villain of The Pool is not necessarily female because she is a monster, but rather, it is precisely her femininity which is portrayed as monstrous. It is the animal reproductive world itself, which repulses Day and Koi the most. The crocodile, she is the epitome of ‘letting oneself go’, the prototypical archaic mother, a bloated, castrating figure for whom birth is an unclean, generative thing, her womb-like gullet, according to Barbara Creed, is an ‘abyss’, a ‘black hole which […evokes] the anxiety of fusion and dissolution’. Hers is a seductive, threatening death-pull, one aimed at the jealous annihilation of Koi and the incestuous, oral sadistic assimilation of Day.
The couple decides to hoodwink the crocodile, trapping her underground while they set about building a fire to boil her unhatched eggs, an interesting provocation given that crocodiles experience temperature-dependent sex determination, meaning that Day and Koi have just inadvertently performed a kind of castration by raising the temperature of the embryos enough to guarantee their mutation from male to female. It’s a tit-for-tat game now.
The resulting meal is surprisingly sanitised, the eggs looking no more fertilised than ordinary market eggs. Yet, given the popularity of fertilised duck embryos throughout South East Asia, it is curious how little Day and Koi appear to enjoy their sacrificial bounty. One is tempted to assume a shadow of murderous guilt hanging over the unhappy pair, but then we would be falling right into the film’s trap of correlating the strange, alt-abortive procedure with a morally corrupt act of homicide.
The only way out of such a philosophical thought-trap is to recall that the alternative to Pro-Life is indeed Pro-Choice, not Pro-Death. In this case, the decision to proceed with the unusual, postnatal abortion was not undertaken by the crocodile – our estranged, incarcerated other – it was made by her aggressors. One should not forget, as we continue to watch The Pool, that at no point following the reptile’s maternal reveal have the violent events of the plot unfolded as a consequence of her actions, they are entirely manmade. The crocodile is nothing less than a single mother, desperately fighting for her life and that of her unborn children, much like Koi imagines herself to be.
So, bite after unsatisfied bite, the couple slow-chews their grisly feast with the kind of plaintive indifference one might find at an anti-abortion rally, the participants seemingly unable to recognise the incongruity between their dogged crusade for foetal life, and their often complete disregard for those of the undocumented, industrialised, and imprisoned poor. Not all life matters the same, it seems, yet there’s that fuzzy threshold again, the line between ourselves and the abject growing ever thinner.
After a thorough chastising from Koi on the whole abortion front, and sensing their tenuous grasp on a continued preservation of comfortable boundaries, Day springs into action, believing that by dispatching the crocodile he will save his growing family and assuage his guilt, thereby destroying the possibility of Koi herself transforming into a dreaded, primal mother. Ultimately threatened by both females’ combined castrating potentialities, Day decides he must further separate the two in order to fully regain his phallic power.
So a new plan is put into effect. First, the crocodile is released, allowed to come back up through the drainpipe (read: birth canal) and survey the grim aftermath of their attack on her progeny. All gone, all eaten. She goes wild, lunging at Day as he and Koi slide underground, into the damp dark of the drainage system, the mythical abode of the urban reptile, purported sewer dweller. But this is no sewer, the architecture is clean, rounded, almost clinical. Koi could give birth here, he may be thinking.
But while underground, Day experiences an immediate loss of masculine strength brought on by a continued lack of medical treatment. The precariousness of his health is highlighted by the feverish, childlike way he clings to Koi’s nurturing bosom. After clumsily shattering what he believed was his last insulin needle, Day experiences a miraculous reversal of fortune, stumbling upon his long lost cigarette case, a veritable treasure trove of phallus-shaped smokes and syringes. His power thus restored, Day can’t get out of there soon enough, and he leaves Koi inside the vertically-oriented uterine tomb only to burst back through the sphincter-like passage of the drain cover in chase of his sidepiece.
It is curious to note here the lengths The Pool has gone to differentiate Koi from the character of the archaic, the unclean or monstrously feminine. Throughout the film she is so curiously coded as virginal, that the whole device of having her be pregnant seems almost implausible. One struggles to imagine these two ever having had sex. Yet here she is, safe and sequestered in this cool, amniotic environment that may as well be the saltwater birthing plunge at her high-end Lamaze class. You know this Karen can’t stand the sight of her own blood.
Up on the surface the light is blinding. The crocodile bides her time. Day spots some barbed wire blown over the side by the wind and decides to go for it. The scene unfolds like some kind of intrauterine disaster, the textured umbilical tether twisting around Day’s body, which bleeds stupidly to premature life. He flails and screams, tumbling through the air, landing hard on the blood-spattered floor of the pool-as-maternity ward.
He passes out again before the final showdown, perfectly living up to Paglia’s account of sex as the story of men who have ‘entered in triumph, only to withdraw in decrepitude.’ The scattered detritus along the floor lends the ensuing tet-a-tet a fitting, domestic quality. Day and crocodile wrestle, but he soon goes limp with dehydration and exhaustion. He even lets the croc take a bite out of his exposed torso, temporarily intoxicated by the prospect of death at the hands of this world-devouring mother, the leather-headed Jocasta who refuses to strangle herself. In order to live, he knows he must not only kill her, but the part of himself which lives inside of her as well––his guilt, his shame, neither of which should be her problem.
Day snaps a leg off the fallen couch and stabs the raging crocodile in the eye, another common trope of cinema: the obliteration of the female gaze, that which can scold, judge, and defy as easily as it can turn to stone (read: arouse). It is the Oedipal response he should have saved for himself.
So he shatters one eye, quieting at least part of that damning gaze forever. Then, he brandishes a long, steel pipe and thrusts the phallic stand-in right through her womb-like throat, face-fucking the liberated reptile femme to death. Like an insect depositing its stinger, the pipe is ripped right out of Day’s hands, becoming lodged in her gullet as the crocodile stumbles backwards in its death throes. She’s shut up for good now, he must think, having dealt the proud death blow, the money shot, the cure-all for his boyish insecurities.
But her final death seems to come as a more conscious, self-inflicted act, a denial of his power. Like a porpoise renouncing its voluntary system of breath, the crocodile flashes open her remaining eye, that once fiery yellow orb, with its gaze scalding like the rising sun, now growing slowly pale, setting on a long, fraught life. Her heavy, scaled eyelid lowers wearily, closing to this unkind world of Days forever.
With precious little time to waste, Day scales the body of his dead dog (no time to get into that now), and finally makes it out of the pool, poised to rescue the future mother of his child, only there’s a snag. He’s too late. Koi has drowned in the tunnel-shaft at the end of the drain pipe, along with their subaquatic child.
Unable to accept this fate, Day dives down into the well to retrieve her body. He performs an uncertain round of compressions against her smooth, lifeless features, which boast a pair of eyes so calm and pruned lips so lavender gentle that she almost appears stillborn, her beauty foetal and tragic. If you haven’t caught the symbolism, this is the sensationalised reality of family planning that the film has warned of all along. Koi has become a bitter object lesson for Day, the price to be paid for his foolish flirtations with abortion, the alleged brutal truth of reproductive rights. This is The Pool’s baby killer poster.
Then, against all odds, Koi takes her first, painful breaths as a member of the born again. Day, like Dr. Frankenstein before him, has overthrown the primacy of the female and successfully wrested life from the cold darkness of death, a triumph of male reproductive power. Untainted by the natural horrors of this symbolic birth, the impossibly virginal couple share one last timid, climactic embrace, an almost Biblical moment charged with clichéd innocence and optimism, a cinematic sentimentality as they kiss by the radiant light of the sun, baptised anew by the gossamer mist of a passing rain cloud, the offering of new life ensured by any means necessary.
In the end, the great paradox of cinematic horror, for those of us that love her, is that the power of abjection lies in the preservation of that critical difference, that unimpeachable divide between me and that which is not me. For most films, the experience becomes elliptical, ending where they began. All is set to rights by the third act, and the hero’s journey is complete, their actions mere flirtations with the transgressive. But with the really good ones, the great horror gems, there’s at least a sense that the characters have enjoyed the ride, a wink or a nod to the inviolate charm of that summer at camp, the boozy weekend at the untouched lake, even that four alarm Rumspringa. There’s at the very least the sense of a good story to tell, the value of experiences gained, temptations tested. But with The Pool, one gets the feeling that Koi and Day are so troubled, so prosaically embarrassed by their brush with the abject that they just might forget it all ever happened. They might catch themselves one morning, years down the line, studying their young son at breakfast and think, why doesn’t he ever finish his eggs?
To read an extended version of this essay, visit Ian’s blog here.
by Ian Deleón
Ian (he/him) is a lifelong cinephile, tortured artist and aspiring film director. He received a BFA in video, installation, and performance art ages ago, but is currently preoccupied with developing screenplays and researching early film history, particularly the German kind, and especially of the horror variety. Some of his favourite films at the moment include: The Tin Drum, Cruising, Tongues Untied and anything by Polly Platt. Find him on Letterboxd and Twitter @iandeleonarts