Kelly Taylor (Briana Evigan) is all set to go to college and leave her autistic kid brother Tom (Charlie Tahan) in a special school when she discovers her late mother’s bank account has been emptied. Her stepfather, Johnny Gaveneau (Garret Dillahunt) spent all the money buying a dangerous tiger which he plans to make the star attraction after he turns their home into a safari park. Later that night, while a hurricane rages outside, Kelly comes downstairs to find the doors sealed shut and the tiger loose in the house...
One could easily imagine Burning Bright playing drive-ins back in the Fifties or Sixties. Given the premise is so potent it is strange no low-budget filmmakers ever tried this before. Working from a story devised by producer David Higgins, screenwriters Christine Coyle Johnson and Julie Prendiville Roux pare the plot down to the barest essentials: a tiger in the house, a storm at the door, and two terrified kids trapped in the middle. That is it. And to be honest, at least in this case, that proves enough. There are many more elaborately mounted horror-thrillers that fail to pull off a single suspenseful or emotionally engaging scene. Newcomer Carlos Brooks makes intelligent use of the low budget. Confining the action to a single space, he uses prowling P.O.V. shots and stages inventive instances of claustrophobic terror. Notably a sequence with Kelly hidden inside a large funnel while the tiger prowls below. Her beads of sweat fall, one by one, and altert the tiger to her presence. Another nerve-wracking sequence finds the siblings trapped under the bed as the tiger rips through the mattress. Later on there is a genuine frisson when the big cat peers through a crack in the wall right into Kelly’s eyes.
Early on, Meat Loaf cameos as the man who sells Johnny the offending animal. He relays an anecdote about how the tiger was thrown out of the circus for killing a horse, concluding the creature is “pure evil” because it deliberately focused its cruelty on “the pretty one.” However, Brooks opts not to explore this intriguing “beauty and the beast” subtext and though its title alludes to a poem by William Blake (“Tyger, Tyger, burning bright”), the film stays defiantly unpretentious. Its sole focus is to keep viewers on the edge of their seats for an hour and twenty minutes. And largely succeeds. Some greater depth and complexity would have been welcome, had the filmmakers aimed for more of a nightmarish film noir tone rather than a straightforward thrill-ride.
There is some heart to the film however as its main focus is the strained, but ultimately loving relationship between caring Kelly and vulnerable, if troublesome Tom. Tom proves more hindrance than help, often shrieking loudly enough for the tiger to hear, refusing to hold Kelly’s hand and even punching her when she gets too close in one tense scene. Admittedly he is rather irritating, but his actions serve to highlight how hard it is to cope with an autistic child. Even before the tiger shows up, Kelly has to keep a watchful eye on Tom twenty-four/seven. She even dreams of smothering him with a pillow but cannot bring herself to abandon him. Tom is simultaneously Kelly’s chief obstacle and her goal, the very thing that will define what kind of person she will become and the film ends their relationship on a pleasingly cathartic note.
Brooks ensures Briana Evigan stays cute and sweaty in her underwear throughout most of the movie, but thankfully her character is no screaming bimbo. Johnson and Roux have scripted a gutsy and capable heroine it is easy to root for and Evigan, best known for dance movies like Step Up 2: The Streets (2008), delivers an exceptional performance and also co-wrote and performed the fine closing theme song.