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Run silent, run terrified: “Below”

January 18, 2014

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The little-seen 2002 horror film Below almost became an entry in “Criminally Overlooked,” except that, well, it’s really not a big deal if you miss it. Unlike some of the other entries in that category, Below isn’t required viewing, and really doesn’t bring much to the medium. Probably the only distinction it can claim is that it’s the best technical portrayal of a World War II sub on film. Still, it’s an effective little thriller that’s never boring, and at times genuinely creepy.

Below begins efficiently enough with a small life raft adrift in the Atlantic being spotted by a PBY Catalina search-and-rescue plane. Low on fuel, the plane transmits the raft’s coordinates to the nearest ship in the area, a Gato-class attack sub the USS Tiger Shark. Receiving the message, the CO Lieutenant Brice (Bruce Greenwood), and his XO Lieutenant Loomis (Holt McCallany) are none-too-pleased with having to go back for them (put a pin in that).

Just a couple of dudes submarining...

Just a couple of dudes submarining…

Recovering the raft, Brice and Co. find three survivors from a hospital ship. One’s just a tweedy British dude in one of those chunky sweaters they like so much. Don’t worry too much about him. It’s the other two that are problematic: a German POW and a British nurse (Olivia Williams). Now, you would think that a bunch of guys stuck in a steel tube for months on end would be thrilled to have a woman aboard—especially Olivia Williams—but sailors are a superstitious lot, and think women on a ship are bad luck. Sailors are weird.

SCORE!

SCORE!

Ah, but maybe Williams is bad luck, as a German destroyer has detected them and promptly starts nuking them with depth charges. If you know anything about World War II submarine warfare, then you understand this is about as bad a situation as you can have. However, once they find a nice cold spot in the water to hide (cold water deflects sonar), a phonograph begins blaring Benny Goodman, effectively announcing their location to the Krauts. But who would be so stupid as to play a record at full blast while hiding from a destroyer?

That, however, is just the beginning of the weirdness. It soon becomes clear to the hapless rescuees that something is seriously amiss with this sub. For starters, Brice may be the Commanding Officer, but he’s not a the skipper. The sub’s commander was killed in an accident following a successful attack on a German sub-tender a few days prior. And with the exception of Ensign Odell (Matthew Davis), the officers seem suspicious and withholding.

"On a scale of 0 to India, how worried to I have to be of being raped?"

“On a scale of 0 to India, how worried to I have to be of being raped?”

Pretty soon, things begin to go mainline haywire, as the Tiger Shark becomes, essentially, a submersible haunted house. The crew hears voices, see blurry reflections of faces, and the ship experiences increasingly serious and inexplicable malfunctions, as if the sub itself is trying to commit suicide. Clearly the sub has a secret, and the officers know more than they’re telling.

As a horror film, Below sputters out at about the halfway mark. It’s not hard to discern what the big secret is, and, unfortunately, it doesn’t have any other narrative tricks up its sleeve. As a supernatural thriller, however, the film works exceptionally well. Below was written and directed by David Twohy (with an assist by Darren Aronofsky, though it’s hard to find his fingerprints on the story), and Twohy, while never quite becoming a great filmmaker, can sometimes be a good one with a solid, if unexceptional style.

"I don't suppose that little woman from Poltergeist is aboard?"

“I don’t suppose that little woman from Poltergeist is aboard?”

With Below, Twohy manages to sustain a pervasive sense of eeriness in the sub—which is a bigger feat that it might seem when you consider the claustrophobic tight quarters of such a boat. He uses dim lighting and ambient noises like whale songs in the distance and seaweed caressing the hull to build a sense otherness in this world everyone is trapped within.

Twohy also masterfully establishes the spatial reality of the sub and its confines with some neat directorial tricks. He introduces us to the location early on with an unbroken steadicam shot which glides from the conning tower through the length of sub to the aft torpedo room. He also uses quick cuts from character to character to emphasize both the close confines as well as the crew’s interdependence on one another to run the sub.

"Well, this just gets better and better..."

“Well, this just gets better and better…”

Twohy gets a major assist from his cast, which is populated for the most part by character actors who all solidly fill their roles. McCallany is one of the few who looks like he might have stepped out of a WW2 bond-seller, and his mad skilz with a yo-yo are a nice period touch. Greenwood is always good, and here he infuses his everyman-hero persona with a disorienting smarminess that peers out every so often to keep the viewer off base.

Supporting them we have Jason Flemyng donning a credible American accent and a pre-stardom Zack Galifianakis as “Weird Walt,” the Tiger Shark’s resident expert on supernatural phenomena (informing himself with dime-novels and copies of Weird Tales magazines).

It’s too bad Below didn’t have a punchier—or more clever—denouement, as it could have been a horror classic. As it is, though, Below is still an effective little movie. It just could have been an effective big one.

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