by Brian McKay
BELOW is a film I’d been wanting to see for a long time. Alas, I never got the chance in theaters. Like one of my other favorite horror films, SESSION 9, it was dumped into an extremely limited release with zero advertising, lasting only a week or two in most theaters – even here in San Francisco, which tends to cater to the art-house crowd.. Now that I’ve finally seen it, my question is: Why did this film get such a short end of the stick?Now, Below is not a revolutionary film, and like most horror/action movies, it is derivative of other films that have come before. Nevertheless, it is a highly entertaining romp aboard a “haunted” WW2 submarine, complete with spooky goings-on, great underwater action sequences, uniformly good acting, and high production values. So why was a film with this much going for it sent to a watery grave by the studio? God only knows. We were bombarded with commercials for dreck like Darkness Falls and Ghost Ship for weeks leading up to their release date (at which point they bombed, miserably and justly). Yet the studio sits on a quality horror film for months before tossing it out with the bilge water. I never even saw one goddamn commercial for this. Not one. I think some suit-wearing studio meat puppets need an ass kicking.
"Half Sub flick, Half Ghost Story, All in one criminally neglected package!"
On a North Atlantic patrol in the midst of World War II, the crew of the submarine U.S.S. Tigershark is getting restless. It’s been a long tour, with only one kill to show for it, a German warship that they torpedoed just days earlier. When they get orders to deviate nearly a hundred miles off course to pick up three survivors of a recently sunk British hospital ship, their mood isn’t lightened much – until they see that one of the survivors is a rather attractive nurse, Claire Page (Olivia Williams, from Rushmore and Sixth Sense). News of the “skirt” on board travels fast throughout the boat (in an amusing and well-filmed segment which provides some laughs while also giving the viewer a chance to meet the crew and see various parts of the sub). While most of the guys are just happy to have a pair of breasts on board to look at, a few fall into the old mariner’s superstition of a woman on board being “bad luck”.
Lt. Brice (excellently played by Bruce Greenwood) tries to keep the men in line as the de facto commander of the boat, after recently losing their skipper in an accidental drowning. However, trying to keep his men from being distracted by a woman on board is soon the least of his worries, as they are pounced upon by a German sub hunter intent on making sure they stay below for good. After a harrowing depth charge chase, which is easily one of the best I’ve ever seen in any sub movie, they manage to narrowly evade their pursuers. But just when they think they’re home free, the inevitable spooky shit starts to happen. A record player in the dead captain’s cabin keeps playing by itself, usually in the middle of silent running. Crewmembers began hearing ghostly voices and seeing things out of the corner of their eye. Worst of all, the ship is plagued by mechanical failures and other anomalies that can only hinder their efforts to slip away from the German ship unnoticed.
As tensions continue to mount, Nurse Page and the new junior officer aboard, Ensign O’Dell (Matthew Davis), begin to suspect that there are supernatural dealings afoot. They also share a suspicion that the former captain’s death may not have been so accidental, after all. Working together, they try to solve the mystery before the ghostly warnings of impending doom come to fruition.
As I said, most of the themes of this film are nothing we haven’t seen before. What makes it work are the performances, combined with a smart script and a claustrophobic sense of dread from director David Twohy (Pitch Black, The Arrival). While Pitch Black had its memorable moments, I never cared much for the film overall. The acting was mostly stilted, and the promising setup led to an unsatisfying follow-through. With Below, Twohy has created a superior product. Some of the complaints about the film are valid. The film telegraphs a few of its punches, and the attentive viewer can usually stay half a step ahead of the characters. Also, it doesn’t quite achieve the level of terror that it aims for – although it comes really close quite often. Also, while the performances are consistently good, even among the minor players, the characters and dialogue do come off as a tad anachronistic at times. Still, in spite of these shortcomings, Below gets most things right. The underwater visuals are impressive and eerie. The story, while never exactly terrifying, delivers creepy atmosphere in spades – especially if, like me, you find the idea of being trapped in an oppressively dark and cramped submarine creepy enough. And while Twohy shows us a bit too much of the ghostly presence at times, it is never overdone to the point that it becomes mundane or ludicrous. While the ghost story part of it is competently executed, the naval action aspects are done even better. The scenes of the Tiger Shark evading her pursuer are easily as entertaining as the likes of U-571 or Crimson Tide. Of course, it’s no Das Boot – but what is?
It’s beyond me how other critics can call this film “dull” or “confusing”. I found it neither, and although the running time could have perhaps been shortened a bit, I never once felt the urge to check my watch. The DVD also includes some excellent bonuses, including an insightful and often quite funny commentary by Director Twohy and four of the principal actors (including Greenwood and Davis). There are also three good deleted scenes, and a short but slickly-produced and fascinating “making of” featurette that gives the viewer a really good behind-the-scenes view of this woefully neglected flick.BELOW is a solid four-star movie, with occasional moments of five-star greatness. I’m going to give it that extra star to make up (in my small little way) for the complete lack of distribution, marketing, and respect that this film received. If that extra star, along with my glowing comments, are enough to make you part with your rental fee and check this movie out, then I’ll have done my job right.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=6197&reviewer=258
originally posted: 03/16/03 14:23:50