The distinct smell of B-movie excess comes with David Twohy’s haunted submarine film, but it shouldn’t be likened to such drivel as Ghost Ship and Virus as they don’t even compare to the well-oiled scares and deep-sea suspense of this slick chiller. There’s an assured production team at the helm with cult heroes Twohy behind the camera and Darren Aronofsky behind the pen, and it’s their love of genre movies that makes Below such a joy.
The American U.S.S Tiger Shark is told to backtrack during a World War II patrol, to pick up survivors of an allied hospital ship. After being spotted by German's they hurry the three survivors on-board and submerge. One of the people brought on-board is nurse Claire Paige (Olivia Williams) who quickly becomes suspicious of Lt. Brice’s (Bruce Greenwood) convictions, and after he shoots dead her German prisoner, her suspicions only intensify. However, when strange things start to occur and one of the crew is killed in a freak accident, Brice might not be her only concern.
Below is primarily a haunted-house film set inside the enclosed, encapsulation of an early 20th century submarine, its busy-metallic framework and creaking hull, a character all to itself. There’s a formidable line-up of man-made structures that have taken on a ‘presence’ before but filmmakers have genuinely struggled to take the element and make it work outside of the conventional suburban house. Twohy brings the tapping in Regan’s attic from The Exorcist and the grandiose malevolence of John Russell’s house from The Changeling, and repositions it in the confines of a human tin can. He doesn’t have to do too much to squeeze the oxygen out of every scene, metaphorically and physically speaking – the fact the characters discuss the problem that their Oxygen levels are low; that they cannot surface because of the stalking German ship; that something seemingly evil is amongst them – only underlies the vast ocean that engulfs them and their boat that has no windows or no doors, meaning escape is simply impossible. In essence, it’s a great place to make a horror movie.
Twohy strips the film of the very things humankind hold sacred – creating the sense of claustrophobia through ideologically trapping us, distorting our sense of time and place – the very mystery of what is occurring making for a breathless chase for answers that are not necessarily there in the already oxygen-dwindled atmosphere. The long corridors and twisted metal make for great hiding places, and the director utilises the ‘cat jumping out of the cupboard’ technique to great effect as there are some genuinely good scares that will have the masses jumping out of seats. But the script’s strangulation of information creates a subtle evil that bubbles under the surface, coupled with Claire’s search for answers, that’s keeps the viewer gripped, intently to the screen. This is not a horror film that wants to ride above the rest, or even attempt to bring a pretentious uniqueness to the genre – it’s a film that wallows in the joys of conventional suspense and invites the generics of such films to take the audience on yet another familiar rollercoaster ride.
Twohy is so enamoured with playing tricks on his audience, the fact the only truly inventive thing about the film is the repositioning of an age-old story rarely becomes a problem, but familiarity with the genre does become pastiche towards the end. The film doesn’t have a bad twist, it’s just that it isn’t daring enough to make the last twenty minutes as exciting as it could be. Shades of Jack Nicholson’s descent into madness from The Shining creep in, and while all the actors do a fine job in the film, none really have the ability to match Mr Nicholson’s performance.
Below is a horror-thriller that treads familiar ground in unfamiliar territory, and yet despite its lack of originality, there’s something very attractive about David Twohy’s haunted rollercoaster ride at the bottom of the ocean.
Buena Vista’s poor treatment of the film in theatres is not seen in this Alliance Atlantis DVD as the anamorphic 1.85:1 video transfer looks especially impressive. The film is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio and looks lovely – the predominantly dark photography containing superb detail and strong, solid colours. The only slight drawback is some minor edge-enhancement that becomes noticeable during the brighter scenes but this doesn’t distract too much.
Like the image, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also superb. The submarine’s low hum simmers from the speakers and spits out of the sub-woofer creating an ominous, enveloping dread that really adds to the experience of the film. Dialogue is superbly rendered across the soundstage with depth and clarity and the use of the surround speakers is excellent.
The DVD isn’t fully-loaded with additional features but what is here is worthwhile, starting with the feature film commentary with director David Twohy and actors Matt Davis, Bruce Greenwood, Holt McCallany, Zach Galifianakis, and Nick Chinlund. The usual problems crop-up with such commentaries with many speakers (especially when it concerns lots of actors), as at times, little in-jokes and conversation can pass the listener by, but this is a good commentary that is full of anecdotes delivered by amusing, good-natured speakers, and which strikes a good balance between technical details and production stories. It should be noted that the commentary is to be found in the film’s ‘set-up’ menu and not the ‘Bonus Material’ section. Supporting this is ‘The Process: featurette’ – a 12-minute featurette that does away with any sense of promotional EPK crap, and briefly looks at the production with lots of great behind the scenes footage. It mainly focuses on the technical side of production and looks at how Twohy went about directing his film, but it’s produced in a light and quickly-paced style which makes for very enjoyable viewing. The only problem with it, is the fact it’s just too short which is a shame, but this is a great little featurette – certainly one of the best under-15 minute featurette’s I’ve seen on DVD. Finally, three deleted scenes with optional commentary are provided on the disc, presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1.
Below is a terrific little horror film that looks especially good when compared to many of the commercial horror films coming out of Hollywood at the moment. This DVD presents the film terrifically well, and hopefully it will find its audience now. Highly recommended.