Eric’s Review: Below (2002)

A haunted WWII U.S. submarine. A great premise, but in the end: Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda.

★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Directed by David Twohy

My brother-in-law Alex is a huge WWII movie fan, and a sometimes horror movie fan. Upon my recommendations of Overlord, he suggested I watch Below, a story of a WWII American submarine that comes under the grip of a ghostly presence. The movie had a lot going for it:

  • A director, David Twohy, fairly freshly off the well made Sci-Fi horror survival tale Pitch Black.
  • A writer, Darron Aronofsky, also coming off of well regarded films Requiem for A Dream and Pi. (And would go on to write and direct the Oscar winning Black Swan.)
  • A real submarine, the USS Silverside, to use as the set.
  • A solid “That Guy” lead actor, in Bruce Greenwood.
  • The inherent claustrophobia of a submarine, with dangers without and within a strong possibility.

Below follows a mission of the USS Tiger Shark, where the recently elevated Commander Brice (Bruce Greenwood) and his crew have responded to a distress call from a British medical frigate, where they pick up three survivors and are forced to scramble when the German navy closes in on them. Complicating matters is that one of the survivors is a lovely nurse, Clarie (Olivia Williams)! Oooooo! A Woman! Flashback to Operation Petticoat.

The usual submarine cat-and-mouse chase ensues, but somebody or someTHING is trying to give away their position. When silence means survival, having the record player blaring becomes a death sentence. The captain and crew are convinced that it is the critically injured German survivor sounding the alarm. Claire tries to defend her patient to no avail, and takes an immediate distrust to all the crew, save the very earnest Ensign Odell (Matthew Davis, doing his best Cary Elwes impression.)

After suffering a serious pounding from enemy depth charges and a strange drag-anchor device, the boat is stuck trying to make repairs while still below. The men begin to let their naval superstitions get the better of them, and start talking of ghosts, and wouldn’t you know it, some strange and unexplainable events start happening. Strange sounds. Strange visions.

At the same time, Claire starts snooping around, suspecting the Commander of something nefarious. What happened to elevate Brice? What happened to the captain? Snoop… snoop… snoop. The Commander and crew begin to break down psychologically, and the boat starts to be guided by some outside force. But where? And why?

The answers are somewhat routine, and actually probably didn’t require the ghost story to be told effectively. What we get in the end is a fairly solid WWII war mystery… with ghosts. But it had much more potential. Dimension films and Twohy played it too safe and really could have pushed it. To use a baseball metaphor, they should have swung for the fences, even at the risk of striking out. Instead, they kept the bat on their shoulders, took a walk, and then got picked off of first base for not paying attention. (END BASEBALL METAPHOR)

Dimension films certainly pitched this movie as a horror production, but you barely feel the horror. There are two great ghostly bits. The record player was a great tension producer, but it was just an appetizer. There is a fantastic, and fairly notable mirror sequence featuring the first mate, Loomis (Holt McCallany), but beyond that, you really didn’t feel the presence of the ghost. It was a guiding ghost, more than a malevolent ghost.

As much as I disdain Event Horizon, had Twohy really used that as a template, and amped up the threat of the ghost, and utilized a hard-R tactic, this could have been a blast. You know he was capable of that, having just done Pitch Black.

Most of the drama and tension came from the dynamic between Williams and Greenwood, but their behavior was so erratic, that you were scratching your head most of the time trying to figure out their motives. I concede that it all makes sense in the end. Why is Brice so evasive? Why is Claire so nosy? Why do most of the officers not trust Odell? Those conundrums are eventually answered though you have to wait until late in the third act to get the connections.

One odd inclusion is Zach Galifianakis, in a pre-Hangover role. I’m not sure why they cast him in this movie if they weren’t going to allow his gonzo sense of humor to shine through. He looked so odd as a sailor, the only submariner with a full beard and a pot belly. I would have understood if this had been after his star-making turn in The Hangover, but I found this curious. The rest of the acting crew is largely unremarkable.

Do you like WWII submarine movies like Alex? If so, you’ll probably like this. Do you like horror movies? Well, I’d recommend something else. Truthfully, the masterful Das Boot is a much scarier movie than this one is, even if it isn’t a horror movie, as the consequences and tension are almost unbearable in that classic U-Boat tale.

Below is Rated R, for language, I suppose. This could easily have been rated PG-13. It is available streaming on Amazon, YouTube, and Vudu.

Scary DVDs! Woo!

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