Director: David Twohy
Starring: Matthew Davis, Bruce Greenwood, Olivia Williams, Holt McCallany, Scott Foley, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, Nick Chinlund
(out of 4)
WARNING: Slight spoilers ahead
Below takes place during World War II, on an American submarine. Now, I tend to enjoy these kind of claustrophobic sea movies anyway (I’m a big fan of The Hunt for Red October), but I found Below to be a well-executed ghost story that manages to successfully balance a war-time drama/mystery with a supernatural haunted-house-style plot. Directed by David Twohy, who also gave us The Arrival, Pitch Black, and Chronicles of Riddick, the film works as a tragedy and gets a great performance from Bruce Greenwood. It also helps that Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) lent his writing talents to the project.
Captain Brice (Greenwood) picks up British survivors from a U-Boat attack and brings them on board the USS Tiger Shark. One of the survivors is a female nurse, Claire (Olivia Williams) whose presence obviously stirs up the crew in ways that she doesn’t appreciate. In one of the few scenes of comedy, the camera takes us through the ship as on crew member tells another about the “skirt” on board, which covers lots of variations on the word “female”, from “bazooomba” to “bleeder.” The scene works as both an introduction to the crew and a ship walk-through, not to mention making the crew out to be a threatening bunch (and these are the heroes). Fortunately, and in the movie’s favor, the possibility of an assault on the sole female by a crew who have been on a sub too long is discarded in favor of turning Claire into a competent detective, as she unravels the multitude of secrets held by the top officers on the vessel.
One of the secrets is that the original skipper – Captain Winters – was killed, the victim of a head injury and subsequent drowning. Then Claire learns of the incident where the crew fired on a U-Boat, killing the German crew. Things get hairy quickly as an enemy ship comes after the Tiger Shark, using depth charges and even grappling hooks. It soon becomes a game of hide-and-seek, but odd events start occurring that give the Americans a big handicap. There’s the strange noises, the inexplicable tendency for a Benny Goodman record start playing for no reason, the rudders locking up, and disembodied voices pleading to “go back.” But go back where? Claire goes snooping around and realizes that people are hiding things about where the ship has been, who they previously attacked, and what really happened to Captain Winters.
Below reminded me a little of Asian horror cinema’s penchant for comfortably fitting the real-life world alongside the spirit world. Its ghost is not the main antagonist, especially if you consider that it’s just trying to put things right from a karmic perspective. The reasons for the haunting are traced back to an unspeakable crime that is hinted at by the short scene involving Claire’s discovery of a copy of Macbeth inside the captain’s quarters. Another not-so-subtle hint comes from Wally’s (an amusing Zach Galifianakis) speeches about maledictions and their need to be satisfied – in this case, the captain needing to go down with the ship. I particularly enjoyed one crew member’s theory about the haunting – that everybody was already dead – something I detected as a slight jab towards recent horror’s tendency to keep following M. Night Shyamalan around.
The main weakness of the film lies in the numerous jump-scares that are ubiquitous in stuff like this. It’s like there’s an unwritten rule in modern horror to have a character or image suddenly burst into frame accompanied by a loud sound effect. So while Below avoids one horror cliche, it embraces another, but it didn’t need them anyway – the most effective sequences in the movie are the quiet ones, like the sudden death accompanied by burning hydrogen – something that happens with a whisper, not a bang, and the collective breath-holding during an attack when a depth charge slowly bounces across the hull.
One thing that didn’t bother me was the deviation from the historical accuracy of WW2 equipment and warfare. Not being in the Navy myself, I found out afterwards that there are some factual errors and anachronisms. (The biggest complaint I have read is that the sub is way too big). In retrospect, I still say it’s no big deal – this is mostly a mystery and ghost story, not a war film. I was willing to put aside the belief that the sub would emerge intact after so many charges blowing up around it, and that the scuba gear used in the film was probably not available at the time, etc. But if you are looking for a realistic period-piece/submarine-drama, you should be checking out Das Boot. Otherwise, this is a skillful exercise about a boat with a curse, and it has a nice poetic final scene. I’m happy to see a ghost movie where the spirits make their move in more subtle ways – watching disembodied entities throwing people around rooms is just damn goofy.
- Bill Gordon