Something Else under the Sea
The year is 1943. The crew of the U.S.S. Tiger Shark, out on patrol in the Atlantic Ocean, receives instructions to pick up the three survivors of a downed British medical vessel. One of them, Paige (Olivia Williams), is a woman. Because having a female onboard a sub is considered bad luck, the men find themselves constantly looking over their shoulders.
Despite attempts by skipper Lt. Brice (Bruce Greenwood) to make them keep cool heads, the crew can't help noticing strange occurrences that start happening once the survivors board the Tiger Shark. German U-boats loom over the boat, dropping hooks and barrel bombs; a record player turns itself on; a cigarette re-lights itself; and general spookiness runs rampant. Crew members believe they're not alone below the surface, their fears the result of either a faulty oxygen system or a force using the sub as a pawn for its own secret agenda.
Below succeeds as a good, scary movie by tapping into the universal fear of what goes bump in the night, a successful approach which most modern-day slasher films have virtually forgotten. So why did Dimension Films release this film on fewer than 200 screens and with hardly any publicity? Your guess is as good as mine, but considering its great advanced buzz among many movie buffs, it couldn't have been because the movie lacked quality and excitement. On the contrary, Below, while not a very deep (no pun intended) or quickly-paced picture, emerges as a well-directed chiller. It combines elements from submarine adventures, psychological thrillers, and ghost stories with winning results.
At first it seems like director David Twohy (Pitch Black) rushes into the story a little too early, throwing too many characters into the mix and getting started before we have a chance to get settled in. But as Below progresses, it becomes more murky, more spooky, and more interesting to see where the twists and turns will take us next. There's a mystery about the ship's original skipper -- no one seems to know anything about him for certain. About halfway through the movie, the boat suffers a hydrogen leak, causing the crew members to wonder whether the sights they're seeing are real or only hallucinations. These are inventive twists employed by Twohy and his fellow screenwriters (Lucas Sussman and Requiem for a Dream director Darren Aronofsky). They blend in naturally to the built-up tension, never once feeling like cheap, last-minute tricks.
Below also benefits from some solid casting. Bruce Greenwood (the sleazy husband from Double Jeopardy) is good as the commander who starts out with a cool head on his shoulders but who begins to deteriorate as the boat's situation grows more weird. Olivia Williams gives a believable performance as the first person aboard the Tiger Shark to admit something strange is at work here. Matthew Davis convincingly plays Ensign O'Dell, a crew member who starts to wonder about Brice and the mystery of the first skipper. The supporting cast is peppered with familiar faces, from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels cast members Jason Flemyng and Dexter Fletcher, to comedian Zach Galifianakis (he's the one with the beard that would make Santa Claus envious), to the gravelly-voiced Nick Chinlund. All the actors do their parts well, expressing a convincing sense of growing paranoia and fear about what's behind the strangeness.
I liked so many things about this film -- the subtle steps taken in generating fear, the good acting and even better direction, its impressive special effects. Why let thin characterization stand in the way of my enjoyment? Therefore, Below earns a high rating from me. Besides, I feel this hybrid thriller is already too obscure to contribute to its further neglect.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Review also posted at www.ajhakari.com.)
Released by Dimension Films and rated "R" for language and some violence.