Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Below (2002)

In 1943, an American submarine receives an order to pick up adrift survivors. There turns out to be three of them, a British nurse and two sailors, fugitives from a . The men complain about the "bad luck" of a woman aboard. Soon, while they are being tracked by a German warship, strange things start happening, such as a Benny Goodman record turning on by itself while they are maintaining silence. Is it sabotage, or is it a ghost?

(It's a ghost.)

Below started life as a script co-written by Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream), who planned to direct. The reins were eventually handed to David Twohy (Pitch Black), who re-wrote Aronofsky's script. I would have rather seen the earlier version, but this is still a fun movie. It doesn't do quite enough with its claustrophobic setting (and the depth charge scenes are obviously not a patch on similar scenes in Das Boot, which just about gave me a heart attack) but it's an effective ghost story.

As far as I'm aware, this is the only haunted submarine movie to date. H. P. Lovecraft's short story The Temple was set on a U-boat in 1920, but it's so long since I read it that I don't even remember whether it was any good or not (and I'm pretty sure that there were no ghosts in it anyway). It's such a great idea that it now seems strange to me that nobody had thought of it before; surely there must be other stories with this theme, if not other films.

What we're dealing with here is a vengeful ghost. I won't say who the ghost is or why it is vengeful, but you'll probably figure it out pretty quickly if you watch the movie. The ghost itself is handled quite well; it's always ducking around a corner, or just a flash of a reflection in a porthole. There were maybe a couple too many loud noise "Boo!" moments, but I can deal with that when the rest of the movie is surprisingly low-key and subtle. I haven't seen any of Twohy's other movies, but I gather that they are action-oriented; this is not. In fact, it's probably the only movie I have ever seen where an explosion that kills multiple characters happens completely off-screen: we only see the build-up to it and the (incredibly creepy) aftermath.

It also contains one of the best "mirror moments" I've seen. You know those scenes? They happen a lot in supernatural movies: someone looks in a mirror and what they see isn't quite right.

There are some definite down-sides. I know next to nothing about the military & navy (hate war, hate most war movies) but even I spotted some of the no doubt rampant anachronisms, which I won't bother listing. The submarine is not mined enough for claustrophobia. There are too many cheap jump scares - the subtle creep-out moments are far more effective. The story is too predictable. Too many of the crew are interchangeable grunts. It should have been scarier - it's creepy throughout but never terrifying.

The best performance by far was Olivia Williams as the nurse, brilliant as always. Zach Galifianakis is endearing as the beardy guy who reads pulp horror stories to the crew. The rest are, ehh, ok. I'm sure I'd seen some of them in other movies, but none were memorable enough to register.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that Below was a wasted opportunity, because I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I hope that it inspires other filmmakers to say "I've got a much better idea for a haunted submarine movie!"

No comments:

Post a Comment