‘Below’ (2002) Review

“What if, when we took on that kraut ship, we didn’t sink ’em? What if… they sunk us?”

That this film ended up as my watch this week is the result of a bit of stream-of-consciousness mental rambling. As I was watching Deep Rising last week I kept thinking “I’ve seen Jason Flemyng in something, right? What was it?” And the answer, of course, is that I’ve seen him in a ton of things – from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels to X-Men: First Class and a bunch of TV series. I was specifically thinking of another boat related appearance, though. It just wouldn’t come to me and I let it go. Then, earlier this week  we had the How Many of the Highest Grossing Films of 2008 & 2009 Have You Seen challenge and one that I’d missed was Benjamin Button – which Flemyng is also in. Seeing that gave me the impetus to finally track down the ‘boat’ film I was thinking of. And here (see, just rambling) we are!

My grandfather’s WW2 stories were all about being a bombardier, and you would think those tales would have instilled more in me than a horror of accidentally bombing a whale, but I’ve always been more fascinated by submarines. They always put me in mind of spaceships – enclosed tubes surrounded by a deadly environment, forced to carry all the air, fresh water, food etc, gone for months at a time with a small crew. That was the stuff of golden age science fiction to me and – though I haven’t seen all submarine movies by any stretch – I’ve often sought out and enjoyed films featuring them.

Given how terrifying manning a submarine must be, there aren’t that many horror stories set on submarines. (I know Lovecraft has one – “The Temple.” Any others that I should know about?) Anyway, maybe it’s that the reality of a war-time submarine is bad enough. One of the most terrifying moments in any sub movie is when you’ve heard the splash of depth charges and everyone is waiting – usually with an insistent sonar ping in the background – to see if they’re going to escape or die of drowning/crushing when the damn thing explodes too close. Ghosts might seem a little tame after that.

Still, when I heard about Below back in the early days of this century it seemed custom made for me. A horror movie set on a submarine. I remember liking it a lot and that the ensemble cast was pretty damn good. I honestly didn’t remember the plot before the movie started (though it came back fairly quick) and I don’t think I had any idea who Zach Galifianakis was back in 2002. (Or maybe I recognized him from Boston Common?) Back then I probably only knew director David Twohy from Pitch Black and screenwriter Darren Aronofsky not at all (he’d done Pi at that point, but I hadn’t seen it).

The Medium
I have a low-budget DVD of Below from 2005 that I picked up for $1. It’s bare-bones and the quality isn’t great, but it does have a decent commentary track. There IS a Blu-ray release, only available on a double release with the 2002 Anna Paquin film, Darkness. This is a film that really would benefit from a stand-alone Blu-ray release and I hope somebody like Kino Lorber, Shout Factory or Arrow figures that out.

For streaming, only CBS All Access has it for subs. It can be rented or purchased at most online streaming vendors.

The Movie
Below is a haunted house movie in which the house just so happens to be a World War 2 submarine. Sure, it starts off as a more standard WWII story in which the sub, the USS Tiger Shark, is ordered to pick up survivors of a British hospital ship sunk by a German sub. As they’re picking up the three survivors a German ship is spotted bearing down on them and the first of several tense cat-and-mouse sequences immediately ensues as the German ship tries to sink the American submarine. The commander of the sub, Lt. Brice (Bruce Greenwood) shoots one of the survivors when he turns out to be a German prisoner-of-war. (To be fair, the guy went for a scalpel.)

Before we get too far – what  a cast this movie has. Greenwood, Galifianakis, Matt Davis, Holt McCallany, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng, Scott Foley and more. I feel like I recognized every actor with a speaking role, though I’m not sure what their fame level was at the time. Nobody is a star or was a star, but they’re all working character actors and they all do an excellent job.

Okay, back to the film. So, one of the survivors is a nurse, Claire Page (Williams) and there’s a bit of the ‘ooh, woman on a submarine with a lot of men who haven’t seen a woman in a long time,’ but there isn’t too much time spent on that. Most of the conflict surrounds her unwillingness to go along with what she’s told to do and believe the information she’s given. She figures out that Brice is NOT the captain and forces the Lieutenant to tell the story  of how the previous commander, Winters, died after hitting his head while topside after torpedoing a German ship.

Claire knows this is sketchy. Even I know this is sketchy – especially given the behavior of some of the other senior officers – but it’s Bruce Frikkin’ Greenwood, man! I want to believe him, I really do.

After the death of the German weird stuff starts happening. There are odd noises and people hear voices. The sub can’t seem to shake the German boat following them and when several men have to head outside to fix a possible oil leak (between two of the subs hulls, which is a freakin’ creepy-ass place to be, even when there aren’t dozens of enormous manta rays hanging around. One of the men, Odell (Davis) is told by another officer, Coors (Foley) that Winters actually wanted to machine gun survivors of the German boat they’d torpedoed. Brice, Coors and Lt. Loomis (McCallany) had objected and in the scuffle that followed Winters had hit his head and fallen overboard. The men had lied to protect Winters reputation.

Are you buying this? I’m not buying it. Foley is no Greenwood, and I get the sneaking suspicion he’s actually out there with the men to make sure Odell – who’s been asking inconvenient questions – doesn’t make it back in. However it’s Coors that dies in between the hulls, after seeing something that makes him lose his footing.

After that, people start to die. A lot. Loomis buys it after trying to escape from a vision of Winters by leaving the sub. Hydrolics fail and an attempt to bypass the system goes spectacularly wrong when electricity and the heightened hydrogen content from failing scrubbers meet. Soon the sub is out of control – or at least out of human control – and only a handful of survivors are left to meet whatever fate awaits them at the point where the sub finally stops.

I just love the movie. I’m sure there are anachronisms galore, but I didn’t much care. There’s a spooky atmosphere from the get-go that only increases as the power dies and the light sources get fewer (and occasionally redder). The actors are all excellent and I found myself enjoying small moments  gestures, expressions, simple exchanges. There’s a scene where the men are in the mess talking about what’s going on and one of them floats the idea that maybe they didn’t survive that first attack – that they’ve been dead the whole time. It’s a cool and creepy moment that also punctures (or reinforces) one of the things the audience might have been thinking.

The Bottom Line
Below is a wonderful little thriller/ghost story with great direction, acting, editing and effects (especially for a movie made 15 years ago). It might chill more than scare, but it’s good enough that I often wonder why it sank at the box office. (I’m sorry.)

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.