Look out ‘Below’: World War II submarine action meets ghost story in fun but flawed genre mashup

December 6, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 6, 2013

I have a love-hate relationship with horror films.

From a very young age, I’ve always found scary movies to be absolutely terrifying. Once, as a child, my family went to visit my Aunt Gussie and Uncle Paul’s apartment in Queens, and some kind of monster movie was playing unnoticed on a TV in my line of sight. Every time I looked at the screen, I was overcome by a wave of foreboding, and my heart would start racing. I would look away and soon calm down… But I couldn’t resist redirecting my gaze toward the TV, even though I knew it would upset me.

At some point — I think as the scene reached its climax and the monster (Frankenstein’s?) finally unleashed some kind of rampage — my mother or someone else noticed my abject terror, and either the channel was changed or the TV was shut off or my attention was actively redirected or I was moved to another room. (Yeah, it was definitely one of those things.)

Even to this day, I don’t watch a lot of scary movies. One of the few I saw at a relatively early age was Alien, and the only reason I watched it was that it belonged to the science fiction genre, which I found all but irresistible in my younger days.

Still, sometimes I just want to be scared without being totally revolted or terrified. Over the past year or so, I found a way to channel this impulse: By reading scripts for scary movies.

The Internet is, of course, a repository for all manner of minutiae. I don’t like a lot of stuff that I fear would come across as simply gross — say, Saw or anything else that might be grouped as a slasher flick or torture porn. I do want to read stuff with a science fiction element. And I did want to read the script for a film called Below.

Why Below? In 2002, I moved to a small studio apartment in Manhattan, not far from where I was attending graduate school at Columbia University. The Internet had just started to become a medium for delivering audio and video content, and Apple was fostering this development by offering movie trailers. Occasionally, I would start clicking on trailers and fall down a rabbit hole. This is how I first became intrigued with Identity; it’s also how Below caught my eye.

Years later, when I read the script, I thought the story it told was clever but rather strange. That impression was confirmed the other night, when I watched Below for the first time.

The picture is something of a chimera. Imagine a World War II submarine movie melded with elements of a Victorian ghost story and you might begin to get a sense of this odd and rather charming 2002 feature. I was interested in it because the submarine subgenre often seems to be just a half-step removed from military science fiction.

The story begins as the U.S.S. Tiger Shark is ordered to reverse course so it can rescue three shipwreck survivors that a reconnaissance plane has spotted in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. When the submarine reaches the designated location, it discovers a German warship hot on its tail. The sub’s captain, Brice (Bruce Greenwood) orchestrates a hasty pickup. The vessel dives for safety and endures a harrowing depth-charge attack — but not before word spreads among the crew about the three passengers.

The castaways are the only survivors of a hospital ship. One is a badly burned man who is not long for this world. The second is Kingsley, a navigation officer who saw a U-boat silhouette moments before his ship exploded. And the third is a medic named Claire Page (Olivia Williams). Some of the men are excited to have a woman on board. Others see it as a sign that their boat is surely cursed.

Brice initially orders Page to avoid fraternizing with the crew, saying, “They can be a little…strange.”

“Strange, as in superstitious?” Page asks.

“As in strange,” the captain replies.

Boy, isn’t that ever the truth. There turn out to be plenty of mysteries on board the Tiger Shark. The survivors have a secret; so do the senior officers of the submarine. True to movie form, these secrets are deadly — and they seem increasingly unlikely to stay hidden as conditions aboard the vulnerable hunted vessel deteriorate.

The cast of characters is led by Page, Brice and Odell (Matthew Davis), an ensign on his second patrol. Page and Odell find themselves increasing aligned with each other, and increasingly opposed to Brice and his second-in-command, Loomis (Holt McCallany), an aggressive bull of an officer.

I wanted to love this movie — I really really did. It’s directed by David Twohy, whose work in Pitch Black and Riddick I’ve immensely enjoyed, and written by Twohy, Lucas Sussman and Darren Aronofsky. The story has some genuinely clever twists, and the special effects work, while a bit uneven, delivers some excellent snippets of underwater action. The acting is pretty solid by and large.

But… there are a few buts. Davis has an appealing presence, but he doesn’t entirely fit as the earnest, upstanding young officer who finds the inner grit necessary to become a hero. (This may be in part due to the spiky gelled hairdo he sometimes sports, which looked both silly and anachronistic to me.) Zach Galifianakis, appearing as a crewman nicknamed “Weird Wally,” also seems to be from an entirely different movie.

Also, some of the movie’s elements don’t really jell. The WWII submarine action makes for an odd juxtaposition with the story’s haunted house elements. Yes, these forms have some things in common, revolving as both do around mysteries and menace. Alas, in the end, Below almost works — almost, but not quite.

Although it didn’t live up to my hopes, I’m glad I saw Below. Those who really enjoy the submarine subgenre, or World War II flicks, or somewhat off-kilter ghost stories, or even cleverly plotted mysteries might have fun with this film too. But alas, I wouldn’t blame anyone who steers clear of this oddly compelling but flawed curiosity of a feature.