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Head Production Designer
JOSEPH CROSS, BRIANA EVIGAN,
Special Effects Make-Up
A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
BELOW is nearly a direct to video movie, but you'd never know it by the quality of either the story or the acting, both of which, are pretty damn good.
Directed by David Twohy and co-written with Lucas Sussman and Darren Aronofsky (Pi, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM), we open on the ocean from the air and a British seaplane slowly enters the frame. The pilot sees, just barely among the many glittery reflecting waves, a bright reflection in code. Too low on fuel to make a landing and take off, the sea plane drops a note to the floating survivors below that they will send rescue. Rescue comes in the form of the U.S.N. Tiger Shark, a submarine one day away from the folks on the raft. However, no sooner are they in sight of the survivors, than a German destroyer (a sub buster), bears down on them, ready to blow them out of the water.
The three survivors, two men and a woman, were from a British hospital ship that was sunk by a single torpedo, fired upon it by a German U-Boat at night.
For the rest of this movie, the German sub buster is the Tiger Shark's Albatross, seeming to hang on their every move. Under normal circumstances, that wouldn't seem possible.
David Twohy wanted this movie to be in three parts.
There are some great moments here as the sub crew listens intently for the German ship overhead, who are listening, in turn, for them. This has been done any number of times in movies, especially films during and right after World War II. But the problem there was always the fact that the model ships and subs looked like model ships and subs, and there was just no way to make the sub an unnatural, yet organic part of the water around it: with sea life, particles, and depth charge explosions. Computer Graphic Images finally make something work and the biggest reason it works here is, the sub isn't supposed to move like a living thing.
Even as of 2003, CGI just isn't ready for realistic organic textures up close. But here, it works wonderfully. Thank you Visual Effects Supervisor, Peter Chiang (KRULL, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS , BATMAN, PITCH BLACK, THE TAILOR OF PANAMA).
The crew waits in silence, the sub engines off, everything at full stop. It coasts through the cold black depth waiting for the deathly enemy ship to pass. Everyone on board the boat is listening, listening for the slightest noise from above.
Then Benny Goodman swing music comes blaring out.
The Ensign and Captain run down a passageway, following the sound to the medical cabin and find the record player there blasting out music. Ensign Odell (Matthew Davis: URBAN LEGENDS: FINAL CUT) rips the needle off of the record. The Captain glares at him almost as if it is somehow his fault. Captain Brice (Bruce Greenwood: THE SERVANTS OF TWILIGHT, PASSENGER 57, DISTURBING BEHAVIOR, THE CORE), as it turns out, is in charge of the sub but not an "official" Captain. His collar wears the bars of a lieutenant.
"We've got splashes," says the sonar man, and the chilliest depth charge scene you've ever seen begins.
When its over, the German destroyer cruises overhead, listening to see if it accomplished its job. With machinery damaged, small fires burning, and crewmen injured, all must remain silent, for they cannot outrun the destroyer.
Then the music starts again!
The Benny Goodman music, as it turns out, is a puzzle piece. Because there are several overlapping mysteries going on aboard this Submarine. Some folks have secrets, some have a conspiracy, and others are left in the dark both figuratively and literally.
David Twohy gets the best performances out of his actors and he had some good ones to start with. The underappreciated Olivia Williams (THE SIXTH SENSE) is great here as a British battle field nurse. Without her presence, the conspiracy might well have succeeded despite the ghost.
Holt McCallany (CREEPSHOW 2, ALIEN³, JADE, FIGHT CLUB) gives an intimidating performance as the hulking Lt. Loomis.
Jason Flemyng (DEEP RISING, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN) as the trouble making Stumbo and his prankster pal Hoag (Andrew Howard: RANCID ALUMINUM) inject much needed humor and humanity into the movie without ever going over into parody or comedic relief.
The action shots combine with the claustrophobia nicely. The mysteries unravel and though at times seem convoluted, turn out to be very simple. The only convolutions are brought on by the people trying to hide their secrets as they attempt various stories that can be accepted without question. After all, once they return to their home port of Conneticutt, there will be an inquiry.
The problem with BELOW is that 1-2-3 punch Director Twohy was going for. The beginning of the movie isn't moody, it's full of action packed suspense and thrills.
The second part is creepy and subtle, but of course, sags because it takes such a long time for the action to pick up again. Granted there are some suspenseful scenes and these work well, as does the creepiness that David was going for. That's because there are some creepy things going on: A ghost for one. Who the ghost is, and what the ghost wants (if it exists at all outside of the imaginations of the guilty) is only one of the mysteries.
The final third of the movie that was supposed to be terrifying, instead remains in subtle creepy mode. Even in one scene where there is an explosion inside the sub, we are never witness to the explosion. We learn about it, in a subtle creepy way and, for due credit, Twohy definitely heightens the tension of the creepy mood. By this point in the movie though, a little action is not only called for, it's vital!
Something terrifying should happen!
Instead the movie coasts to the ending. The mysteries are good and the secrets and conspiracies are solid, no question. But BELOW set us up for a punch out scene and it never occurs. That ending? Satisfying yet anticlimatic after that hellish kick off.
With most directors this film would also earn an
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I give BELOW a barely earned 3 Shriek Girls. It never quite got into the horror, but holds the creepy tension well and the mystery is a good 'un.