A ghost story that takes place aboard a World War II submarine. Sometimes I think there are suggestion boxes mounted next to the water cooler at movie studios and once a month the big mogul dips has fat fingers inside to root around for a new idea. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for a movie like Below being greenlit. Luckily for us viewers, just because a movie has kind of a silly idea, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a bad movie.
Film history is scattered throughout with ridiculous premises and outlandish plots that somehow worked. There was Jaws, about the eternal conflict between a fish and people who live on land. Or there is the abundance of superhero flicks. Take just a second to think about how stupid an idea superheroes are. Very fit people dress like professional wrestlers and save the world, repeatedly, from the machinations of megalomaniacs who always seem to lack any coherent reason for their evil. Yet billions of dollars have been made in this genre. What the hell is the matter with us?
So, a ghost story on a submarine? There have been worse ideas. And this film has a pedigree that makes it stand out. Below was directed by David Twohy, who managed to make another stupid idea work in Pitch Black, and was written by Twohy, Lucas Sussman, and Darren Aronofsky(!). That’s right. The dude who made Pi was one of the screenwriters of this flick. According to the internet, Aronofsky was set to direct Below, but left the project to pursue Requiem for a Dream. One of the most cerebral directors working in film today almost directed a studio horror film. I can only imagine how his version would have played out.
That’s not to disparage Mr. Twohy. Well, it is, actually. Aronofsky is a singular talent, while Twohy’s best work has been with Vin Diesel as the lead. In fact, forget I mentioned anything.
It’s World War II, 1943, in the Atlantic Ocean. An American attack submarine, the USS Tiger Shark, picks up a trio of survivors from a British hospital ship that was sunk by a German U-boat. While there, the submarine is spotted by a German destroyer, and this movie sets itself up as every other submarine movie ever made. There’s the obligatory depth charge scene, with lots of shaking and loud noises, and shots of harried crewmembers wondering if they are living out their last moments. I’m a fan of submarine flicks, for some odd reason, so these scenes never grow old for me. But no one has done submarines as well as Das Boot, and no one probably will. It’s not like there is a large demand for submarine movies, and it’s a well-represented subgenre of war films. But, this is the October Horrorshow. I’m not spending this month watching war flicks. Hell, no! I want fricking ghosts. And Below obliges.
As it turns out, the commander of the Tiger Shark, Lieutenant Brice, played by the unflappable Bruce Greenwood, wasn’t the commander with which she set out from port. That was Captain Winters, who recently met an untimely death. As events continue to unfold on the boat, it becomes clear that the ghost of Captain Winters is haunting the crew, and he’s pissed about something. It takes just about the entire film to find out what that something is, and it satisfied my expectations nicely.
Below ran in and out of theaters quickly, in about the blink of an eye, taking in less than a million bucks in box office. But other than being a little too formulaic here and there, I’m having a hard time spotting any egregious fouls. There aren’t a whole pile of scares throughout, as in something like The Conjuring, but the pace of the film and the steady amount of tension reveal that Twohy is a very capable storyteller. On top of that, the production quality is excellent. If it weren’t for the very 21st century characters, I would have bought that I was on a World War II submarine in the middle of the Atlantic.
But while Greenwood was joined at the top of the cast by Olivia Williams as one of the survivors, viewers are also treated to the supporting casts of Fight Club and every Guy Ritchie film that had been made to that point. The movie is tricked out with ‘that guys.’ The best of the bunch was Holt McCallany, who played an over-aggressive officer with too much free time to lift weights. But while he was good, the others, including Zach Galifianakis in an early dramatic role, never felt like sailors. There was none of the taut discipline viewers could expect from the setting, and way too much free exchange of opinion. Remember, this entire movie takes place aboard a naval vessel, not a place exactly tolerant of normal behavior. The wider cast feels like it would be more at home in an Alien clone, not a war film. But, again, this is not a war film. It is a horror film. There’s a ghost haunting this boat, and while watching, I was glad I wasn’t a crewmember of the Tiger Shark.