Haunted-house thrills at the bottom of the ocean in David Twohy’s Below

Directed by: David Twohy
Written by: Darren Aronofsky, Lucas Sussman
Starring: Matthew Davis, Bruce Greenwood, Olivia Williams, Holt McCallany, Scott Foley
Released: 2002 / Genre: Horror / Country: USA / IMDB
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The distinct smell of B-movie excess comes with David Twohy’s haunted submarine film, but it shouldn’t be likened to such drivel as Ghost Ship and Virus as they don’t even compare to the well-oiled scares and deep-sea suspense of this slick chiller. There’s an assured production team at the helm with cult heroes Twohy behind the camera and Darren Aronofsky behind the pen, and it’s their love of genre movies that makes Below such a joy.

The American U.S.S Tiger Shark is told to backtrack during a World War II patrol to pick up survivors of an allied hospital ship. After being spotted by German’s they hurry the three survivors on-board and submerge. One of the people brought on-board is nurse Claire Paige (Olivia Williams) who quickly becomes suspicious of Lt. Brice’s (Bruce Greenwood) convictions, and after he shoots dead her German prisoner, her suspicions only intensify. However, when strange things start to occur and one of the crew is killed in a freak accident, Brice might not be her only concern.

below, film, horror, david twohy, submarine, sea,

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Below is primarily a haunted-house film set inside the enclosed, encapsulation of an early 20th century submarine, its busy-metallic framework and creaking hull, a character all to itself. There’s a formidable line-up of man-made structures that have taken on a ‘presence’ before but filmmakers have genuinely struggled to take the element and make it work outside of the conventional suburban house. Twohy brings the tapping in Regan’s attic from The Exorcist and the grandiose malevolence of John Russell’s house from The Changeling, and repositions it in the confines of a human tin can. He doesn’t have to do too much to squeeze the oxygen out of every scene, metaphorically and physically speaking – the fact the characters discuss the problem that their oxygen levels are low; that they cannot surface because of the stalking German ship; that something seemingly evil is amongst them – only underlies the vast ocean that engulfs them and their boat that has no windows and no doors, meaning escape is simply impossible. In essence, it’s a great place to make a horror movie.

Twohy strips the film of the very things humankind hold sacred – creating the sense of claustrophobia through ideologically trapping us, distorting our sense of time and place – the very mystery of what is occurring making for a breathless chase for answers that are not necessarily there in the already oxygen-dwindled atmosphere. The long corridors and twisted metal make for great hiding places, and the director utilises the ‘cat jumping out of the cupboard’ technique to great effect as there are some genuinely good scares that will have the masses jumping out of seats. But the script’s strangulation of information creates a subtle evil that bubbles under the surface, coupled with Claire’s search for answers, that’s keeps the viewer gripped intently to the screen. This is not a horror film that wants to ride above the rest, or even attempt to bring something new to the genre – it’s a film that wallows in the joys of conventional suspense and invites the generics of such films to take the audience on yet another familiar rollercoaster ride.

Twohy is so enamoured with playing tricks on his audience, the fact the only truly inventive thing about the film is the repositioning of an age-old story rarely becomes a problem, but familiarity with the genre does become pastiche towards the end. The film doesn’t have a bad twist, it’s just that it isn’t daring enough to make the last twenty minutes as exciting as it could be. Shades of Jack Nicholson’s descent into madness from The Shining creep in, and while all the actors do a fine job in the film, none really have the ability to match Mr Nicholson’s performance.

Below is a horror-thriller that treads familiar ground in unfamiliar territory, and yet despite its lack of originality, there’s something very attractive about David Twohy’s haunted rollercoaster ride at the bottom of the ocean.

Review by Daniel Stephens

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    You’ve pretty much summed up my feelings on this film. After Pitch Black, I was hopeful that Twohy was going to be the next “it” director, but I did feel Below was too close to other genre films for my liking – concept was awesome, execution was a little flat. I admit, I haven’t watched Below in a few years, so I might have to revisit it this week sometime to make sure my original sentiments were/are the same.

  2. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Rodney – Yeah, as I mentioned it treads familiar ground and the ending isn’t as good as the set-up but I think it’s a film that’s well worth seeing. I love the concept of setting a ghost story on the submarine. It could have been handled a little better I supppose but Twohy does a decent job. He’s a director with enough talent to bring out the best of a limited plot.

  3. Avatar
    George (@CallMeSirPhobos) Reply

    I bought this like six months ago and watched it around the same time. I wasn’t very impressed, honestly. I remember it being just kind of…boring. I’ll give it another go at some point to refresh my memory, but it just didn’t do what I thought it would for me.

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