Below (2002) — World War II, submarines, and regret

“It used to feel like a big ocean, didn’t it?”

Justin’s rating: Three out of four torpedoes in the water

Justin’s review: I once said that I’d see anything that came out of the brain of David Twohy (Timescape, Critters 2, Pitch Black), and so I was bound to get around to his 2002 World War II horror flick, Below, sooner or later. If I needed any more convincing, this takes place on a submarine, which is total catnip for me. Subs are cool, like little spaceships for the ocean, and full of storytelling potential.

Here, the potential is explored not as a pure war flick, but rather a claustrophobic piece of horror and mystery. In 1943, the USS Tiger Shark picks up three survivors of a British hospital ship — one of whom, to the submariners’ delight and consternation, is a woman. But what seems like a simple rescue is complicated by three factors: that there’s something mysterious going on with the survivors, there’s something wonky going on board with the boat, and there appears to be a ghost or two about.

Obviously, there’s more to everyone’s story, and as viewers we’re dropped into the middle of it all, left to discover the full truth — assuming that the crew of the Tiger Shark will actually survive to tell it. Let’s just say that there’s a secret or two that people really wish wasn’t found out, but a spook or spectre might be manipulating things to reveal anyway.

Just like how Alien utilized the confined, inescapable space of the Nostromo to heighten the terror, Below sticks us on a sub in the deeps that’s broken, haunted, and full of troubled bodies without any easy way off. So much could go wrong here even under normal wartime circumstances, and so much absolutely does.

I like that there’s a rather human story of error, guilt, and recrimination at the core of Below rather than — as I had anticipated — a standard run-of-the-mill monster. It’s not always possible to deduce whether the calamities happening to the Tiger Shark are supernatural or not, and that uncertainty kept me riveted to the screen. The crisp editing and intimate camera work do a lot to help, as does some tense acting by the submarine’s inhabitants (which include Bruce Greenwood, Olivia Williams, and Zach Galifianakis).

Below got completely passed over when it first released back in 2002, but it’s one of those films that’s worth discovering, especially if this combination of elements sounds intriguing.

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