A few years ago, an English friend and I were exchanging comments on my personal blog about something or other when he brought up an interesting point: if you watch American films about World War 2, you’d think the US won the war single-handedly.
Which means when you say ‘World War’ it sounds kind of like the US was up against the rest of Earth. It sounds that way if you watch The History Channel, if you talk to a Greatest Generationer, or to my dad.
Below, a horror movie taking place on an American U-boat, presents a more ecumenical grasp of the US’s involvement in the war, while delivering some pretty decent scares along the way.
The film begins with a group of shipwreck survivors floating in a rubber raft; a small plane flies over, but the plane is low on fuel and can’t stop to pick them up. The plane relays the raft’s location to an American Uboat crew on patrol nearby, who immediately change course, though they are hesitant because of the presence of Germans nearby.
The survivors were aboard a British hospital ship torpedoed by a German sub, and are the only ones alive of the 300 or so medical staff and patients. Olivia Williams , best known for her role in Rushmore and Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse TV series, plays Claire, one of the survivors, and the fact that there is now a woman on board complicates an already complicated situation.
Now in the film there comes a narrative shift–we come into the movie thinking our protagonist is Odell, the sharp young officer who can recite the submariner’s motto in Latin or perhaps Captian Brice, a career Navy man played aptly by Bruce Greenwood. An ugly incident concerning the third survivor of the British shipwreck and Captain Brice leads Claire to realize that Brice is only ‘acting’ Captain, filling in for Captain Winters, whose mysterious death Claire sets out to investigate once things begin going hinky on the sub.
And let me say, a WW2 sub is no place for things to go hinky. Not at all.
Besides being a decent murder mystery and atmospheric horror, the sub itself triggers a very special form of claustrophobia–fear of being trapped in a small space where one will run out of oxygen and die. Everything is horribly, horribly analogue, reflecting the reality of the very slim margin of error on board a Uboat. Especially since the survival of the crew hinges on someone understanding the importance of Checking Their Work and remembering to Carry The Goddamn One. To wit: Not only did a crew have to keep track of their own movements to know where the hell they were, they had to keep track of enemy Uboats in order to be able to guess where the latter were so they didn’t just blunder across each other’s path. And they did anyway, since all the Germans had to do to screw up one’s plans was slightly change course.
Plus, if your engine doesn’t run smoothly you may wind up a adrift a few hundred feet below the surface, with no way to get back up. You could try and go out the hatch, and die in the first few seconds from either drowning or hypothermia. Plus there’s no way you can hold your breath long enough to swim the 600 feet. Plus you might get the bends, unless that’s only for scuba divers. Plus there are eight hundred billion other things that can go wrong so it’s a wonder any submarine crews survived the war, at least according to my own semi-hysterical calculations. And that’s just what can happen WITHOUT running into the enemy!
The rest of the cast is comprised of capable character actors–some of which are playing against type with pretty interesting results. Nick Chinlund, who usually plays sleazebags, is the tough and reliable Engineering Chief, Zach Galifiniakis plays a nerd fascinated with ghosts and the supernatural who reads his ‘Tales from the Vault’ type comics to the rest of the crew as entertainment, and Holt McCallany, best known from his small role in Fight Club or Alien 3, plays man’s man and yoyo enthusiast Loomis, an alpha consigned to beta status. Jason Flemyng, from approximately any English movie with special effects or action scenes, puts in a memorable turn as Stumbo, a scumbaggy fellow with a penchant for tasteless jokes involving dead bodies.
Below, which opened in like, no theaters in 2002, was written by Darren Aronofsky and directed by David Twohy, so its pedigree is pretty well established just from their involvement. The characterizations are spot on, the writing snappy, and the situations introduced nothing short of terrifying, on a conceptual level.
This is definitely one to add to your Instant Watch queue, a great film for a dinner party or date night. I can’t recommend it highly enough!
2 thoughts on “Grown Up Horror: Below”
I’ve been toying around with putting this on my netflix. I had no idea zach Galighstehjskus was in this.
He’s really good in it–I’ve only heard a little of his comedy but I do like him. This one just hit all my ‘good horror movie’ points, it was an interesting setting, had good characters, not a lot of cheesy gore or underwear teenagers!