FANGO Flashback: “BELOW” (2002)Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
For most horror fans, BELOW is best categorized as the “submarine horror film,” likely because it’s one of the very, very few explicitly genre films set on a submarine. Yet if you think about it, submarines could be one of the easiest places to set a horror film; after all, it’s a claustrophobic metal tube that primarily is known for navigating the dark recesses of the ocean, and on a budgetary level, a filmmaker can get a lot of mileage out of a set primarily made of long, metal hallways. And beyond that, BELOW also holds the distinction of being a damn good horror movie, with the combination of director David Twohy and co-writer/producer Darren Aronofsky placing emphasis on scares and tension in ways many haunted house movies would only dream of doing.
While the structure of BELOW is fairly simple (a haunting film that takes place on a damaged submarine), the plot itself is quite engaging and intriguing, and will likely require the audience’s full attention to keep up. BELOW follows an American submersible vessel in World War II that comes across survivors from a British hospital ship attacked by a German U-boat. After the rescue, however, the vessel comes under fire from a German warship, damaging the submarine and limiting their options. However, the threat on the outside of the boat is not as terrifying as the threat on the inside, as strange, inexplicable events hint that a supernatural presence may be on-board as well, and soon, dark secrets about the ship put everyone at risk.
BELOW, written by Twohy, Aronofsky and Lucas Sussman, does a great job of making tired and predictable genre tropes both fresh and terrifying again. By changing out the horror movie model of women being scared with an almost all-male cast, save for Olivia Williams as the sole female survivor from the British ship, BELOW is able to prey on tension and reactions that one might not necessarily find in the inverse situation. Furthermore, BELOW offers restraint to its horror, allowing the viewers to experience the scares right alongside the characters in ways that feel unexpected and undeniably rattling. And BELOW also pairs the horror with equally great drama and character dynamics, which often plays its hand in misdirection effectively.
Furthermore, BELOW is an absolute gorgeous film, with the practical sets and excellent cinematography that really paints the movie in a creepy light. Ian Wilson’s lensing of the film frequently remains tight on our cast members and their settings, evoking a claustrophobic atmosphere that feels even more unnerving when paired with the occasional supernatural occurrence. And with the minor exception of the occasional use of dodgy CGI, BELOW stretches the suspense of the film with the barest of tricks, whether it be the use of space, audio cues or wonderful in-camera tricks.
Beyond even the horror elements of the film, BELOW also makes exceptional use of its solid cast, all of whom lend their talents to give BELOW a sense of gravitas that ghost stories can sometimes lack. Bruce Greenwood is excellent as the irrational and stubborn Brice, while Holt McCallany, Matthew Davis, Dexter Fletcher, Scott Foley, Jason Flemyng, Christopher Fairbank and Andrew Howard all impress as their respective crewman. As mentioned before, Olivia Williams stands out as the sole female cast member of the film, and is luckily more along the no-bullshit lines of ALIEN’s Ripley than the standard haunted house victim. Even a pre-HANGOVER Zach Galifianakis is great in the movie as “Weird’ Wally, a crewmember who is prone to conspiracy theories and wild tales and yet holds his own quite well in the dramatic scenes as well.
Overall, while BELOW may not be classic ghost story material, the film is surprisingly taute and smart, and definitely is better than its reputation as a sadly underappreciated fright flick. With a superb cast, a well-crafted script and the sheer willingness to embrace itself as a genre picture, BELOW delivers thrills and chills both horrific and dramatic. And for a film nearly 15 years old, BELOW holds up shockingly well, fitting in among the strong options in our ghost-crazy zeitgeist.