Below (2002)

One of an early 2000s blip (The Bunker, Deathwatch, R-Point) of son-of-The Keep wartime ghost stories, this 1943-set haunted submarine drama manages better by the Run Silent Run Deep / The Enemy Below / Up Periscope sub-genre than the more conventional U-571: especially impressive is the depth charge bouncing along the hull but not exploding, a venture into the watery space between the inner and outer hull of the USS Tiger Shark and an offscreen flash fire caused by a gaseous imbalance which cooks most of the crew. Less effective is the supernatural angle, as the guilty officers who covered up a blunder by murdering the captain are stalked by a malediction which draws them back to the site of the crime to be punished.

The film opens with the American submarine picking up survivors of a torpedoed hospital ship, including a traumatised British nurse (Olivia Williams), then explores the tensions within the crew, who are beginning to feel their run of bad luck amounts to a curse. The characters are rather conventional, with Bruce Greenwood as the outwardly-martinettish, inwardly weak-willed acting c.o. set up from the outset as an obvious heavy, and the rest of the crew are one-note stereotypes: sensitive heroic officer Matt Davis, bullying sceptical Chief Holt McCallany, huge-bearded Zach Galifanakis (who reads horror pulps aloud and collects crackerjacks tokens), grumbling and gag-pulling swab Jason Flemyng. Director David Twohy, who co-wrote with Darren Aronofsky (well off his usual patch), has a background in s-f (The Arrival, Pitch Black). Moving into the supernatural, Twohy handles old-fashioned claustrophobic suspense well during the build-up, but can't summon the quieter creepiness necessary to make the nebulous ghost story play.

The mystery angle is tipped early, as we are told of two ship-torpedoings that turn out to be the same incident: the accidental targeting of an allied hospital ship by the submarine, and the officers' murder of the captain rather than allow him to admit the mistake and try to rescue survivors. Because this is obvious, various narrative feints (one of the survivors taken aboard is a German, it seems possible someone is sabotaging the mission, etc) just take up time before eventual revelations confirm what we've guessed.
KIM NEWMAN

First published in this form here.


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