With the absence of a steady supply of John Carpenter films in the late 1990s and beyond, David Twohy stepped up and began making unabashed genre films in the Carpenter spirit with The Arrival (1996), a paranoid thriller cum the aliens are among us a la They Live (1988). Twohy followed this up with Pitch Black (2000) featuring an anti-hero very much in the same vein as Snake Plissken in Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), which makes his bloated sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), his Escape from L.A. (1996). To continue this analogy, Below (2002) is Twohy’s variation on The Fog (1980) albeit fused with Das Boot (1981) – a spooky ghost story set on an American submarine during World War II. Like Carpenter, Twohy populates his films with outsiders that fight against overwhelming odds or a group of people that must put aside their differences and work as a team against a common threat. Below definitely falls into the latter category as a crew of seamen investigate the mysterious events transpiring aboard their sub.
Right from the get-go, Twohy establishes a beautiful style of economical storytelling by showing a WWII bomber, short on fuel, spotting survivors in the Atlantic Ocean and delivering them a message that they’ll send help. Sure enough, the USS Tiger Shark, an attack submarine, shows up and rescues two British men and a woman while a German warship off in the distance is bearing down on their position. Lieutenant Brice (Bruce Greenwood) orders the sub to dive and hopes that they weren’t spotted.
One of the survivors is gravely injured and the woman – Claire (Olivia Williams) – informs Ensign Odell (Matthew Davis) that they were aboard a hospital ship that was attacked two days ago. To make matters worse, the other man, known as Kingsley (Dexter Fletcher), claims he saw a U-Boat before their ship went down. Something doesn’t seem quite right about the survivors. Maybe it is the clandestine conversation between Claire and the wounded man or the gaps in her story. As the journey progresses, other strange things begin to happen, which suggest the possibility of supernatural activity that may have something to do with a secret that Brice shares between his two officers – Lieutenant Coors (Scott Foley) and Lieutenant Loomis (Holt McCallany). Already on edge, thanks to the threat of the German warship, these unsettling, unexplained occurrences spook the crew something fierce.
Twohy does a fantastic job of ratcheting up the tension when the sub tries to avoid an advancing enemy warship. The crew are instructed to be as quiet as possible because of how sound travels and the deafening silence is soon interrupted by a Benny Goodman tune suddenly playing on a record player at ear-splitting volume. Was this an act of sabotage, as the crew suspects, which is intensified when they find out that the wounded man is in fact a German. As expected, all hell breaks loose. After enduring a barrage of depth charges, one bumps and scrapes along the sub’s hull without exploding and we are white knuckling it right along with the crew.
Twohy effectively uses the claustrophobic confirms of the sub to maximum effect with the atmospheric sounds of being underwater adding to the things-that-go-bump-in-the-night vibe. Every clank and groan can be explained away as the typical sounds of a being in a sub but it is nonetheless creepy. The director enhances the soundscape by enshrouding rooms and hallways in shadow or bathing them in hellish red light. He also teases us with quick glimpses of dead bodies or something else out there in the water.
Bruce Greenwood leads a solid cast of character actors. Ever the reliable thespian, he does an excellent job of portraying a commanding officer gradually unraveling as the stress of captaining a sub under trying conditions gets to him. Greenwood has the gravitas to play a believable leader of men while also using his expressive face and eyes to suggest buried guilt that threatens to surface under the stress of the situation. He’s supported by the likes of television mainstays Scott Foley and Holt McCallany as his fellow officers, the sympathetic Matt Davis as the rookie ensign that suspects something’s not right with Brice, and Olivia Williams as the persuasive doctor not afraid to stand-up to Brice. Rounding things out are Zach Galifianakis in a rare straight man role, Jason Flemyng as one of the superstitious and increasingly twitchy crew members, and Dexter Fletcher as the other Brit survivor who, alas, gets little to do.
Below received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, “In its best moments it can evoke fear, and it does a good job of evoking the claustrophobic terror of a little World War II boat, but the story line is so eager to supply frightening possibilities that sometimes we feel jerked around.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “The cool thing about this B-plus-quality B movie … is that nothing is certain, and every camera shot looks good. (Everything sounds good, too: Twohy understands the power of aural mystery – the whispery sound, for example, of seaweed brushing a sub's hull.) The downside is that nothing is clear, either. Dramatic murk is the condition Twohy likes best, and sometimes Below drifts into confusion.”
In his review for The New York Times, Dave Kehr wrote, “this is a film of great technical precision, in which every shot has been thoughtfully selected for maximum expressiveness and the crisp, creative editing propels the story along. Below may not mark Mr. Twohy's emergence into the mainstream, but his promise remains undiminished.” The Los Angeles Times’ Manohla Dargis wrote, “If Below had been released in 1943—the year of its story—it would have come in at an agile 70 minutes instead of a protracted 104. Twohy has said he studied the work of Jacques Tourneur, the director of sleek 1940s thrillers such as Cat People. You can see Tourneur's imprint on Below, which makes better use of shadow than most neo-noirs.” In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Edward Guthmann wrote, “Twohy's overwrought, comic-book theatrics work against him, as does the hokey script that he, Lucas Sussman and director Darren Aronofsky all fiddled with.”
Below is a fantastic fusion of WWII sub movie and ghost story, pitting forceful personalities against each other with Claire and Brice at the center of the conflict. He’s hiding something and she’s trying to uncover it. The attention to period detail is well done without being too showy but is evident in the little things, like how the crew speaks to each other both in sub lingo and period jargon. Much like Carpenter ensemble films such as The Fog or Prince of Darkness (1987), Below has no clearly defined lead protagonist, opting instead to spread the screen-time around, using the confined space of the sub as another character. The real test of the lasting power of this film is that it holds up to repeated viewings even after you know what the plot twist is and that’s because of Twohy’s efficient direction, the well-written screenplay (by Lucas Sussman, Darren Aronofsky and Twohy), and the wonderful performances of the entire cast. Like most ghost stories, the one featured in Below hinges on guilty and how the sins of the past literally come back to haunt those responsible.