English - Hearing Impaired, German - Hearing Impaired
Dimension/Buena Vista .
R4 . COLOR . 101 mins .
M15+ . PAL
The opening titles - no expense spared.
Writer-director David Twohy seems to like the dark - or at least the story possibilities that an absence of light can provide. A few years back he made the absence of light a key plot point in his visually stunning Pitch Black, set in a starch-bright world populated by inconceivably menacing creatures that only come out at night - and which happily take advantage of a total eclipse to terrorise (and eat) the cast. Below, Twohyís third movie as a director after a long and respected career as a screenwriter, takes this concept and runs with it - but this time, the darkness is much more prevalent. Below, you see, is a ghost story set on a World War II US submarine, a claustrophobic and relentlessly unfriendly environment thatís the last place most people would want to be locked up with forces unknown.
Sent to rescue survivors from a sinking British warship, the USS Tiger Shark barely makes it to the scene in time to save anyone. Only three people are brought on board - and one of them, much to the misogynistic delight of the crew, is a woman, nurse Claire Paige (Olivia Williams).
Freshly rescued, Claire unleashes her patented Nicole Kidman Look.
She and her fellow survivors are soon struck by the feeling that somethingís not quite right aboard the Tiger Shark; the captain, Brice (Bruce Greenwood) is nervous, jumpy and quick to overreact to situations, and when the sub is attacked by an enemy ship, things go from bad to worse as it becomes increasingly clear that something bad has happened before the arrival of our survivors. But itís not just the Germans that Brice and his crew have to contend with; increasingly, people are noticing creepy things happening, as what appears to be some kind of malicious force wages a campaign of fear and death on the helpless crew. And the man in charge of the boat may not be quite who he seems, either...
Below was co-written by director Darren Aronofsky, who reportedly intended to direct the film before opting instead to do Requiem for a Dream. But itís hard to imagine this story in Aronofskyís hands; Twohy, whoís undeniably accomplished at the art of building tension, knows exactly which buttons to push to create the kind of gut-level nervous energy that makes films in this genre work. Whatís missing, ultimately, is a real sense of the characters. While there are some similarities (at least initially) to James Cameronís classic The Abyss, that filmís focus on the emotions and subtleties of its characters is replaced by cursory exposition here, and while Below effortlessly delivers the goods when it comes to creepiness and masterfully-crafted scary set-pieces, itís hard to feel anything much for the characters that meet a terrible fate. The storyline itself doesnít help - itís wilfully confusing in places, something thatís strangely refreshing but occasionally frustrating.
"Above you! Above you!!"
Despite its minor faults, though, Below manages to be what 99% of modern horror flicks and ghostly tales are not - genuinely scary. The largely unknown cast (Bruce Greenwood and Olivia Williams are the best-known participants) throw themselves into the fray with abandon and skill, the film working all the better thanks to the absence of distracting ďstar powerĒ. Like Pitch Black before it, Below is a feast for the eyes, too - deftly edited and loaded with Twohyís uniquely stylised imagery. Itís not perfect, but well worth your time nonetheless. Just be sure to watch it in the dark.
Something red and spooky this way comes...
There are good video transfers, and then there are great video transfers. And then thereís this. Miramax has commissioned an absolutely stunning transfer for Below, one thatís so good itís near-impossible to find anything bad to say about it at all. Presented at 1.78:1 (and of course 16:9 enhanced) itís a gobsmackingly lovely visual feast from start to finish, with the myriad different challenges thrown up by Twohy, cinematographer Ian Wilson and editor Martin Hunter all effortlessly dealt with by both the telecine and authoring teams. Colour saturation is rich and vibrant, shadow detail (all-important for this film) is there in abundance, and there isnít a trace of anything nasty save for the occasional bit of film grain (hey, you try shooting 35mm film in an almost lightless environment!)
The edge enhancement problems reported in reviews of the US version of the disc are nowhere to be seen here. On the compression side of things thereís not a problem anywhere; the hefty encoding bitrate sees to that. The layer change is slightly ill-placed, but not overly so.
Under attack, the only thing to do is.... hide!
And needless to say, the audioís up to the job as well. A very immersive (literally!) audio experience, this Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (no DTS on this disc, unfortunately) makes full use of the surround soundstage. A refined and skilful mix, it delivers crisp, clean dialogue through the centre channel and then spreads the myriad effects and Graeme Revellís ambitious score around the room with absolute precision. The subís many interior noises, as well as the eerie and muffled sounds from outside the boat, are all placed strategically to put the viewer right in the middle of it all, and itís brilliantly effective. Play as loud as you can for best results.
Not the extras-fest you might have hoped for, the small collection of bonus materials on this disc may not offer quantity, but thankfully do deliver in the quality department.
A watery grave... but for whom?
Audio Commentary: A rather raucous commentary track featuring David Twohy along with five of the principal cast (Olivia Williams is not among them; Twohy explains that she was in Australia shooting PJ Hoganís upcoming Peter Pan movie when the commentary was recorded). Thereís some good info to be found here, though the presence of so many participants inevitably leads to some silly moments. Still, a commentary with a sense of fun and personality is always a better proposition than a dry monologue from a single person.
Deleted Scenes: Three cut scenes (included an alternate take on the ending with partially-finished visual effects) totalling just under eight and a half minutes, with optional commentary from Twohy. The 4:3 letterboxed video is of reasonable quality; the scenes themselves arenít anything earth-shattering, but make for intriguing viewing after watching the finished film.
Featurette - The Process: A 12-minute mini-documentary, thankfully bearing no resemblance to the usual studio-hype-laden promo featurettes that turn up so often on DVD. Though too short, this behind-the-scenes look at the production process (including lots of camcorder-shot on-set footage) is terrific, and well worth the time.
Theatrical Trailer: A reasonably effective ďcoming soonĒ trailer for the film, in 4:3 full frame with 2.0 surround audio. Strangely, the US disc reportedly included a different trailer in 16:9 widescreen with 5.1 audio.
An unconventional take on the submarine drama and a novel approach to the horror genre, this restrained, ambitious and often downright strange film barely touched cinema screens but is well worth checking out on DVD. Skilfully made and deliciously spooky, Below isnít perfect, but itís a cut above the usual.