Throwback Thursday: Close-Quarters Horror and Suspense in Below

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—“classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.

There’s something about submarines that builds tension so well. I think it’s the combination of being trapped under water by all that weight, and having nowhere to go—there are only so many places to hide on a submarine. Which brings me to this week’s column, which will look at the 2002 horror/suspense film Below.

Theatrical poster for Below

Poster for Below

In 1943, at the height of World War II, an American submarine responds to orders to pick up survivors of a destroyed boat. The crew pulls three survivors out of the water: two Brits and a German. Paranoia strikes as the sub and her crew try to get away from a German battleship, and weird happenings start plaguing the crew. They wonder whether there is a saboteur on board, or something worse.

men looking stern

It’s definitely something worse.

Coming off the success of his 2000 film Pitch Black, director David Twohy tried to do something similar with Below, namely force disparate people to work together to solve a problem outside their natural scope. Pitch Black had featured a who’s who of character actors, including Vin Diesel, Cole Hauser, Keith David, and Radha Mitchell. For Below we get future Starfleet captain Bruce Greenwood, Party of Five-r Scott Foley, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels star Jason Flemyng, Rushmore’s Olivia Williams, and a pre-fame Zach Galifianakis. Across the board, all the actors keep furrowed brows, showing the stress of surviving underwater and trying to figure out what is going on.

Olivia Williams looking stern

Olivia Williams will not take any of your sass.

I admit that I have followed Olivia Williams through her entire career, and I think she could play anything well. She was one of the many character bright spots in Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, and she even got me choked up a little bit in her portrayal of Mrs. Darling in 2003’s Peter Pan (a definite recommendation). In Below, she gets into the role of a war nurse trying to take care of her charges who keeps a no-nonsense approach to all those around her—even when the sailors are giving her the cold shoulder because of the superstition against having a woman on a boat.

Bruce Greenwood has had a long storied career and has aged gracefully. In his role as the acting captain of the sub, he brings a particular paranoia to bear that leaves you guessing as to what he is hiding. Give this man more work, please.

No good can come of pointing a gun at Olivia Williams

Bruce Greenwood and Olivia Williams

This is definitely a low-budget film, but it uses its budget wisely—it’s very effective in making you wonder whether you’re seeing things, whether your eyes are playing tricks on you. The only time the film betrays its production constraints is when it’s trying to show the wider world, which is why it smartly plays most of the camera angles close to the vest and tries to keep the action inside the sub as much as possible. Was that a noise outside? It could just be the plates of the ship shifting. The sound design is very well done and contributes to the overall mood well.

unfunny zach

Zach doesn’t like where this boat is going.

I would also like to point out that Darren Aronofsky helped with the screenplay for Below. If you’ve liked films that he directed, such as Pi, Requiem for a Dream, or Black Swan, which also deal with different forms of delusion and mental wellness, you might have an idea of where this film is going. It would be interesting to see what he and Twohy would do if they decided to collaborate again.

If you like paranoia, ghosts, and submarine films you’ll probably like this one. With an enticing, small group of character actors who are left to do what they do well, Below is recommended.

This film can be found on DVD. It is currently available via Netflix rental but not streaming. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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