In the murky depths of the deep sea, something wicked this way comes.
As the weary crew of the World War II sub USS Tiger Shark heads home to Connecticut after a long, grueling mission, they come across three survivors of a torpedoed British hospital ship, including one female nurse (Olivia Williams). Tough, ambitious Lt. Brice (Bruce Greenwood) takes the survivors aboard--to the chagrin of the crew, who is reminded of the old adage that a woman on a sub is bad luck. Bad luck, it turns out, is exactly what they get--whether it's due to the woman aboard, pranksters playing tricks, the sanity-eroding effects of oxygen deprivation or ghosties in the dark. The sub and its crew, already dodging the Nazi U-boats that hover above them in the Atlantic waters, periodically sending down depth charges or trolling the deep with massive sub-catching hooks, must also contend with the strange happenings inside--frightening noises, voices whispering from the sub's depths, phantasmic visions and, alarmingly, inexplicable mechanical failure. Suddenly the sub is stuck on the ocean floor--oxygen is running out, the too-close quarters are seemingly getting even more cramped, and bizarre, unspeakable accidents are killing off the crew.
Chilling, with a glittering, snakelike gaze, Greenwood's Brice manages to cover his slowly unraveling psyche with a capable-officer façade like a lid on a pressure cooker-- until the lid blows off completely. His performance is vaguely reminiscent of Jack Nicholson's in The Shining in that somewhere beneath the escalating madness there's a sense of reason that sometimes peeks out, like a face behind a mask, to let us know he hasn't gone completely over the deep end (no pun intended). Matt Davis (Blue Crush) shows promise as young Ensign Odell, the only seaman willing to stand up to Brice and question his dubious decisions while helping to save the sub from certain disaster. Other standout performances include Holt McCallany (Panic Room) as the strong, sensible Lt. Loomis, who staunchly believes there's a rational explanation for the weird happenings on the sub until he literally gets the scare of his life; and Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) as crewman Stumbo, a practical joker who reels from the reality of the situation that unfolds.
Below was first envisioned years ago by Requiem for a Dream writer/director Darren Aronofsky, who reportedly once claimed it would be the scariest movie of the last decade. In director David Twohy's (Pitch Black) hands, it's creepy, but hardly that scary. The film definitely captures the cramped claustrophobia of a sub trapped at the bottom of the ocean, while still showing the hugeness of the vessel and the U-boats above it; there are also some fascinating underwater shots that reinvent the submarine movie altogether. Where the film falters, though, is in the scare factor. C'mon jaded horror fans are hardly going to take seriously things like a Benny Goodman record suddenly playing on its own, ghostly faces appearing in the dark or voices whispering from the beyond, although the scene in which Stumbo thinks he hears a dead body wrapped in a blanket talking to him is truly unsettling--there should have been more like it. Though the film tries to blur the line between what is happening in the seamen's minds and what are really supernatural occurrences, eventually it sort of degrades into a ''haunted house beneath the sea'' kind of thing, despite the more intriguing psychological angle. The ending is the most disappointingly silly part of it all, conveniently wrapping everything up in a neat package.
With little studio promotion, Below will probably take a big dive at the theater; it's not the worst horror movie you'll ever see, but it's not the best, either.