[Screen It]

(2002) (Bruce Greenwood, Matt Davis) (R)

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Suspense/Horror: After picking up three survivors at sea, a WWII submarine crew encounters bizarre and fatal occurrences that soon lead them to believe that their sub might be haunted.
It's August 1943 and Lieutenant Brice (BRUCE GREENWOOD) and his crew of the U.S.S. Tiger Shark have rescued three survivors from a hospital ship torpedoed two days earlier. They are navigator Kingsley (DEXTER FLETCHER), British nurse Claire Paige (OLIVIA WILLIAMS) and her badly wounded patient, Schillings (JONATHAN HARTMAN).

With England being a 300-mile detour off their current course, Brice informs the survivors that they have no choice but travel with them and the sub quickly dives below the surface to avoid detection by an enemy ship. During a close encounter with some depth charges, a record player suddenly starts playing and gives away their location, eventually leading Brice to kill Schillings upon learning that he's German and believing that he tried to sabotage them.

Not long after that, various people, such as Claire as well as crewmembers Hoag (ANDREW HOWARD) and Stumbo (JASON FLEMYNG), begin experiencing weird and spooky events on the sub. Ensign Odell (MATT DAVIS) can't believe that anyone on board the sub would purposefully try to sabotage them, but second-in-charge Lieutenant Loomis (HOLT McCALLANY) quickly dismisses any sort of jinx or supernatural explanations.

After Claire starts poking around and noticing odd and missing entries in the captain's journal, Brice informs her of the accident that took the life of the former commanding officer, Captain Winters (NICK HOBBS). Yet Claire doesn't believe him, and soon other crewmembers such as Coors (SCOTT FOLEY), Chief (NICK CHINLUND) and Weird Wally (ZACH GALIFIANAKIS) begin to notice both the weird occurrences and Brice's increasingly volatile nature.

As the sub tries to return to its Connecticut base, more bizarre, seemingly supernatural and deadly occurrences ensue, all of which endanger the sub and its remaining crew as they try to figure out what's going on.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
Although it's not always the case and it certainly isn't always true, most horror filmmakers seem to favor and/or believe that dark and confined spaces make for the best setting - for their characters and viewers alike - in which to generate scares.

That, of course, is because humans naturally have a built-in uneasiness about both. Thus, the presence of dark and creepy haunted houses, basements, and the like in such films. Yet, if one wanted to move out of that clichéd setting, where else could one go and still get the same or similar effect?

Why, a submarine would do just fine. After all, as long as it's submerged, its occupants are trapped, things are wet, dark and cramped, and there are all sorts of eerie and even creepy underwater sounds, whether it's the sub's hull, marine life, or heck, even a ghost.

Director David Twohy ("Pitch Black," The Arrival"), working from a script he penned along with Darren Aronofsky ("Requiem For a Dream," "Pi") and Lucas Sussman (making his debut), puts all of that into play in his haunted submarine flick, "Below." Much like Twohy's outer space Vin Diesel flick, this one transplants the genre's conventions and clichés into a new setting, but the results are about the same.

In short, a WWII era submarine picks up three survivors of a torpedoed ship, dives, tries to elude a relentless sub hunter, and then is subjected to voices, weird occurrences and fatal incidents. Yet, is that just a result of pressure and poor air quality, or is someone or something haunting the sub? That's the question the filmmakers want us to ponder as the film travels down its predictable course of thrills and chills.

Beyond retreading all of the tired submarine clichés - including the depth charge scene, mutinous behavior and the boat in trouble moments - the film does the same regarding its horror elements. Whether it's the telegraphed jump scenes, what's behind the curtain moments or setting most of the intended frightening scenes in the dark, Twohy hasn't met a horror cliché he didn't like or use in his films (just like in "Pitch Black").

To be fair, the film does have a few creepy, spooky and/or suspenseful moments, even if you can clearly see the puppeteer's strings as he sets up and delivers them. Those with low tolerance levels or little exposure to such films may find it quite spooky and/or frightening. For everyone else, however, the film will feel like more of the same old, same old, and definitely comes up short in terms of comparing to classics of the genre.

Various bits of unbelievable material and storytelling that are too obvious don't help matters. For instance, the mystery of what really happened on the ship is a bit too easy to figure out. That's due to it not being terribly complicated, but also because the filmmakers don't veil it in enough mystery.

Then there's the fact that the sub's crew feels more like a casting call assemblage of actors rather than the real thing, and most of the characters are barely identified or distinguishable thanks to being one-note creations.

They also let the film's lone female character of any note -- Olivia Williams ("The Sixth Sense," "The Postman") playing one of the rescued civilians- roam about the sub as if she runs the place and speak her mind a bit too freely (both of which would be highly unlikely in terms of the story and its temporal setting). An underwater venture into the cold and deep North Atlantic doesn't seem to faze the divers (with bare hands and other exposed skin), and that's yet just another credibility problem that pokes holes into the side of this vessel.

Coming off as something of "U-571" meets "The Abyss" and "The Fog," the film's script simply isn't as taut, imaginative or scary as it should be, which comes as a surprise since co-writer Aronofsky has proven he can get a lot of mileage out of simple ideas in the past. Had the sub simply been haunted (by its captain or even those it sank and killed in the past) that would have been one thing, but the added Nancy Drew mystery element of what happened onboard simply diffuses what should and could have been a creepier aura.

As far as the performances are concerned, Williams, Bruce Greenwood ("Swept Away," "Thirteen Days"), Holt McCallany ("Men of Honor," "Three Kings"") and Matt Davis ("Blue Crush," "Legally Blonde") get the most prominent roles and are all okay, but certainly don't (and can't) do anything tremendous or remarkable with their parts. Since we don't know or care much about them, their various encounters with the unknown don't have as much impact as they should.

Too derivative for its own good (or that of the viewer) and simply not scary, suspenseful or intriguing enough in its design or execution, the film is simply a transplanted haunted house effort where the transplant didn't take quite as well as intended. "Below" rates as a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 10, 2002 / Posted October 18, 2002

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