Call it The Haunt for Red October without sarcasm. Director David Twohy, the mind behind the superb, under-seen films Pitch Black and The Arrival, created a deliriously watchable hybrid with his 2002 thriller Below, a ghost story-slash-submarine thriller. Co-written by Twohy, Lucas Sussman, and Darren Aronofosky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream), the film is nonetheless Twohy's show, bringing the same gut-clenching sense of claustrophobic dread to undersea sub thrillers that Pitch Black did to sci-fi monster flicks. It's 1943 and three survivors of a torpedoed British hospital ship are fished out of the Atlantic and brought on board the U.S.S. Tiger Shark. That one of the survivors is a woman nurse Claire Page (Olivia Williams) is seen as bad luck by the crew. But it soon becomes apparent that the bad luck started before the Brits were ever hauled out of the drink the sub's captain has been killed in a mysterious accident and the acting commander, icy Lieutenant Brice (Bruce Greenwood), seems to be hiding something. The bad luck continues when the sub is spotted by a German destroyer; as the crew fights with mechanical problems and fends off the Germans, weird happenings (like spooky voices, ghostly faces, and a phonograph that plays Benny Goodman on its own) increase the tension. Is the sub haunted, or are they all starting to go wacky from stress and oxygen deprivation? And what the hell happened to the captain, anyway?
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The story of Below is just slightly over-the-top, Saturday-matinee ghost-movie stuff, but Twohy has a gift for making the material rip along at a brisk pace. The visuals delight without distracting Greenwood's eye, peering into the lens of the periscope, reflects the German destroyer he sees; cynical Lt. Loomis (Holt McCallany) gets a good case of the willies when his reflection in a dark mirror doesn't quite keep pace with his actions. Twohy uses the limited space inside the sub to great advantage, recalling the cramped terror of Alien and John Carpenter's The Thing, while the ship's crew which also includes actors Matt Davis, Scott Foley, Dexter Fletcher, Nick Chinlund, and Jason Flemyng gradually take on the haunted, trapped expressions of the anxiously doomed. The writing cleverly avoids cliché, even deliberately derailing one hackneyed possible scenario by having the characters themselves dismiss it; while trying to figure out why all this spookiness is happening, one comic-book-reading crew member (played by comedian Zach Galifianakis) suggests that maybe they're all really dead and the noises they're hearing are the rescue crew trying to get into the sub. It's a brilliant way of letting the audience know that's not what's going on at precisely the moment they may start wondering if it is. The slim theatrical release given this movie by Dimension Films, after letting it gather dust for about two years, pushed it as a Halloween-season, B-grade horror movie then left it to wither and die in a small handful theaters, earning only about $500,000. This is a shame, because Below is smarter and scarier than most of its big-release contemporaries. But perhaps, maybe, it'll get the second life it deserves on home video. It certainly deserves a place on the shelf next to similar smart-horror flicks, the sort that rely on good writing like The Others, The Sixth Sense, and Session 9. Buena Vista's DVD release is a nice package, considering the lack of fanfare with which the film originally hit theaters. The anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is very clean, with great clarity and detail; this is a very dark film with a lot of shadows, but nothing gets lost. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is superb, bringing out the best of Graeme Revell's haunting soundtrack and all the requisite submarine-movie audio effects; every ping from the sonar and boom from the depth charges is crystal clear (and often quite jarring), with all the dialogue clean as well. This isn't the sort of DVD that stereo nuts will buy purely for the workout their speakers will get but considering the audio track features everything from explosions to whispery ghost voices, it's an impressive mix. Also on board is a commentary with director Twohy and actors Davis, Greenwood, McCallany, Galifianakis, and Chinlund; it's a chummy track, with lots of reminisces about rehearsals and performance choices, and the group seems to genuinely like each other and their film. It's not especially informative about the technical aspects of the movie, however. There are also a couple of deleted scenes (with optional commentary by Twohy); the theatrical trailer; trailers for other Dimension releases; and a very good, too-short "making-of" featurette called "The Process" (12:20), which combines Twohy's personal behind-the-scenes video log with storyboards and final footage in a very entertaining way. Keep-case.