Story Pile: Below

1943. The Atlantic Ocean. The single greatest U-Boat operation of the entire war thus far has just finished. The USS Tiger Shark cuts beneath the waves, an absolute behemoth of metal and sweat, a machine made for this new, unique field of battle. The sea struggles around, the bellows pump, and the sonar pings, as this great, heaving, terrifying machine, a mystery to even those who drive it answer a call.

There’s a British hospital ship, it’s sunk, and there are survivors. As the only ship nearby, the Tiger Shark breaches and rescues three people; two patients of the hospital ship, and a woman nurse.

But it’s not well on the Tiger Shark. A woman is bad luck, they say, and the morale is seemingly down in the dumps. A malaise hovers over everything. The patients aren’t looking hopeful, the captain seems haggard and haunted, and there’s a something wrong that nobody can name.

Is it a ghost story?

A horror story?

A spy thriller, where a saboteur somehow infiltrates the Submarine?

Well… yes.

Content Warning: This movie is about a horror scenario with death on a submarine, so there’s drowning, there’s guns, there’s Nazis, there’s creepy ghosty stuff. You know, kinda what you’d expect.

Below is a real cracker of a horror movie that I watched once upon a time on Youtube where it was free, for some reason. But it seems that since its original appearance on Youtube, the movie has since been found and pulled down and now it has a rental sticker on it, and if you haven’t a streaming service with this movie, it’s not a pull all of its own. Below is a very particular kind of movie, a movie that sort of exists in a venn diagram of, well, do you like ghost stories, do you like submarine movies, do you like thriller plot movies, do you like mystery movies? And if you do, if you’re in the middle of that overlap, then yeah, you should really check out Below.

Below is a movie that does a lot with some things that are unfamiliar but familiar seeming. Look, you and I do not know what 1943 submarines look like, statistically speaking. I wouldn’t know, without looking it up, if those submarines were multidecker, or if they were segregated or not, or even if they would be in the Atlantic ocean. I mean, I did look it up, and the answer is no they weren’t, yes they were segregated, and no they were primarily in the Pacific. The tactics of the Germans in this movie are … let’s say lightly, incorrect, for obvious reasons.

But also that doesn’t matter, because all of those changes are in aid of making this movie – a ghost story about being stuck in a space that is both mysterious and that you desperately need – absolutely excellent. The movie set is beautiful in its own way, with big chunky industrial machinery, turning handles of metal, buttons that light up over big heavy dipswitches and extremely old seeming but probably not actually that old material machinery outlining the setting. There’s a terror in the submarine itself, a fear of what metal under strain does. More than once, this is used to show a sort of soul to the machine; and the way it breaks is also used to terrifying effect.

The plot is, reasonably, good as these things go. I appreciate that it chooses to make its message about what it is. In my opinion, in a good ghost story, you’re either going to definitely see the ghost or you’re never going to see anything that disproves the ghost. This movie has some things that could easily be coincidence, but having them happen all at once is extremely unlikely, and then you throw in the way the movie feels, you’re left with a lovely ambiguity. A good spooky ghost story.

What got my attention to this movie was another one of those things I like to do, where I find someone associated with some work – good or bad – and look for other parts of their careers. That is how I wound up watching Hanna, following the work of Troy from The Final Sacrifice. That’s how I watched Poolhall Junkies, following the work of Adam Chase, Agent From Harm. But this one, the thing that got my attention was following the name Dexter Fletcher, aka Spike from Press Gang.

Fletcher, who probably will be best known from hereon out for directing Rocketman, the Elton John biopic, plays a minor part in this movie. But once I started this movie, I saw to my surprise that the cast was jam-packed with these second stringers. The captain? That’s John F Kennedy from historical political thriller Thirteen Days and Captain Pike from the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot. He’s the voice of Batman, lately. The nurse was played by Olivia Williams, who uh, she was also in Hanna, and a series regular in Dollhouse. Odell, you may recognise from The Vampire Diaries or Legally Blonde, and our terrifying monster man XO is played by Holt McCallany from Mindhunters. I could go on – oh hey another Scrubs actor that played an ex-boyfriend of Elliot’s – but at this point I’d just be best pointing you to the movie’s IMDB page.

Oh, oh Zach Galafinakis is in this? And he’s just straight up a serious character who’s meant to be unsettling and does some scary stuff?

But then there’s also the director. Daren Aranofsky. Yeah that one. He also wrote some of the screenplay, too.

Okay, so this movie was kind of star-studded, in its own weird way, right? How’d it do.

Below was not a successful movie. It did not bring a big paycheque to its writers and producer, that included Darren ‘yes, that one’ Aranofsky. It cost $40 million to make and it made something like $600,000.

The weird thing is that this movie then gets to be a kind of rare treat: A tasteful bomb. It’s not full of arch and badly delivered lines, or overambitious, ridiculous action. The character actors are all very good, especially at giving you the feeling of tension that they believe they’re under. The special effects don’t look too ridiculous and there’s repeated use of close, lurking shots and some truly terrifying internal visuals of what the internal, non-populated parts of a submarine even look like. It’s not a great movie, I guess, as far as capitalism cares, and it’s not my personal favourite or anything like that, but it is surprisingly enjoyable as a spooky, chilling, ghostly affair that lives past the boundaries of just the big names.

If you’re interested in checking out ‘failed cinema’ because you want to see things that live below the level of polish, if you want to broaden your tastes without necessarily wanting to jump all the way to Samurai Cop, you could do worse than to check out Below.

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