Below (2002)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurette, Deleted Scenes, Trailer

When I first heard about "Below" I knew that this was a movie for me. A film about a haunted World War Two submarine penned by Darren Aronofsky, directed by David Twohy, and starring the vastly underrated Bruce Greenwood is a can’t miss proposition in my book. Sadly, the film came and went in theaters before I had a chance to see it. Rumor has it that Disney-owned Dimension Films was scared off when Paramount’s big name, big budget sub flick "K-19: The Widowmaker" failed to make much of a splash at the box office.

More’s the pity as "Below" is one heck of a fine film. Hopefully this DVD release will gain it the audience it so richly deserves.

Bruce Greenwood stars as Lt. Brice, acting C.O. of the U.S. Navy submarine the U.S.S. Tiger Shark. After a successful torpedo attack on a German ship, the submarine is called to rescue the survivors of a British hospital ship sinking in the same area. No sooner do they take on board the three survivors then they come under attack from a German surface vessel. What follows is the obligatory depth-charging scene but fans of sub films will be most pleased when a heretofore rarely seen weapon comes into play — grappling hooks. Very cool indeed.

Tensions on board the submarine come to a head when the crew learns that of their three new passengers one is a wounded German POW and another is a pretty English nurse named Claire Paige (Olivia Williams). Soon the crew is fighting not only the Germans above but among themselves as well. In the meantime, the viewer begins to learn that Lt. Brice is acting C.O. because something terrible happened to the boat’s captain during that earlier attack.

Just as the crew and passengers begin to grasp the reality of what has happened, the submarine seemingly takes on a mind of its own and no one can stop its headlong rush back to the scene of the earlier sinking — a trip that seems likely to kill everyone onboard.

"Below" is a finely-crafted film that seemingly has everything going for it. Darren Aronofsy’s screenplay is full of the kind of detail and intelligence that we’ve come to expect from his work. This film rewards the attentive viewer as the script never panders to the audience or bludgeons them over the head with the obvious easy scares. Subtlety is an attribute too often lacking in modern horror cinema but "Below" has it in spades.

I’ve also been a fan of director David Twohy since seeing his work on 1996’s "The Arrival." Like his previous efforts, "Below" is well-paced, suitably creepy, and yet another fine genre film from a director who isn’t afraid to treat the horror and sci-fi fields with respect.
The cast is uniformly good and Bruce Greenwood delivers yet another fine performance. A true character actor, Greenwood invests this role with a real sense of foreboding and it’s clear from the very start that Brice has something to hide. Olivia Williams is also great and — surprise, surprise — her character somehow manages to make it through the entire film without being dragged into any predictable romantic entanglements.

So why then did the film perform so poorly at the box office? In a word, marketing. While some films are able to overcome their small marketing budgets and gain audiences over time due to positive word of mouth, most underperforming movies are yanked within a week or two of their release and shunted off to the home video department with nary a second thought.

Presented in 1.85:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, "Below" arrives on DVD sporting one of the finest video transfers that I’ve seen in some time. The image is razor sharp and packed with fine detail. There is some minor edge enhancement but on the whole this is an incredibly lifelike transfer. Black levels are solid and colors are natural and stable throughout. One note, however. On my primary player (a Malata) the DVD exhibited a glitch whereby every 15 minutes or so the video would freeze for a moment like at a layer change. None of the other players I tested the disc on displayed this problem so I’m chalking it up as one of those annoying player-specific compatibility issues.
Some fancy camera tricks are used as well so don’t mistake the intentional strobe-like visual effects for problems with the transfer. From the opening minutes of "Below" I was in awe of the video presentation and kudos go to Dimension Films for not skimping on the DVD for a film they seemingly had no interest in during its theatrical run.

Audio is presented in a fine English <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 mix>. In classic submarine movie tradition, the soundtrack is an aural delight with active surrounds, thumping bass, and surprises coming out of all the speakers. As active as the track is, it is also finely balanced and not once did I have to reach for the remote to catch a quiet passage of dialogue or compensate for an over-amped sound effect.

Fortunately for fans of the film, the DVD also offers up a few solid bonus features. First up is a <$commentary,commentary track> featuring director David Twohy and actors Matt Davis, Bruce Greenwood, Holt McCallany, Zach Galifianakis, and Nick Chinlund. For a track with so many participants this one still manages to stay on track and the various viewpoints lead to an informative, and at times humorous, discussion of the film.

Next up is a 12-minute featurette called "The Process." This is an excellent behind-the-scenes piece that offers cast and crew insights, outtakes, storyboards, and set designs all in one coherent and well-organized package. Also included are three deleted scenes one of which offers up an alternate ending. Available with or without director commentary, these bits are actually quite good. Rounding out the extras is the film’s theatrical trailer.

If you’re like me then movies have long since lost any ability to provide real, blood-chilling scares. I suppose that’s the price of growing older and more jaded but I do so miss being scared out of my wits by a well-done horror film. While "Below" did nothing to change this sad situation, it did provide some genuinely creepy atmosphere and just enough startling moments to keep me on the edge of my seat.

As if the effective horror elements weren’t enough, "Below" is also an excellent submarine film that offers up the usual features of that genre while also offering some new twists for those of us who think we’ve seen it all.

It’s a real shame that the box office was so unkind to this gem of a film but here’s hoping that the DVD will prove an unqualified success. Featuring stellar audio and video quality as well as a smattering of good extras, "Below" arrives on DVD in fine form. I really can’t recommend this one enough and I can’t wait to sit down and watch it again.