Below (Region 1 edition)

Starring: Bruce Greenwood, Olivia Williams, Matt Davis, Holt McCallany, Jason Flemyng & Dexter Fletcher
Dimension Home Video
RRP: $29.99 (USA only)

Certificate: R (15 cert issued for UK)
Available now

1943. The Atlantic Ocean. The US submarine USS Tiger Shark is instructed to pick up survivors from a U-boat attack on a British hospital ship but, by the time it arrives, finds that only three of the passengers and crew are still alive. And once that trio is brought aboard, the boat begins to suffer a series of strange, possibly supernatural events...

Some movies get buried because they are, quite simply, awful. Others get lost in the politics that surround any change of studio head. Then there's a third group - good films that suffer serious mistreatment because someone, somewhere is a prat. Below is definitely in that last category.

Released in the US last October to generally good reviews, the film nevertheless got minimal publicity from distributor Miramax/Dimension and now seems to be suffering much the same fate on DVD (UK plans for the film are uncertain. Although it has been sent to the censor for classification, it has dropped off its British distributor's release schedule).

Apart from Below's quality, there are other reasons why Miramax's decision is puzzling. The film is also the latest from Pitch Black director David Twohy and features a script co-penned by Darren Arononofsky (Pi, Requiem For A Dream), one of the most exciting of Hollywood's upcoming talents. Beyond that, it piggy backs on a submarine genre recently given new life by U-571, and features a cast that, while not A list, highlights some of Britain and America's better character actors.

But let's get back to basics. This is a good, fun and beautifully mounted movie. Twohy skilfully blends traditional underwater thrills with plenty of tricks from the haunted house genre - indeed it's hard to think of a much better, but largely untried location for some claustrophobic spiritual shenanigans. After the unforgivable bollix that was The Haunting remake, here's a satisfying mystery that dumps OTT SFX for atmosphere, a good script, satisfying twists and strong performances - more Robert Wise than Jan de Bont, if you will.

Sure, there are plenty of familiar reference points - there's even some very tidy but unobtrusive CGI - but while this might not relocate its 'spectres' to quite so terrifying an effect as Alien, it's a story well executed both structurally and visually (with a special nod due to director of cinematography Ian Wilson). Also by opting for actors rather than stars, Twohy gets the story played out with conviction, a big help not only as the film builds to its peep-through-the-fingers finale but also in skipping over the inevitable hole or two in the plot.

There are two standout performances. RSC actress Olivia Williams (Rushmore) is excellent as one of the survivors. Bruce Greenwood (a fantastic JFK in the equally neglected Thirteen Days) matches her as the boat's captain. However, the rest of the cast in this effective ensemble piece all emerge with credit, even Lock Stock's Jason Flemyng as he successfully tries out a Yank accent and emerging teen idol Matt Davis.

If you think I'm avoiding the plot, I have good reason. As with Pitch Black, Below works best if you know only the bare bones in advance. Twohy is a crafty director who enjoys playing with the perspectives of both the audience and the characters themselves. He manages a masterful shift in our idea of just who the 'bad' guys really are about 30 minutes in, for instance, and there is still plenty more to come. There haven't been that many directors to emerge in the last five or so years with the ability to tell a tall tale well, but Twohy is certainly one of them.

Having said that Miramax have neglected marketing the film, the DVD package is pretty good. Twohy and several cast members contribute an entertaining and generally informative commentary, that only occasionally lapses into 'friends reunited' mode.

There is also a useful clutch of deleted scenes. These mainly illustrate how Twohy actually toned down the action content because it clashed with the creepy tone he really wanted. Unfortunately, though, these cuts do not include scenes the director mentions in his commentary which were shot to give Williams' character an intriguing 'iron lung' back story.

Finally, a featurette takes a more interesting than usual look at the way certain key sequences were shot. All these additions show that a lot of time and care went into this movie, and it is there in the finished product.

On the technical specs front, the anamorphic transfer emphasises the eerie lighting with no loss of overall clarity, while a good Dolby 5.1 mix gives full voice to the atmospheric mix and Graham Revell's rich orchestral score.

We should at least be thankful that DVD will give audiences a chance to enjoy Twohy's movie much as he would have liked (assuming they are aware it has been released), and a trip to your favourite importer is definitely recommended. It still would have been fun to see an audience react to its moody tension and frequent scares.

Fight back against the dross we do have to put up with in our multiplexes - Daredevil on three screens, for pity's sake? - and buy this movie to right a disgraceful wrong.

Paul Dempsey

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