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Making it big while doing what you love is hard work, requiring years of commitment. To that end, David N. Twohy deserves some of the recognition he has received lately.
Twohy has been slaving away in the Hollywood salt mines for fifteen years and has always tried to remain faithful to sci-fi, horror and fantasy. His duties have included some dubious assignments, such as penning the scripts for WARLOCK, TERMINAL VELOCITY and G.I. JANE. He had a minor success with THE ARRIVAL in 1996, but didn't get much recognition until PITCH BLACK, an effective sci-fi chiller from a couple years ago. Now, Twohy returns with BELOW, an eerie ghost story, heavy on psychology.
It's a film boasting the involvement of Darren Aronofsky (REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, PI). It's an effective ghost story, relying heavily on suggestion and psychology. It gained critical acclaim. It's smart and suspenseful. It's probably Twohy's greatest achievement yet? So, naturally Miramax treated it like an unwanted child.
The entire film takes place at sea. The USS Tiger Shark is a circa World War II military submarine heading for home in the States. Their plans are cut short when they receive a distress signal from a British hospital ship that had come under enemy fire. They take on three survivors, one of them a woman. This of course sends quite a stir throughout the ship.
Claire (Olivia Williams - RUSHMORE, THE MAN FROM ELYSIAN FIELDS) is a nurse, trying to bring her wounded companions back to health. The crew has a mixed reaction to her presence. Naturally, some are nervous and thrilled to have a beautiful young woman so close, after months at sea. On the other hand, there's an old myth that women are bad luck on a submarine.
It's an old, chauvinistic line, but hard to argue with. Shortly after Claire boards the Tiger Shark, strange things begin happening. An Axis sub begins taking pot shots at the crew. There are also some lingering questions about the death of the sub's former commanding officer. This is especially relevant after strange noises and ghostly apparitions appear.
To be completely honest, I was less than thrilled with BELOW in the beginning. The opening scenes are exposition without action and the scenes are played stale. I wondered if this lethargic atmosphere would continue once the plot finally got underway.
Fortunately, things begin to heat up at around the fifteen minute mark, and they stay heated for the next ninety minutes.
Filmmakers have long recognized our oceans as a great setting for suspense-fueled storytelling. For one thing, there is still a lot we do not know about the seas that take up 2/3 of our planet. For another, if you're in a vessel or base, you're pretty much stuck there.
Twohy has taken this another step forward. He sets his film in a WWII-era submarine. These were small and rickety machines even then, with equipment that would often fail without notice. This is no Red October. It is a very confined area, with a packed crew, filled with dashed hope, war time jitters and clashing personalities.
Unlike today, they didn't have the sophisticated communications and tracking software available. Hence, much of the outside world is registered through sound. There is a scene early on, as an Axis ship passes overhead. Depth charges are dropped into the water as the crew of the Tiger Shark is ordered, "All stop quiet." You could hear a pin drop. The crew listens intently for any sign that their enemy has passed them by. They hear the splashes in the water, wondering if one of those splashes will be the one to give away their position or destroy them outright. Twohy handles this scene beautifully, using the silence and confinement to create tension.
This is before the paranormal activity starts making things even more difficult for the beleaguered crew. The equipment begins to malfunction as strange tapping sounds are heard outside. Benny Goodman records begin playing out of nowhere. And everything begins bringing them back to the shameful history of the Tiger Shark. It's a frightening and chilling ride. BELOW is one of those films you are unsure of at the beginning, but you have to catch your breath by the end.
I did want Twohy to do more with the psychological effects of the surroundings on the crew. It is suggested early on that many of the apparitions could be manipulations by the crew. Or perhaps their minds are playing tricks on them, a sort of mass hysteria. This is touched upon, but not nearly enough is done with it.
Also, the crew's personalities are not clearly mapped out. Granted, this is wartime, where there are various stations and everyone is expected to act responsibly. Still, various war films of the past have managed to contain a number of memorable characters. Here, only the new commanding officer, Brice (Bruce Greenwood - EXOTICA, THE SWEET HEREAFTER, THE CORE) and Douglas O'Tell (Matthew Davis - BLUE CRUSH, TIGERLAND) are truly allowed to rely on their clashing personalities.
Still, BELOW is a great chiller, one that should not have been treated so shabbily by parent company Miramax.
That's right, buckle up. It's editorial time.
At a time when an original, psychological ghost story was just the shot of counter-programming needed at the box office, they fumbled the ball. BELOW was released to just a handful of theatres with very little advertising. It's final gross stood at well under $1 million and many didn't even realize it was released.
BELOW was released by Dimension Films, a subsidiary of Miramax Pictures. Dimension typically handles what are deemed as franchise pictures. Actually, they handle the films that aren't seen as requiring as much intelligence as intellectual giants like IN THE BEDROOM or MUSIC FROM THE HEART.
Dimension has had a number of successes, but has stayed awfully close to formula recently, stressing films like HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION and 40 DAYS 40 NIGHTS. I don't like the way those films are handled one bit, but that's just me. With the recent success of THE OTHERS, it's unthinkable that they would not give BELOW the chance to repeat that success. But this is how Miramax heads, Bob and Harvey Weinstein have been operating as of late.
Miramax used to stand for something great. It wasn't just another studio, churning out product. It was a sign of quality. Often I would browse the movie showtimes in the paper or the shelves at my local video store. If I saw the tell-tale "M," it was an automatic point in the film's favor. These are the people who revitalized independent filmmaking in the United States. THE CRYING GAME (still one of my favorites), RESERVOIR DOGS, EXOTICA, PRIEST, PULP FICTION, TRAINSPOTTING, BASQUIAT, BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, CHASING AMY, DEAD MAN and HEAVENLY CREATURES? it reads like a grocery list of fine filmmaking and it barely scratches the surface about what this company has contributed to the world.
The decline didn't happen immediately, not even when the company was put under the Disney banner. But since then, things have started to slide. Oh, they still contribute. Every now and then, they'll distribute a film like AMELIE and they now have the clout to release films like Scorsese's GANGS OF NEW YORK. But what else have they been doing behind the scenes?
They have cut and delayed a number of films. They have purchased various films from Asia and have refused to release them until they deem it economically feasible - which is often years. They will often re-dub and change soundtracks to films. They will nurture horrible franchise ideas while regulating other films, which they have already paid to produce, to the netherworlds of obscurity. Some films, like the recent TANGLED will be produced, the cast and crew believing it to be a major theatrical release, only to see it quietly thrown in the straight-to-video pile.
Like I said earlier, most of this behavior is not even Miramax itself. It's the Weinstein's subsidiary, Dimension that is dirtying the water. This is a terrible way to treat the artists who produce the films that put bread on their table. And it's certainly not the behavior of anyone with a love for cinema.
Miramax used to be the lighthouse in a world of commercial B.S. It has become the distributor of art films for people who are afraid of art and where cult films go to die. I urge the Weinsteins to show their films the respect they deserve and hope Miramax will once again be the revolutionary it once was.
But once again, Miramax is top of the heap in the pedigree department, having a hand in CHICAGO, THE HOURS and GANGS. It's a good output that is almost enough to make you forget what they are doing with their Dimension line. Since CHICAGO is set to sweep the Oscars, I imagine I'm a small voice falling on deaf ears.
BELOW deserved better treatment than this. Perhaps now that it is finally being released on video, it will find its audience - an audience deemed not large or important enough to accommodate the folks at Miramax.