Below, plus Masters of Horror: Imprint - 4/9

To some, tequila is nectar of the gods. To others, it’s the Devil’s piss. Many years ago I had a bad night on tequila and got horribly sick afterwards, and now the taste itself turns my stomach. Strangely enough, I can handle margaritas – but tonight Oblisk the Tormentor brought over a bottle of Jose Cuervo’s Black Tequila for us to try. Being that this is specifically designed to be taken with cola, our party guests mixed up some beverages to go with tonight’s feature – the haunted submarine thriller, Below. It wasn’t too long before someone was horribly sick.

Granted, this could have been unrelated to the tequila, since everyone else survived alive. But yet another tequila-related sickness incident was enough to put me off the stuff. I stuck with Pepsi and remained stone cold sober for the entire night.

Baygen arrived with stolen ice cream cake, somehow liberated from an ice cream truck by her father. This is about as much information as I have, and I can’t verify any of it, suffice to say that the cake itself (yellow, with vanilla ice cream sandwiched between layers) was delicious.

Below was a movie - along with Equilibrium, Darkness, and a host of other genre titles – that Dimension Films dumped to a handful of theaters (168 screens opening weekend) without fanfare or promotional support, in spite of being a unique and well made little ghost story. It was directed by David Twohy, hot off the success of Pitch Black, and is more than competently constructed and performed.

The film is set during WWII on the US submarine Tiger Shark. Having picked up three British survivors of a U-boat attack the crew finds themselves hunted by a German destroyer, suffering mechanical failures and plagued by increasingly frequent “hauntings”. Is there a malevolent spirit on board, or is the crew suffering the effects of damage to the ventilation system – which is pumping more hydrogen than oxygen? Rescued female passenger Claire Paige (Olivia Williams) thinks it’s the former, and together with Ensign Odell (Matt Davis), tries to get to the bottom of the mystery. A few nights prior the boat lost its captain in the aftermath of a U-boat sinking, and current skipper Lt. Brice (Bruce Greenwood) is becoming frayed at the edges.

There’s a certain charm about the crewmembers of the sub, which speak in authentic 40’s slang and include one fellow who reads Weird Tales aloud to his shipmates. That they are not played by any A-list actors probably contributed to the film’s marketing woes, but to director Twohy’s credit all performers are more than up to the task. The film manages to create a claustrophobic atmosphere and amps up the tension along the way with nice, understated creepy moments befitting its status as a ghost story, and wisely avoids the CGI bombast of other genre pics such as the remake of The Fog. If there was any complaint it would be that the film builds to an ending that seems a bit muted compared to what’s expected. It makes sense for the characters and the situation, but I was left a bit disappointed by the payoff.

The movie was written originally by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), under the title Proetus. Director Twohy has been in the game for some time, credited as writer on the guilty pleasure Warlock, the unfortunate Critters 2: The Main Course, the Harrison Ford vehicle The Fugitive, and Kevin Costner’s bloated epic Waterworld. He moved on to feature directing with the underrated alien invasion flick The Arrival, and followed up this film with the underwhelming Pitch Black sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick.

Star Bruce Greenwood alternates between arthouse dramas and Hollywood blockbusters. I thought he was exceptional in Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (he also starred in Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter). His genre creds include Disturbing Behavior, The Core and I, Robot. Olivia Williams was Bruce Willis’ wife in The Sixth Sense.

Below deserves to be seen. It's a smart story that takes the old tropes of the haunted house story and relocates them 600 feet beneath the ocean surface, well made and worth a look.

I followed the main movie up with a special double feature item – Miike Takashi’s episode of Masters of Horror. Banned by Showtime Networks in the USA, the episode ran on the UK’s Bravo channel and somehow ended up in my basement. Masters of Horror, for those unaware, was conceived as a direct to video anthology that gathered thirteen directors from around the world to produce one hour “mini-movies” for a limited budget. The lineup included names like John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, Tobe Hooper, Joe Dante, Lucky McKee and John Landis. The series (ultimately televised by Showtime prior to its DVD release by co-financier Anchor Bay Entertainment) is a hit and miss affair, with more turkeys than one would have hoped with that roster of “masters” at the helm.

Reportedly Showtime took one look at Takashi’s episode, Imprint, and decided against airing it for us poor folks in the States. Takashi, who’s Audition and Ichi the Killer were screened in the Basement Cinema in the past, sets his story on a mysterious 19th century Japanese island inhabited only by “whores and demons”. Billy Drago headlines(!) as an American searching for a prostitute he fell in love with but instead ends up in the company of a disfigured whore who weaves a web of stories (told in flashback) involving his beloved, vindictive prostitutes, and torture that involves needles inserted under the fingernails as an opener. Things get worse, as more is revealed about the storyteller’s family history that includes abortions, incest, child molestation and genetic freaks.

Showtime must’ve been squeamish about handling a social hot potato that involves abortion and infant cruelty, which is unfortunate because the film is clearly one of the best of the first season. It’s shot with an eye toward painterly beauty (as compared to the bulk of the American episodes, which were all shot in Toronto under the eye of D.P. Attila Szalay, who’s responsible for the nearly uniformly flat, made-for-television look and feel), and its genuinely nasty and disturbing (cringe worthy is also an apt description) – more successful even than Miike’s most recent short subject, Box, for the omnibus Asian horror film, Three…Extremes. It also points up a divide between Takashi and his American cousins: the mantra of Masters of Horror is carte blanche for the directors, which apparently meant extra gore and nudity to the US guys, while to Takashi it offered a chance to push the boundaries of good taste and discomfort (which is pretty much what he does on a regular basis anyway). This is also, to my best recollection, his first extensively English-language work.

Next up - Superman: The Movie