Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
Even before the woman is taken on board, the USS Tiger Shark is a submarine in trouble. The captain has been lost overboard, or at least that's the story, and tempers run high in the confined space. Then the sub rescues three drifters in a life raft, one of them a woman, whose presence on board is agreed by everyone to be bad luck on a sub, although her arrival does result in the crew wearing cleaner underwear.
Now dangers increase. The sub is tracked by Germans, who drop depth bombs and later come back to troll for it with giant grappling hooks. There is fearful damage to the periscope and the control tower. An oil leak threatens to betray the sub's position. Oxygen is running low, and hydrogen in the air is a danger to the crew's safety and sanity. And perhaps there is a ghost on board. The creepy sounds from outside the hull--of seaweed, whale songs and bouncing depth bombs--increase apprehension.
Yes, a ghost. How else to explain why a record of Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing" seems to play itself at inopportune times--as when the Germans are listening for the slightest sound from below? And when the late skipper was a Goodman fan? Of course, there could be a saboteur on board, in addition to, or perhaps instead of, the ghost.
"Below" is a movie where the story, like the sub, sometimes seems to be running blind. In its best moments it can evoke fear, and it does a good job of evoking the claustrophobic terror of a little World War II boat, but the story line is so eager to supply frightening possibilities that sometimes we feel jerked around. Isn't it possible for a submarine to be haunted without turning it into a museum of horror film devices? Of those devices, the most tiresome is the convention that surprises make sounds. In most horror movies, including many less clever than "Below," there is a visual strategy in which a character is shown in relative closeup (limiting our ability to see around him) and then startled by the unexpected appearance of another character or other visual surprise. This moment is invariably signaled on the soundtrack with a loud, alarming musical chord, or perhaps by the sound of a knife being sharpened. But surprises don't make sounds, and the cliche has become so tiresome that I submit a director might be able to create a more frightening sequence by playing the unexpected appearance in total silence.