March 14, 2017 The Dark Below (Movie Review)
Silence is the most powerful scream. Imagine being trapped beneath a frozen lake, knowing that above awaits a sociopath hell-bent on your destruction. The ultimate, sadistic game of cat and mouse awaits when Parade Deck Films brings the Indie Thriller The Dark Below to select theaters on Friday, March 17th in Los Angeles and the following Friday, March 24th in New York City.
From the brilliantly warped mind of Director/Writer Douglas Shulze (Dark Heaven 2002, Mimesis 2011), The Dark Below is a beautiful blend of Thriller and Art/Indie film that is deeply steeped in psychology and visual storytelling roots. Visual cues become metaphors in this film that only contains three spoken words (“Love is cold”) and unfolds like a visual novella. At just 75 minutes, including over five minutes of credits, this is a film that might outwardly appear abrupt, but it is massive on impact.
The Dark Below opens with a sheet of chilled ice and a struggle. A man in a USA official seal-bearing winter parka mixes chemicals like some mad scientist. He pours the concoction down his victim’s throat, zips her into a wet suit, and the arctic ice out on the lake freezes harder. We move out onto that sheet of ice and find red and white “diver down” flags signaling that someone is about to be underneath that frigid tundra. We hear the sadist’s breath, his footsteps, the snow crunching under his boots. He carries his victim to a previously staged scene on the permafrost, search lights and flags mark the scene of the future crime.
As the story slowly unfolds, we learn that this victim is Rachel, a young wife and mother, portrayed by Lauren Mae Shafer (Secrets in the Walls 2010, Mimesis 2011). Her tormentor is named Ben and portrayed by David G.B. Brown (Mimesis 2011, The Ark of the Witch 2014). Setting this entire cheetah and gazelle dance of destruction into motion, Ben carries Rachel out onto the glacial plateau, straps an oxygen tank onto her back, gives her a dive hood and mask, tosses a pair of fins into the hole for good measure. Freezing, teeth chattering, struggling to understand what is happening, Rachel is unceremoniously dumped into the frigid lake and so truly begins our story.
Beneath the surface, Rachel struggles to right her dive mask, find her mouthpiece, and set herself to rights in the frigid lake. Above the surface, Ben circles like a vulture searching for carrion. There is a sequence of surfacings, struggles; Rachel always ends back below with Ben on top. He holds vigil over the frozen surface on his knees, as if bowed in prayer. While he wears a perpetual scowl, Ben is handsome; not what one would expect from a crazed madman who has orchestrated such a creative nightmare. It is a sad truth that we like our monsters noticeably horrifying, not human like ourselves.
As the sun sets, the air tank hits empty and Ben saunters off triumphantly. Little does he know, Rachel has used her dive training to discover an air pocket beneath the ice. As she struggles to keep herself afloat, face pressed to the jagged ice and stealing every possible breath, we flashback to an earlier time. A hesitant, cautious Rachel is taking a ladies-only diving class.
When her classmates quickly don their masks and dunk beneath the practice pool’s surface without pause, she hesitates and is noticeably nervous. The teacher approaches her, whispers jovially in her ear and she dons her mask with a hesitant smile. He offers her his hand and they take her first dip below the surface together. As the scene plays out, it becomes clear that Rachel is slowly coming to trust the suave dive instructor with the affable smile, to believe in Ben.
Rachel’s next flashback contains a simple white gown, Ben in a Hawaiian shirt. Their family and friends are gathered for the celebration and we are introduced to Tess, portrayed by Veronica Cartwright (Alien 1979, The Witches of Eastwick 1987). Whether Tess is supposed to be Rachel’s mother, a treasured friend, or the owner of the dive shop where this couple have met, we do not know; but it is clear that the relationship here is emotionally significant for the women.
The flashbacks continue with a scene at the couple’s new dive shop, where two framed newspaper clippings proclaim: “Dive Couple Opens Shop” and “Ice Divers To Wed.” Standing beside the cash register and the framed clippings, Tess steps back and we see a hugely pregnant Rachel, beaming. For his part, Ben is off in the distance, assisting a cute, young customer. He jostles the newspaper clippings, and we wonder if he is trying to hide something or simply embarrassed by all the hype. As the story continues to meander through flashbacks and underwater struggles, it becomes abundantly clear that there are quite a few things ‘off’ with the man that Rachel has married. He has, after all, shoved her into a frozen lake and left her to die. Not going to win Husband of the Year, this one!
The Dark Below is told at a slow, yet steady pace, without words, through visually poetic cues and a perfectly-orchestrated musical score by multi-platinum Recording Artist Eric Bobo (Beastie Boys, Cypress Hill) and Composer David Bateman. Many frames are visual metaphors, propelling the story along by screaming cues at the viewer. The film is a beautiful dance, a game of cat and mouse that is a continuous struggle between the crazed husband and the determined wife, a poetic tit for tat.
Please remember, there are no words spoken here: so these two characters are going to battle to the death through snow and success, failures and frostbite. All the while, the visual cues throughout The Dark Below are a mix of subtle and blatant. In a film with absolutely no script, the often obvious cues do not so much dumb down the film – as they might others – as reinforce and move the plot along. Let’s be honest: the general public is not all that swift, and some flashing neon arrows are sometimes required to ‘get’ them there.
An intelligent film, The Dark Below is not about the darkness below a sheet of winter but rather a scathing indictment of the darkness possible inside certain human souls. It is not so much a simple movie, as a visual novella that tells the story of one sadistic sociopath and the family that he created then single-handedly tore apart.
Like the great minimalist short stories of Raymond Carver, this is a tale that might as well have never named its lead characters; for all basic purposes, they are “She” and “Him.” The story continually cycles backward upon itself, referencing earlier visual cues. Pay attention or you might miss some of the best irony. (Pleasant Lake, anyone?)
The acting here is superb, communicating an entire film with a script of just three words. Shafer is truly made to suffer for her art herein: acting out emotions underwater, in the Michigan winter, and often times with merely the use of facial expressions to translate paragraphs of text. She is impressive in her ability to portray so very much with so little. Brown is equally impressive: raging, scowling, pacing like a caged lion but uttering only those haunting three words. As his character grows enraged with the inability to find his victim beneath the frozen slab, we cannot help but laugh; because as any Horror movie aficionado knows, serial killers just hate it when you refuse to die.
The Dark Below is an excellent exploration of the darkness present in humanity. An artistic tale that travels a slow but steady path, Shulze’s story takes cues from literary greats like Carver and creates two characters that may as well be named “she” and “him.” The specifics of their relationship and personalities are vastly overshadowed by the most important fact in their marriage: he is a sociopathic serial killer.
Using an extreme Michigan winter to create a literal divide between the pair, Shulze weaves a tale that feels entirely literary in its visual undertakings. Perhaps the film’s lack of dialogue and slow motion pace may be a turnoff to some, but for the sophisticated movie-goer, The Dark Below is a wonderful, artistic, intelligent exploration of the dark. Additional theatrical releases will soon follow, please check local listings for possible showing dates/times. For everything mentioned, CrypticRock gives The Dark Below 4 of 5 stars.