My review of the suspense film The Dark Below, which opens in America on the 17th.
Every couple of decades, someone hits on the idea of doing a dialogue-free thriller. Russell Rouse made The Thief, with Ray Milland, in 1952 … Luc Besson’s 1983 The Last Battle was set in a post-apocalypse world where everyone had lost the capacity for speech … and the odd little hit-man thriller AKP: Job 27 dispensed with chat in 2012. Douglas Schultze’s survival-against-the-odds ordeal doesn’t entirely omit talk – its single line (‘Love is cold’) is whispered early on by the villain to the heroine and makes up for the lack of talk with an almost through-composed, lush score by David Bateman when it might actually have benefited from a few quiet stretches allowing for nature sounds or heavy breathing. In one sequence, the exhausted heroine hides from the killer under a tarpaulin – and it’s only the loud music that covers up what must be her heavy breathing so she can stay hidden. Much of the film takes place under the ice of a frozen lake but also in the dark of the heroine’s head, as she has flashbacks that fill in how she came to be in this quandary.
It opens in media res with Rachel (Lauren Mae Shafer) being choked by mild-looking Ben (David G.B. Brown), who force-feeds her a knockout drug, dresses her in a wetsuit and then makes a hole in the ice to drop her through – presumably to stage an accident. Naturally, Rachel is tougher to kill that he expects and is motivated to survive and fight back. The flashbacks establish that Rachel has a prior relationship with Ben – they are married, run a diving shop/school together and have had a daughter (Seraphina Anne) who might not be around any more. Also in the picture is Rachel’s tough Mom (Veronica Cartwright) and an ongoing mystery about all the women who have vanished in these parts. Without conventional dialogue scenes, the set-up story has to be told in simple scenes – most impressive are the various sequences that depict Lauren’s growing sense that there’s something very wrong with her husband, especially when she drops by the pool with their child and finds him holding a struggling young woman under water. We get a few bits of literal signposting as plot points are conveyed by framed newspaper headlines or wadded-up missing persons posters that might have been used in a child’s collage, but there are still lacunae as we have to fill in motivational blanks … though the embedded horror of Ben’s casual evil is powerfully sold.
The immediate business of struggling on and under the ice takes a while to grip, with a few too many convenient air pockets and distractions to prolong the agony – but the later stages are grueling, as Rachel’s fingers go black from exposure (in ghastly fashion, one snaps off) and she finds it hard even to grip the edge of an ice-hole to pull herself free. The struggle isn’t unpredictable, but Shafer and Brown seem committed to suffering agonies in order to tell the story and miraculously hold back from the sort of gurning that must be a temptation in these circumstances. An especial nod to Jen Coakley and Kodi Sparkman, the credited make-up artists, for their work in making Shafer seem a credible victim of exposure. Schultze wrote and directed, from a story he devised with editor/production designer Jonathan D’Ambrosio.
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