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If there’s anything movies of this type do, it’s find ways to kill or attempt to kill in the most cleverest of ways. Time was, a good gunshot or a stabbing would do the trick in doing away with whomever was reaching the end of their mortal coil, but as the decades have passed, screenwriters have gone out of their way in coming up with more and more creative methods in dispatching victims. With audiences now growing accustomed to it, it takes something truly off the now very wide beaten path to stand out.
Here comes The Dark Below, a film that is entirely about the clever murder scheme, and one that doesn’t waste any time in setting it up and playing it out. In the opening shots, a woman (Lauren Mae Shafer) is being attacked by a man (David G.B. Brown), who strangles her, drugs her, suits her up in cold-water diving gear, straps her in an oxygen tank (minus most of the good stuff) and tosses her in a frozen lake, hoping to make it look like an accident. And that’s the first twenty minutes.
Now trapped under the ice, with a small pocket of air she finds caught between the water and the surface, she hangs on while we flashback to when their relationship began, him as a diving instructor and she a student, leading to a whirlwind wedding, a daughter, and then revelations that he is not quite the man of her dreams. Hints are slow to come, but a pattern develops and soon a madness settles. Her husband is a cold-blooded killer.
Now here’s the trick, one that will take this already carefully balanced premise and topple into icy oblivion or sell it completely: It has no dialogue. None, save for three very meaningful spoken words in the beginning. The film is dependent entirely on the performances and for the most part, it works surprisingly well. As the flashbacks are a hazy wash of memories, the mute approach lends them an ethereal feel, especially given the circumstances for how they are being remembered.
It’s a clever idea, and honestly a bold one, taking a risk in telling a story entirely in visuals. Writer/director Douglas Schulze makes some courageous choices here in letting only the actions of his characters rather than their words craft our impressions of them, and for most of the experience, the film takes on a kind of dreamlike state where the world has become silent. What’s all the more shocking is that what might seem like a gimmick actually becomes more compelling as it moves on, challenging the actors to do with their bodies what they can’t with their voices. There’s none in the cast better than veteran Veronica Cartwright in doing this, whom with but a look, tells her story with mighty impact.
To supplement the lack of words though, Schulze relies on composer David Bateman (and additional music by Eric ‘Bobo’ Correa) to layer the film in a lavish score, a mix of standard orchestral movements, electronic beats, and choral pieces that often go too big. This is compounded with a penchant for Schulze to employ ultra slo-motion in lengthy sequences that don’t really serve the plot other than to pad it out, especially in the final act that combines it all and pushes this excess to its very limits. It’s a push-me-pull-you moment that feels a little avant-garde and a little overdone.
That said, The Dark Below is a compelling experiment. While the indie film scene is often a breeding ground for innovation, it’s always encouraging to see filmmakers make leaps off cliffs in the name of doing something progressive. There are flaws in The Dark Below, but there are more things that deserve a closer look, beginning with Shafer’s extraordinary physical performance and the film’s total commitment to its premise. These alone make it worth a look.
The Dark Below releases in select US theaters March 10.
Movie description: The Dark Below is a 2017 thriller about a woman struggling to survive beneath a frozen lake as her would-be killer circles above.
Director(s): Douglas Schulze
Actor(s): Lauren Mae Shafer, David G.B. Brown, Veronica Cartwright