Films that confine their actions to deeply constrained locations are always exploiting the claustrophobic nature of the theatrical space itself. Whether they are caught in a submersible (Pressure, 2015; The Chamber, 2016), a lift (Abwärts, 1984; Blackout, 2008; Devil, 2010; Elevator, 2011), a sauna (247℉, 2011), a phone booth (Phone Booth, 2002), on a funicular (Frozen, 2010), inside a buried coffin (Buried, 2010), or just between a rock and a hard place (127 Hours, 2010), characters who are stuck for the duration of a film trap us along with themselves, rooted as we are to our seats with only limited supplies and our own wits to ensure that we have not lost our breath by the end. The Dark Below is only the latest film to play on an audience’s anxieties about entrapment and ever-present desire to know where the exit is. Directed and co-written (with editor/production designer Jonathan D’Ambrosio) by Douglas Mimesis Schulze, it offers the high-concept premise of a woman (Lauren Mae Shafer) trapped beneath the ice of a lake, struggling not to drown or freeze to death while her tormentor and would-be killer (David G.B. Brown) waits above for her to surface.
“Silence is the most powerful scream,” reads text at the beginning of The Dark Below. Below the ice, Rachel is rendered mute – and accordingly the film too restricts itself to being dialogue-free, with the words “Love is cold”, whispered by Ben shortly before he plunges Rachel into the freezing waters near the start of the film, being the only audible line. This lack of speech just adds to the sense of filmic economy already established by the very limited settings – although, as if by way of compensation for so spare a set-up, composer David Bateman allows himself to indulge in an often melodramatic and overpowering score, ensuring that the characters’ silence is not also the movie’s.
There are other escapes, too, from the narrative’s self-imposed minimalist restrictions – for if the sub-aquatic darkness might sound an unappealing milieu even for the mere 75 minutes of this film’s running time, in fact Rachel’s mind drifts during this ordeal to impressionistic flashbacks that show her evolving relationship with Ben over the years, as well as her relationship with her own mother (Veronica Cartwright) and young daughter (Arielle Kchikian). Sure enough, while The Dark Below presents itself as a taut survival thriller, its subtext, submerged beneath the surface of all that cat-and-mouse, is of a woman stuck in a loveless, airless marriage with an abusive misogynist, and struggling to emerge intact. Whether Rachel ever manages to break free, or remains caught in her own desperate fantasies of escape, might well leave viewers too feeling unsure if they have quite found their way out of this film’s ambiguities by the end.
© Anton Bitel