There’s an intriguing idea at the icy, forbidding heart of Douglas Schulze’s The Dark Below, an eerie little piece of genre fare about a woman forced below the surface of a freezing lake by a brutish yet cunning killer.
And yet, even at a substandard 75 minutes, the film’s pace is so punishingly glacial – and its ideas so lethargically executed – that viewers will likely find themselves more fatigued than thrilled by its assorted gimmicks (among them a flashback-heavy script, some gnarly practical effects, and an almost complete lack of dialogue, barring one appropriately chilling remark from the looming antagonist).
What The Dark Below does offer is an effective, highly physical lead turn from Lauren Mae Shafer, whose spur-of-the-moment survivalist, named Rachel in the credits, is brutally attacked and drugged by a male adversary (David G.B. Brown), stuffed into a wetsuit, and dumped (complete with a near-empty oxygen tank) into a nearby lake, where he evidently hopes she’ll be discovered and deemed the victim of a tragic accidental drowning.
What Rachel’s attacker isn’t counting on, however, is the sheer force of will she exhibits in staving off death. Sneaking breaths of air in small pockets between frigid lake water and the iced-over surface, searching for all possible escape routes, and enduring the agony of severe frostbite, Rachel proves rather hard to kill. Of course, he’s no slacker either, waiting patiently in case she breaks the surface, only to push her back under once she does. As Schulze piles on flashbacks to break up Rachel’s very, very bad night, it becomes clear that this is no random assault. Instead, she’s married to her assailant, who also harbors malevolent intentions toward their young child and Rachel’s concerned mother (Veronica Cartwright, good but relegated to a glorified cameo part). Should Rachel fail to make it out of the water, their lives are on the line as well.
One would imagine such a claustrophobic, cat-and-mouse setup could serve as a free-flowing source of high tension, which makes the ho-hum tedium of the end result all the more disappointing. There’s real, bone-chilling appeal to the idea of staging a near-silent horror movie in the bitter, opaque darkness of ice-cold water, and in doing so turning the intended killing ground itself into a powerful adversary. And yet, Schulze achieves few moments of genuine suspense across his admittedly slim narrative, instead relying on unnecessarily protracted flashback sequences, a criminally overbearing score, and serial overuse of slow motion that borders at times on insulting. With an already meager runtime, that he resorts to such tricks very early on in the picture suggests that this particular story would have been better-served as a short film.
It should be said that Shafer, working without dialogue and mostly in subzero conditions, does strong work in the role of a woman coming to terms with horrors both immediate and ideological, and that Schulze smartly lights and shoots the film’s many underwater sequences.
But what sinks The Dark Below, ultimately, is how little else there is to hold the viewer’s attention once the basic plot and wordless script are established. The backstory feels deeply contrived, Rachel’s attempts to escape her icy prison numbingly repetitive; and with surprisingly little forward momentum to the plot, what could have been a rawly terrifying genre experiment instead emerges all but dead in the water.