ABCs of Horror 2: “U” Is for Underwater (2020)

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ABCs of Horror 2: “U” Is for Underwater (2020)

Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in 2019’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor last year’s first ABCs of Horror project. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?

In the late 2000s, director Gore Verbinski was hard at work on an adaptation of the pioneering first-person shooter videogame BioShock, a project that many genre geeks were following with great anticipation. The film promised a fluid melding of science fiction and horror, set deep within the crushing blackness of a vast ocean, where a submerged city crawled with both freakish, mutated horrors and philosophical quandaries. Sadly, the BioShock film never came to be, as Verbinski ended up preoccupied with the challenge of making his excellent animated feature Rango, while simultaneously struggling with a desire to maintain a hard “R” rating and the true horror of the BioShock setting. The “undersea facility full of terrors” setting would remain dormant for another decade … until receiving a newly Lovecraftian (and sadly PG-13) twist in the form of the more modestly appointed Kristen Stewart vehicle Underwater. Time, as they say, is a flat circle, and all horror movie concepts eventually have their day in one form or another.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Underwater, though, in terms of where it stands in the pantheon of Lovecraftian horror movies, is the fact that it was never publicly pitched or advertised as one. Despite the fact that the works of H.P. Lovecraft are now far more universally recognized than at any previous time in history, the Lovecraft-inspired nature of the film’s creatures was instead kept as a secret, revealed only via excited audience reports in the vein of “Hey man, did you know that Cthulhu was in this?” This was perhaps a mistake in the long run, as Underwater failed to make back its budget at the box office, even coming before fears of the COVID-19 pandemic had begun to mount in the U.S. One wonders if more overtly calling attention to the Lovecraft elements might have enticed more horror fans curious to see a bigger budget rendering of the author’s most famous ichthyoid creations.

Regardless, Underwater primarily stands out as a film for its tidiness, straightforward approach and economy of plotting—notable, considering that director William Eubank’s previous feature The Signal was much more of a head-scratching puzzle box. At a very brisk 95 minutes, Underwater doesn’t spend one moment on unnecessary material, getting down to the business of this underwater research facility’s catastrophic collapse in its opening scene, before it’s even gotten around to properly introducing any of the characters. We meet these people, headlined by Kristen Stewart’s mechanical engineer Norah, not in the mood-establishing doldrums of an interminable shift in a state-of-the-art facility far beneath the waves, but as they fight and claw for survival as their steel fortress crumbles around them. The script actually manages an impressive level of characterization for the half-dozen survivors given the time at its disposal … even if it does force T.J. Miller onto the screen as comedy relief who immediately describes Stewart as a “sweet, flat-chested elven creature” the first time he sees her. Given the actor’s history of sexual assault allegations, lines like that make his early death seem particularly fitting.

And oh, how these folks find novel ways to die. In this respect, Underwater is particularly effective—perhaps you won’t find its CGI monsters particularly threatening, but they hardly need to be when the setting itself is doing so much of the heavy lifting. Being encapsulated in a flimsy pressure suit at the bottom of an ocean trench, as your helmet starts to spread hairline fractures, is about the most horrific experience imaginable, and the film doesn’t shy away from eventually showing us exactly what that kind of explosive compression will look like. So too does it tap into some of the claustrophobia that was so effectively used in The Descent, via a few sequences in which the characters must wedge themselves through rubble or flooded passages, never knowing if a carnivorous fish man might be lurking around the next corner.

In the end, Underwater comes off as briskly effective, energetically shot pulp—absurd for the sake of absurdity, and with enough gory payoff that you’d actually be surprised it ended up with the PG-13 rating. Never does it threaten to take itself even close to seriously, as a sequence in which a creature attempts to swallow Norah whole, only for her to fire a flare through it from within and then clamber out the exit wound in its back competently and gruesomely illustrates. It’s not a film with the grand, philosophical ambitions that a BioShock movie likely would have possessed, but at least you get to see a man’s head pop like a zit when exposed to eight tons of pressure per square inch. Small blessings, right?

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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