M.L. Miller here and welcome to my tenth anniversary Best in Horror Countdown! Every day in this glorious month of October I’ll be counting down the best in horror, culminating with the best horror film since last Halloween! With theaters closed for the bulk of this shitty, shitty year, much of the countdown comes from alternative sources like streaming services, digital download, and On Demand. Plus, we saw the return of the drive-in theater, which is awesome! This list compiles the best horror films released beginning on October 1, 2019 and ending on September 30, 2020. No elitism here—only films released to the public on this list which rules out haughty festival flicks that only esteemed reviewers get to see. If it played on a public screen this year, it’s fair game to be on the list. Here we go!
Released on January 10, 2020. Available on digital download and On Demand from 20th Century Fox!!
Directed by William Eubank
Written by Brian Duffield, Adam Cozad
Starring Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick, T.J. Miller, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie, Gunner Wright, Fiona Rene, Amanda Troop
Find out more about this film here!
I missed out on UNDERWATER in the theaters. When it came out in January, I didn’t realize going to the movies was going to become such a rare and special thing or I would have tried harder to see it. So, I got the UNDERWATER Blu-ray the other day. Apologies to those who prefer the newer reviews, but since I didn’t hear a lot of chatter when this one first came out, I figured covering it wouldn’t be a bad idea.
UNDERWATER hits the ground running as the film opens pretty much the same way the trailer did. It’s the near future and mechanical engineer Norah (Kristen Stweart) is brushing her teeth in her undies in a very cold and steel-plated bathroom until an earthquake shakes the deep-sea drilling station positioned on the Mariana Trench. As she frantically makes her way through the corridors, attempting to outrun the rushing water and increasing pressure, only to find herself one of a very few survivors of the massive quake. With communication cut off from the other sub-sea bases and the land above, it is up to the survivors to suit up in high pressure deep sea diving gear and walk the 3 miles across the ocean floor to get to the one sub-base that seems to be online. As they exit the flooding station, they soon realize that they are not alone in the pitch-dark water.
I really dug this movie and am kind of kicking myself for not seeing it on the big screen because I think it would have played fantastically. The pace and level of intensity begins strong and continues with a simple, break-necked forward momentum that reminded me a lot of the “hit the ground running” style of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. Right from the get-go, the film plans out a simple objective—to travel across the highly pressurized and equally dangerous ocean floor 3 miles to get to safety. In many ways, this film plays out like a video game, but it’s the simplicity of this plot that makes it all the more engaging. Yes, there are micro-challenges along the way, and that’s what all good video games provide as well. But once the goal is set, this film makes it clear what the objective is and makes a b-line to it.
UNDERWATER has seen ALIEN and ALIENS. It knows we all have seen ALIEN and ALIENS. And tries ridiculously hard to capture the magic of ALIEN and ALIENS. In many ways, it does. Director William Eubank not only sets up a clear mission, but also introduces us to a lived-in station, culture, and world underneath the sea. It also makes for some nice moments of character to arise. Director Eubank never makes these character moments feel out of place or act as filler. These are grungy folks who have lived in cramped spaces for a long period of time and this film lets you understand that through set dressing, the look of the character, and the well written interactions between them all.
Just as ALIEN and ALIENS introduced the world to some iconic characters, UNDERWATER does a decent job honoring those characters. The Ripley character here is Kristen Stewart’s Norah and even though I am not a fan of the way she presents herself in real life, I have to admit, Stewart fills the role quite capably here. Some well-placed scratches and bumps and Stewart’s gruff and go-get-‘em attitude helps make her a likable protagonist worth investing in. Vincent Cassel plays the leader Captain Lucien and is very much the Tom Skerritt role here. Even his causal relationship with Norah is reminiscent of Ripley and Skerritt’s Captain Dallas. T.J. Miller has made a career of being the comic relief, but here he is channeling Bill Paxton’s Hudson as he is mouthy but has the experience and toughness to back it up. We even have a sort of damsel character in IRON FIST actor Jessica Henwick as she plays Emily, a science nerd who isn’t used to all of this action outside of the lab. While her character doesn’t match up completely, she is very much the protected innocent in UNDERWATER just as Newt was in ALIENS. Rounding out the cast is John Gallagher Jr. as Liam, who is criminally underused here and plays a stoic, yet noble warrior type. While I easily spotted these template characters, the actors playing them made them feel fresh and new, so the similarity didn’t really distract me.
UNDERWATER is not without its faults. Because the film hits the ground running, it leaves little time to get to know the crew past their surface level traits and occupations. I think that’s why the filmmakers behind UNDERWATER smartly based the characters on well-known roles from previous iconic films. It’s a sort of filmmaking shortcut that enables the viewer to get to know the characters without any time wasted in actually doing so. Still, I think some of the more subtle points, such as Norah’s relationship with another crew member from neighboring base and a relationship between two of the cast members, could have been developed more. But this is a big action movie with big set pieces set up to challenge our heroes over and over again, so a lack of backstory is sort of par for the course. These action scenes are really thrilling, utilizing the lack of light on the ocean floor and the flashlights mounted on the deep-sea suits in some scenes that end up being downright terrifying at times. Eubank not only knows how to build tension, but he delivers the payoff in spades.
Still, because this film is such an ALIEN-esque film and told in such a linear fashion, I found it to be predictable at times. Looking at the cast roster, you can almost pick the order of death without even seeing the movie. Let’s not get into the fact that the cliched “black guy dies first” pastiche is alive and well in UNDERWATER. But when it’s time for Norah to step up and take command, you can guess who is on the chopping block. When it’s time to stop joking about things and get serious, you know who is about to bite it. Because these characters are walking in a line towards their goal pretty much seals the fate of whomever is in last place.
I don’t think it is a spoiler that there is something alive down there in the deep sea and threatening the crew as they make their journey. I found the action sequences starring these creatures to be a lot of fun, but I do feel that their design is far from iconic. The monsters are simply a mass of chomping teeth and flailing tentacles. They are kind of indistinguishable because of the murky lighting, the speed of their movement, and the complexity of their look. In true video game fashion, there not only are smaller monster challenges, but there’s also a big boss to take on and if you thought the underlings lacked distinguishing traits, you’re going to be frustrated as all get out at the way the big bad is presented. While the beasts surely look formidable and monstrous, but they lack that iconic look seen in ALIEN or PREDATOR.
Despite its faults, UNDERWATER does a fantastic job of mixing sci fi, horror, and action, never forgetting to have some moments with heart and humor speckled in for good measure. It’s an all-around satisfying blockbuster style film and there aren’t very many of those these days. I loved the fast pace. The cast is pretty phenomenal, even though the characters they are playing are familiar sometimes. There are a ton of jump back in your seat moments and the whole film has a level of tension that is communicated in a deft and targeted manner. This film even got me to stomach Kristen Stewart for an hour and a half. Director William Eubank delivers a film that feels like an ALIEN movie without the aliens. It’s not as campy as DEEP BLUE SEA or DEEP RISING, and much more commercial than THE ABYSS. All in all, it’s a pretty perfect action horror crowd pleaser and I recommend it for anyone missing that blockbuster feel during these locked down times.
THE 2019-2020 COUNTDOWN!
#21 – UNDERWATER
#22 – THE DEAD CENTER
#23 – BLOOD MACHINES
#24 – ALONE
#25 – THE BEACH HOUSE
#26 – AMULET
#27 – LAKE OF DEATH
#28 – SEA FEVER
#29 – THE RENTAL
#30 – ANTRUM: THE DEADLIEST FILM EVER MADE
#31 – REPLACE
M. L. Miller is a wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of MLMILLERWRITES.COM. Follow @Mark_L_Miller.
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