It’s time, once again, for another Almost Horror feature where we here at NOFS take a look at the films that live on the outer reaches of the horror universe. This time around we have a World War II movie in our sights that houses more undersea horror than most actual underwater horror films.
On the surface, Jonathan Mostow’s semi-historical war drama U-571 (2000) is an Academy Award-winning drama with a rise above the odds, hooray for the underdog, rally the troops narrative that corners the market on pre-9/11 pro-American war propaganda- er, I mean war stories. At its iron and rivets core though, is a bleak, murky look at humanity’s penchant for violence, it’s Achille’s heel, all set nicely within the claustrophobic belly of giant iron monsters that growl along the depths of the world’s seaways.
The Horror, The Horror
I hate to start with the obvious but I figured I would address the Panzer in the room before it became the only thing anyone could think about. The Second World War was a horrible time in the history of this planet and one that we should hope, never happens again.
Used as a backdrop to U-571 and its deep-dive account of man’s blood lust for power and it suddenly serves a dark and drab canvas for which this gory story can be painted. While most horror films rely on seclusion and isolation as their setting, U-571 opens up their world by setting their story during the last Great War, while at the same time keeping true to the horror trope of remote confinement by placing all of the action within the purview of a U-boat.
Paranoia, The Destroyer
The film opens in enemy territory, exposing us to the belly of the beast, so to speak. We are literally with Nazis inside the hull of a German submarine as it evades depth charge attacks from the allies above on the Atlantic’s surface. But despite the German crew of Nazis aboard the U-571, the real evil isn’t necessarily them per se. The omnipotent force of the Third Riech that hangs in the air like a malevolent deity is the real fear here.
In fact, the Führer’s final solution combined with the propaganda campaign on both sides of the fence really pushed the fear of Nazi Germany into the American subconscious. That paranoia crept thousands of miles across the water to the shores of America where it took hold feverishly. As Perry Como and Bing Crosby standards croon across the dance floor of a Naval wedding, folks in attendance worry deep down about the strengthening Beast in the East and what that might mean to their freedom. Then, of course, the inevitable happens and the boys are called of the do their country proud and, of course, the paranoia of those left behind grows even more as the wedding comes to an abrupt end.
A Creepy Crew of Castaways
The crew of S-33, the submarine charged with the task of obtaining the vital Enigma Code machine from the badly damaged enemy U-571 may be seasoned salty dogs, but their horror pedigree is just as impressive as their Naval records. You see, when it came to casting U-571, intentional or not (we prefer to side with intentional), it was clear from the ship’s launch that the roots of horror would run deep with this one.
Not only does director Jonathan Mostow have horror connections with horror anthology Fright Show (1985), he is also associated with psychological thriller House at the End of the Street (2012). Producer, the late Dino De Laurentiis has a boatload of horror films in his haul with titles like Halloween II (1981), Amityville II: The Possession (1982), The Dead Zone (1983), Maximum Overdrive (1985) and Trick or Treat (1986) and that’s just scratching the surface.
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On the cast side of things, Matthew McConaughey or Mr. Alright, Alright, Alright as he is better known, has a couple of horror credits on his wall of fame with starring roles in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994) and Frailty (2001) while his co-star, the late Bill Paxton, was a genre favorite well before U-571 with horror hits such as Aliens (1986), and Near Dark (1987). Harvey Keitel has strong horror roots with such offerings as Saturn 3 (1980), Two Evil Eyes (1990), From Dusk ‘Till Dawn (1996) and rocker Jon Bon Jovi, whose unlikely connection with the horror world may surprise you, had roles in Vampires: Los Muertos (2002) and Cry Wolf (2005). And finally, veteran actor David Keith has a few creepy gems under his belt with Firestarter (1984), The Curse (1987), Deadly Sins (1995) and a slew of indie horror films like Anthony Hickox’s Invasion of Privacy (1996), Hangman’s Curse (2003), and All Souls Day (2005).
They Came From The Deep
In many horror pictures that take place on the water, we are lead to fear the unknown lurking beneath the surface. A giant squid, a prehistoric shark, or H.P. Lovecraft’s High Priest of the Great Old Ones may be what in store for any unsuspecting victims afloat among the swell, and the same can be said for U-571. Except in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean during WWII, we knew what was hiding beneath the waves. Bobbing in the gloom of the chilly Atlantic waters were submarines, US Naval mines, depth charges, and German contact mines, but controlling all of these weapons of mass destruction was perhaps the biggest monster this movie has to offer in man himself.
We are a violent race by nature and history is abundant with examples of this. World War II was no exception and the horrors we committed on one another in those real-life battles were far greater than what anyone could write onto a screenplay page. The atrocities both sides committed prove only two things. In war as, in horror pictures, man’s penchant for cruelty knows no bounds and kill or be killed is the only way to ensure survival.
The Body Count Continues
As expected in a war movie, a lot of people die, also expected in a horror movie, a lot of people also die. U-571 has a high body count with a lot of those bodies left at the bottom of the sea. Some of those deaths come in the form of torpedos and other explosive devices and the damage they cause inside a submarine. A sizzling example of that is the German crew of the U-571 getting hit with a barrage of depth charges and the ensuing fire those bombs cause in the sub’s engine room literally roasting all of the ship’s mechanics.
More carnage comes when the Americans try to con their way onto the German vessel and a shootout goes down in the belly of the tub. What ensues is a brutal battle within the confines of the sub with enough shooting, stabbing, and bludgeoning to make Rob Zombie blush. Even Lt. Emmett’s (Bon Jovi) death had to be edited to avoid an R rating. Originally he is decapitated by a piece of shrapnel after a neighboring sub is torpedoed but this was deemed too graphic by the MPAA and the effect was changed to his whole body being thrown overboard by the flying debris.
A Hymn For The Fallen
War comes in many shapes and sizes. It can be as simple as two people fighting over a piece of land or it can be as complicated as an entire planet fighting over the threat of oppression and tyranny. It has many faces that don deceiving disguises. It can be a child usurping an ice cream cone from another child in an innocent show of dominance or a government usurping an entire country from its own citizens in a thinly veiled gift of democracy. The truth is most of us don’t know what it looks like until it’s too late. The ever-changing shape of war is perhaps the biggest constant that threatens the freedoms of people world-wide and that is perhaps the scariest monster man has ever created.
There it is folks, our take on U-571 and it’s deep ceded roots in the annals of horrordom. What are your thoughts on our thoughts? Do you agree with our assessment or are we out of our ever-living minds with this one? Let us know on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club Facebook Group. Until next time fellow fiends, stay creepy!