The Creature Below


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

First contact
"Delivers the goods with conviction and not a hint of apology."

Something under the sea is drooling.

The work of HP Lovecraft has inspired imitations for a century. There are so many of these in film form that regular festivals are held to showcase them, yet although they have a dedicated fan following they rarely prove commercially viable. This means that taking on a story of this type for a first feature requires a lot of guts and not a little foolhardiness. The Creature Below is the first such project for 30 years that has really made the grade.

Copy picture

Stewart Sparke and Paul Butler’s venture into the realms of the unspeakable is a very different beast from Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator. There’s little overt humour to leaven the horror, though fans will find plenty of clever little references that make them smile. But despite the increasingly distanced state of heroine Olive (Anna Dawson), the film weaves a complex emotional web that insinuates otherworldly terror into the fabric of everyday life. Despite its similarities to a much-loved Burnistoun sketch, it delivers the goods with conviction and not a hint of apology. Dawson’s forceful performance keeps us believing, finding greater horror in absurdity.

By trade, Olive is a marine biologist. She’s particularly keen on diving, so when an opportunity emerges to try out a new suit that could let humans go deeper than ever before, she leaps at it. Down there in the ocean, she sees something she shouldn’t, something she can remember only in fragments. But she also brings back a passenger, attached to her suit. When she falls out with the project’s director, she smuggles her find home to work on by herself. There’s just an egg to begin with, then a hatchling which makes an undeniably cute noise – and spits black goo into her eyes. “Don’t go changing,” says her medic boyfriend, glad to have her home again, and we can see where this is going.

How does one put the unimaginable on screen? The best solution is not to, and as in all the scariest monster movies, we never really see what it is that Olive is caring for in her basement, that she’s feeding with blood, bonding with as if it were a human baby. “It’s a cephalopod, that’s for sure,” says the only colleague she trusts, but he can’t identify it. Nor can he figure out how it can survive without the pressure of the deep ocean (no-one even asks why Olive, rushed back to the surface, didn’t die from the bends). Something odd is going on. As Olive’s little darling grows and gets hungrier, she finds it harder and harder to care about anything else, and resorts to drastic action.

It’s really refreshing to see a film of this ilk constructed around a strong, focused female character. Olive’s dominance of most situations in which she finds herself is essential to the dynamic that keeps her believing that she, and not the monster, is in control. the film has another strong female character in the form of her sister, Ellie (Michaela Longden), who is much more conventional in her behaviour and is unpleasantly anti-intellectual, but makes a big impression. Though we do see Olive naked at one point, we never see her looking like a sexual object; instead, her boyfriend is objectified, and it is men whom we see in the positions of peril which the genre has traditionally reserved for women. Tentacles cease to be about penetration and become about enfolding, suffocating, a body horror drawn from the monstrous feminine. It’s an approach that adds depth to the established tropes and suggests coming change through its depiction of a world already in flux.

With solid technical work at all levels, The Creature Below is a triumph. Its final shot undermines its impact a little, but will have festival crowds cheering; there is the occasional weak supporting performance, but the main actors are uniformly impressive. Fewer than one in a hundred first features comes together this well. Sparke is going to have a real challenge on his hands to live up to it.

Reviewed on: 28 Aug 2016
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The Creature Below packshot
During a traumatic accident on a deep-sea dive, Olive, a gifted, young marine biologist discovers an unearthly creature and smuggles it home so she can study it. Then the nightmars begin.

Director: Stewart Sparke

Writer: Paul Butler, Stewart Sparke

Starring: Anna Dawson, Michaela Longden, Daniel S. Thrace, Johnny Vivash, Zach Lee, David Shackleton, Libby Wattis

Year: 2016

Runtime: 83 minutes

Country: UK


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