While it could perhaps become a novelty in 20 years as vintage horror, Beneath is a collection of uneven performances and poorly plotted narrative sequences. Just as low-ambition ‘80s horror movies provide cheap thrills today, this film functions in the same vein, only it doesn’t succeed in creating its own niche. Beneath‘s technical achievements in cinematography and sound prove the filmmakers know what they’re doing in those areas, and yet gaping holes in the script and unbelievably drawn characters make for a lackluster viewing experience.
Johnny (Daniel Zovatto) and his friends have just finished high school, and to celebrate he is taking them all out on his grandfather’s row-boat to a little island on Black Lake, where they can party and have some fun. It’s obvious from the beginning that things are bound to end poorly.
Johnny brings a token for protection, which he unsuccessfully tries to give to his unrequited love, and is warned by the old and mysterious Mr. Parks that the lake is not safe for him and his friends. Strangely enough Johnny, who obviously fears the lake, does not warn his friends, even when they decide to go for a swim.
Soon the teens realize that Johnny has been keeping something from them: a creature is said to roam the lake. This creature is of course the one featured prominently on the DVD’s cover: a giant, large-eyed “flesh-eating” fish.
This fish, big as a shark though more comparable in looks to a bloated piranha, quickly sets its sights on Johnny and his friends while they’re in the boat. Through carelessness and fear they lose the oars and are stranded in the middle of the lake. They all blame Johnny, who insists that he did not know that this would happen.
The inconsistencies begin to pile from there. Johnny knew, and yet he ignored his own fears about the lake. The teens seem to lack general common sense, and yet are able to conjure up an occasional advanced biological term and or sophisticated literary reference. These inconsistencies come to a grotesquely unreasonable peak when the teenagers think to start throwing each other overboard to distract the fish, and up the planks of the row-boat seats in order to fashion their own oars.
The director of the film, Larry Fessenden (Wendigo), has earned himself a name in indie horror. Such skill and experience is reflected in Beneath‘s carefully crafted technical achievements. As a viewer, however, one cannot help but wonder how someone with such experience could not expect the script to at least match the aesthetics.
The plot essentially ticks every box for stereotypical horror. A group of teens go out on their own in search of a good time, armed with beer and fireworks. When they get out to the lake-their secluded area of choice-their phones loose service. They ignore ominous warnings. People start to die.
The characters keep strictly in line with this sort of stereotyping. There is Johnny, the quiet, noble boy in love with the popular girl. Matt (Chris Conroy), the confident and charismatic jock. Kitty (Bonnie Dennison), the promiscuous blonde whom everyone adores. Helmed by first-time screenwriters Tony Daniel and Brian D. Smith, along with a cast of relative newcomers, none of the characters possess enough depth to make up for their over-the-top performances or the repetitive, insufficient dialogue.
In a surprising turn, Conroy’s confident, cocky Matt ultimately emerges as the film’s most dynamic character, though even he is not enough to save Beneath from itself. The most redeeming quality of the film is a brief appearance by Mark Margolis (Hannibal, Gone Baby Gone) as Mr. Parks, Johnny’s old and ominous friend.
Beneath has the tools. It has the unique edge: a horror movie that takes place almost exclusively on a small boat in the middle of a lake. The decline of ethical judgment in the face of devastating circumstances. Severed limbs. Lots of the blood. However, possessing the tools is not enough. They must be used properly and while Beneath brings the nails, it forgets the hammer.
Special features on the Blu-ray edition include an audio commentary with the director and a behind scenes featurette. There is also a piece in which the director discusses the 1975 classic Jaws, who’s open sequence is mirrored in Beneath‘s opening dream sequence. It’s within these features that viewer is left to search for answers, to find reason behind the angle from which the filmmakers chose to approach the story.
Beneath and other movies like it surely fuel a naïve public perception that horror is just mindless violence and nothing more. The genre has come a long way, particularly in recent years. It can be artful, powerful even in its storytelling. Unfortunately, Beneath lives up to the name, and generally falls short of expectation.