[23 August 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Not every approach from the past should be mimicked. Just because the musical made everyone’s desperate lives a bit less unlivable during the Great Depression doesn’t mean they have the same resonance to a greed-fueled Reagan era audience. Similarly, film noir made brilliant use of the artforms inherent limitations (i.e. color film was too damned expensive), turning what were basically B-movies into minor masterworks. Yet it’s hard to imagine such a hardboiled crime style succeeding today (unless your film is named Sin City, or Drive). And then there is what some would call the Amblin-fication of mainstream entertainment. Named after Steven Spielberg and his famed production company, it marks the moment when the man responsible for Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. became the guiding force in subject matter and the aesthetic style when exploring same.
Under the Bed suffers from such designs. It is a geek experiment made by an actual geek, someone whose vision of horror comes directly from a complex combination of splatter, the saccharine, and the stylistically overblown. It beg, borrows, steals, and then circumvents such unusual starting points as Poltergeist, The Gate, The Beast Within, and a cloying collection of other ‘80s era coming of age efforts. The main storyline centers on Neil (Jonny Weston), who has just returned from Florida after two years in a kind of familial exile. Blamed by his father (Peter Holden) for the fire that killed his wife, our melancholy lead actually believes some sort of supernatural force is responsible. Further complicating matters is a younger brother (Gattlin Griffith) who also knows there is an unholy presence…under his bed. Eventually, the truth is revealed, and the siblings team up to take out the creature once and for all.
At first, one has hope for Under the Bed. It’s unusual for a film to start off with a character in such flux, but we aren’t quite sure if Neil is telling the truth, trying to avoid responsibility, being a jerk because he was shipped off to straighten out, or still lost after the death of his mom. He is belligerent, beleaguered, and incredibly protective of his kid brother Paulie. Once he learns the “It” might still be around, causing more chaos (and targeting them in the process), they decide to fight fire with fire. Neil becomes more heroic, Paulie joins in, and even the mandatory specious stepmother (Musetta Vander) lends a hand. Of course, we have the obligatory chiding from the neighborhood, the feeling of disconnect between our lead and his potential love interest, and some of the worst acting ever by a man in a bad beard (Mr. Holden - we’re looking at you). Before long, we are lost in a supernatural Goonies where Sloth looks like an albino with an infected cranium and curvature of the spine. We’d be laughing if we hadn’t given up on this glop long ago.
Indeed, Under the Bed hopes to use its sense of nostalgia to get past the whisper thin plotting. Director Steven C. Miller clearly cut his teeth on reruns of Amazing Stories, Tales from the Darkside, and that genre TV also-ran, Monsters. It would have to be filtered through such hindsight since the man is only 32 years old and was barely born when Spielberg and Tobe Hooper wrestled for control over their seminal spook show. Under the Bed feels like a film developed after a decade of watching nothing but direct to video fright flicks, a cinematic stew of everything from Italian gore to Charles Band cheapies. Miller does definitely stay on the Amblin side of things while adding a couple of contemporary twists (the moment Neil sees his now grown neighbor is given an indie rock twist, while a confrontation with some bullies at a diner provides Paulie with a chance to shine) to mix things up. But we are still stuck somewhere between fear and fallacy.
The ending doesn’t help. When Neil is required to confront the creature in his lair, we wind up looking at something straight out of Ed Wood. The set is sloppy and looks like what it appears to be - a bunch of painted sheets slapped on the walls. There is also a moment when the monster is first revealed, his limbs oozing onerous amounts of goop, that borderline overkill in the slime department. Then there’s the bloodletting, or the initial lack thereof. We have to wait for over an hour before we get any significant arterial spray. When it arrives, it is comic and over the top (in keeping with the creepshow conceits involved) but also very effective. Under the Bed could have used more of this messy business. The rest of the time its tiring in its backwards glancing.
In reality, there is nothing wrong with channeling the past to make the present more meaningful. Quentin Tarantino does it all the time, from musical selections to story symbols. When handled properly, when positioned somewhere between fandom and fetish, it works as both support and style. But on occasion, good intentions can lead to limited returns. There is an interesting film at the center of Under the Bed, one more or less undone by this director’s desire to reference a specific point in the genre’s past. Poltergeist is still great. The Gate is a choice cheese fest. The works of Corman, Band, and their brethren can also make for a nice horror happening. Under the Bed strives to be one of them. Instead, it remains solidly on the outside barely capable of looking in