As the weather warms up, people will inevitably be heading out to enjoy nature. Fortunately, horror is here to remind us that nature is far less impressed with us. Whether it’s eco-horror or just ‘killer animal’ movies in the tradition of Jaws or Burning Bright, nature striking back usually makes for great late-night horror viewing. Several years ago, Chiller Films and Shout! Factory teamed up to release Larry Fessenden’s Beneath. Consider it a high school mix of Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and ‘killer fish’ movies.
School’s out and before six high school friends depart on their divergent path, they head out to a remote lake for one last night together. The lake rests in the middle of property once owned by the quiet Johnny’s grandfather. Local legends tell tales of a giant man-eating fish inhabiting the lake. But they’re just legends, right? Except Johnny seems to know more than he’s telling his friends. And when the group decides to take a swim before reaching the other side of the lake, the tales may prove to have a kernel of truth.
Beneath an Ambitious Horror Weighed Down By Flawed Execution
In spite of its low-budget, indie roots, Beneath is pretty ambitious stuff. Horror fans have seen the premise of a small group of survivors trapped by a predator on a lake before, most notably in Creepshow 2’s Raft segment. But Tony Daniel and Brian D Smith’s story has more in common with Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, Lifeboat. That is, Beneath aims to make its central threat the ugly nature of humanity that lies ‘beneath’ our socialized surface, not its killer catfish. Like Hitchcock’s classic film, Beneath has ambitions of being more ’Hobbesian horror‘ than creature feature. After all, it was philosopher Thomas Hobbes who compared human nature to a ‘Leviathan’. And the movie’s monstrous catfish almost immediately draws to the surface lingering tensions among the friends and their hidden ugly tendencies.
Beneath aims for ambiguity, but feels undercooked.
While it’s ambitious story-telling, Beneath is very hit-and-miss in its execution of the concept. More often than not, Daniel and Smith’s story comes across as heavy-handed. Much of the problem revolves around the characters. None of the young adults are particularly likeable from the movie’s start. Additionally, the characters are either caricatures or underdeveloped. Tensions are limited to typical high school melodrama. Sadistic jocks, cheating girlfriends, callous brainiac – hardly the stuff of Hitchcock. Other story beats feel out of sync. Introverted Johnny has a secret – he knows the lake’s legend is real. But what was his plan? Was the jealous Johnny hoping to kill his crush, Kitty’s boyfriend, and save her? Beneath aims for ambiguity, but feels undercooked.
Beneath’s Killer Catfish Less Jaws, More General Sherman
All the above story-telling problems are exacerbated by broad and/or weak performances. In particular, you’ll like be hoping for aspiring, and very annoying, filmmaker Zeke to be fed to the fish sooner than later. His overacting is balanced out by flat performances lacking much in dramatic range. Simply put, the material is way above the heads of all the young actors in the cast. Breaking Bad alum Mark Margolis (Uncle Tito) shows up in a small role. Whether it’s the performance or the screenplay, Margolis’ inclusion feels odd leaving one uncertain as to why he’s in the movie in the first place.
…the material is way above the heads of all the young actors in the cast.
Too his credit, director Larry Fessenden does a good job adding suspense and mood to his mix of psychological and eco-horror. Fessenden is an indie horror veteran who recently scored a critical success with his Frankenstein update, Depraved. Though he borrows some ideas from Spielberg’s Jaws, Fessenden creates a largely genuine sense of threat for his characters. There’s a couple of decent jolts, but Fessenden is more intent on exploiting the psychological horror arising from the scenario. Whether Fessenden manages to convince audiences that his catfish is a worthy film monster hinges on your ability to suspend disbelief. Fessenden pulls it off when he limits camera shots to shadowy underwater figures or splashing tails. But he puts his monster fish out in the light far too much. When a character pounds on the rubbery monster, Fessenden lets the movie’s tone slip into silly B-movie territory.
Beneath an Uneven Psychological Horror Brimming With Promise
As much as I wanted to like Beneath, it’s hard to evaluate it anything more than an uneven horror outing. Clearly, Fessenden exhibits a strong grasp of the genre and filmmaking craft. He works very well around the indie budgetary limitations in creating some mood. Both the screenplay and performances drag things down too much. Simply put, Beneath’s teen characters and their interpersonal tensions are too generic to truly tap into the premise. And none of the actors are up to the task. While the practical effects do betray the budget, a better screenplay would have made it easier to let your imagination take over. What’s for horror fans is a midnight creature feature that falls short of its lofty ambitions.