Written by: Tony Daniel, Brian D. Smith
Directed by: Larry Fessenden
Starring: Daniel Zovatto, Bonnie Dennison, and Chris Conroy
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
They're only friends on the surface.
Last week saw the return of Tom Holland with Twisted Tales, and this week finds another underappreciated talent back behind the camera in Larry Fessenden. Though he’s had no shortage of on-screen roles and producing gigs lately, Beneath is his first directorial effort since 2006’s The Last Winter. The latest in Chiller’s lineup of original feature films, it’s a deceptively demented creature feature that Roger Corman might have produced in his heyday, before he resigned himself to the overly silly, CGI-ridden goofs of recent years.
It’s a return to familiar territory for Fessenden, as he once again throws a group of unsuspecting victims to the teeth of mother nature. This time, it’s a group of newly-graduated high school seniors seeking one last round of cheap thrills before college. With booze in tow, the six friends head to a local lake that’s inexplicably haunted by a mysterious, malevolent fish that doesn’t appreciate intruders, especially when they’re intent on debauchery and shenanigans. Fessenden introduces an interesting wrinkle into the “dumb kids go to the lake and die” formula, though, as this group of friends all seem to actually hate each other. Or, at the very least, they all harbor a latent resentment that surfaces in this perilous situation (the title is a double entendre, you see). Instead of banding together to fend off the creature, they swiftly turn and plot against each other in an effort to save their own skins.
The approach is a gamble since it results in a wholly unlikeable group of characters, save perhaps for the first girl to bite it (but that probably owes to the fact that she’s played by Mackenzie Rosman of 7th Heaven fame, who’s in the film long enough for you to IMDb the familiar face and name before she departs). If she’s the ill-fated nice girl, then the rest of the group similarly falls into dispensable clichés: you’ve got your jock (Johnny Orsini) and his brainier brother (Chris Conroy), an A/V nerd (Griffin Newman), a brooding, sensitive type (Daniel Zovatto), and the girl that most of them wind up fighting over (Bonnie Dennison).
These survivors are left to literally bicker over high school drama, and it’s pretty insufferable whenever they open their mouths. However, as the film rolls on and their bickering becomes increasingly ridiculous, it starts to feel like this is just a demented riff on a theme, a sort of black-hearted comedy of errors in the vein of Bay of Blood. Even the laconic, mysterious nature of the beast is reminiscent of Bava’s film, which features folks squabbling over a piece of land that preternaturally drives folks to kill for it. The same seems true of this lake, especially when an old caretaker (Mark Margolis) warns the kids about their intrusion. He specifically cautions the lovelorn Johnny (Zovatto), an interaction that ultimately serves as a bit of a red herring since it looks like he’s arranged this getaway as a means of eliminating his competition for the girl.
As it turns out, that’s just one possibility once everyone begins to turn on each other in nigh-comical fashion. The devil-may-care tactic gives the film a first draft quality: is the lake supernatural, or do these people really just hate each other? Once you give yourself over to the lunacy, it doesn’t really matter: Beneath is a macabre delight that essentially has you rooting for a giant (possibly mutant?) fish to devour its insufferable prey. It’s made more delightful by Fessenden’s decision to go practical with the gore and the fish itself, a ridiculous, rubbery contraption whose blatant artificiality highlights the fact that this bunch’s true enemy is each other. There’s a goofy charm to the proceedings, which are rightfully confined to a narrow scope; where previous Chiller efforts (like Remains) have bitten off more than they could chew, Beneath is a lo-fi production that delivers adequate schlock and whose higher aspirations simply include wallowing in the darker depths of mankind’s soul.
But mostly, it’s a goof; whatever it reveals about humanity’s inclination to devour each other has been illuminated in plenty of other films, so it’s best to revel in a film that acts as a response to its SyFy counterparts. This is how you do a film on the cheap and manage to pull it off: not by underlining an inherent badness and excusing yourself from it with a layer of irony, but by actually giving a damn and adopting a handcrafted approach that stays within your means. Describing a film that scavenges together so many influences (Beneath recalls Lifeboat, Jaws, and even “The Raft” from Creepshow 2) as “fresh” is a stretch, but it’s a nice respite from the lazy, cynical monster movies that have populated TV screens lately.
Beneath premiered on Chiller last summer and is only just now making it to Blu-ray, just in time for warmer weather here in the States. Arriving courtesy of Scream Factory, the disc boats an hour-long making-of documentary, about fifteen minutes of outtakes, a short look at the film’s poster and premiere, and a commentary with Fessenden and sound designer Graham Reznick. A couple of web promo videos extend the film’s mythology a bit, as “What the Zeke?” explores Newman’s geeky character, particularly his attempt to put together a film called Zombies vs. Werewolves vs. Ninjas. “What’s in Black Lake” takes a Blair Witch-style approach and features a conspiracy theorist’s (Fessenden) attempt to uncover the mystery of the lake. Fessenden also stars in his own 17-minute love letter to Jaws, a film that’s had an obvious influence on him (and is only made more obvious by the opening shot of Beneath). A trailer rounds out the disc, and Scream has also bestowed the reversible cover treatment on the film. It’s appropriate that both artworks are retro-styled; just as poster designing has become a bit of a lost art, so too has crafting no-frills creature features like Beneath. Hopefully, it coaxes Fessenden behind the camera more often to do more of the same. Buy it!
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