Written by: Jon Hazell, Lonnie Schuyler
Directed by: Lonnie Schuyler
Starring: Tim Anderson, Jon Hazell, and Nick Murray
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
The Truth Lies
When we first started OTH back in 2008, I’m not quite sure any of us knew what we were doing—I know that I certainly didn’t. One of my natural impulses was to poke around what I came to learn was the horror blogosphere, which housed a number unique, interesting voices, many of which still thrive today. Sites like Final Girl, Vault of Horror, From Midnight with Love, Bleeding Skull, Day of the Woman and Daily Grindhouse became frequent stops (among others), all of which influenced whatever the hell it is I’m still up to here. And then there’s Brian Collins’s Horror Movie a Day, which (as the name implies) was more than a frequent stop: for six years, you could stop by his site and read about whatever horror movie came across his path, and they often weren’t the best of the best or even the best of the worst. This guy would seemingly watch anything, even films that had no business being watched by human beings.
It was unbelievable, and, back when I had more time on my hands, the approach was something of an influence. These days, I have to be more discerning and find it difficult to justify watching some random, sure-to-be-bad movie when there’s so much legitimately intriguing stuff out there, but I sometimes find myself missing that sense of adventure that can only come from diving into a budget pack or watching a movie sight unseen on someone’s recommendation (or, hell, just watching something like Cathy’s Curse because it was an HMAD staple). At any rate, I really started to miss this feeling of randomness earlier this year when Brian released HMAD: The Book, an impressive tome of specifically curated daily selections that captures the eclectic nature of the site itself, right down to his decision to include a handful of specifically awful films.
Among them is Beneath the Mississippi, the film that ultimately earned the distinction of being the worst HMAD entry (out of 2500 movies—let that sink in). It’s a film that immediately landed on my radar back when he first uncovered it in 2011, but, you know, shit happens, and it was put on the perpetual backburner until recently, when I realized it was the book’s entry for July 15th. Since I actually do have too much time on my hands right now, it felt like it was time to finally take the plunge and add another bad movie badge of honor to my collection. Let the record show that there was, at worst, a pretty decent rationale for me to willingly and knowingly watch an impossibly terrible movie.
And holy shit, is this one every bit as awful as it’s been billed. Truthfully, I didn’t re-read the specific details in the HMAD book, so I didn’t exactly know the specific nature of its awfulness, but it soon became clear that the answer to this is “everything.” Beneath the Mississippi is a marvel of ineptitude from the opening credits, which are literally illegible. What’s more, the film switches between a handful of different aspect ratios within the first few minutes, a sort of double prologue that sets the scene and backstory: from what I could gather, it involves a small island town that was once swallowed by the Mississippi river in a flood that killed hundreds. Years later, a woman who lost her father to the flood (maybe?) leads a documentary crew downriver to uncover the mystery and paranormal phenomena surrounding the old tale—or some bullshit like that.
See, it’s hard to tell exactly just what in the hell is going on because you often can’t see a damn thing; it seems appropriate that a film titled Beneath the Mississippi would be murky, but this might as well simulate the sensation of someone abducting you and tossing you into the damn river. The incompetent audio is no help either: after the remarkably coherent prologue, long stretches pass where the character’s lines are nigh-inaudible. Turning up the volume seems to be a reasonable solution until you realize the loudest on-set ambient noise (or the sources closest to the camera) is being captured, so any attempts to listen to the dialogue are drowned out by clanking utensils or whatever the fuck else is going on. Even worse is when the film begins to lull you into a weird, warbling, muffled trance before jolting you with some irritating audio stinger or a character screaming (not that you know what they’re screaming at, of course).
I’m not joking when I say I had to pause Beneath the Mississippi and consult HMAD for confirmation that it was “supposed” to be this way—it’s such a level of incompetence that I had to check to make sure Amazon’s stream wasn’t malfunctioning. This is a level of badness I’ve only encountered a handful of times, and, even in those other cases, you could at least trace some semblance of dialogue or even a plot. With Beneath the Mississippi, you wait for those rare stretches where audible dialogue feels like an oasis. You latch onto it, hoping to discover just what it is you’re watching, only to see it eventually drift off like a mirage. There is no comprehending that which resists comprehension at every turn.
Perhaps out of desperation, for a brief moment, I considered that it could be intentional. How else do you explain certain ironic touches, such as a dude wearing a Panavision t-shirt in a film that’s incoherently lensed in multiple aspect ratios? What about the scene where two guys in the documentary crew futz around with their audio equipment in a film where you can’t hear shit? The moment where two women talk about what they should be looking for in an effort to “make order out of chaos” in a film with a completely indiscernible plot? It’s an incompetent movie about a movie crew who, quite frankly, doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing—surely, it’s something to consider, at any rate, if only because I want to believe I can justify how this thing could possibly exist.
But that would be giving anyone involved too much credit, I think. Nothing about this film indicates any semblance of purpose, right down to the haphazard editing with all its chintzy, negative-photography flourishes and all. It’s amazing to me that someone sat down to edit this thing in the first place; it’s astonishing that they obviously had to realize they had nothing workable here and that their first impulse was to make it more incoherent (with multiple years of post-production, to boot—apparently, it was shot in 2004 but not widely released until 2011!). Honestly, your only help here is familiarity with other, similar films: because you’ve seen the likes of The Blair Witch Project, you can vaguely trace an arc here that sees everyone in this group lose their minds and turn on each other. I do know that one guy was specifically upset at losing his wallet. At one point, another guy disappears, and his buddy stumbles onto his dead body, only nobody believes him; in turn, he becomes a raging, psychotic asshole.
Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine—seriously, even if you haven’t seen Beneath the Mississippi, you have just as good a chance at discerning just what happens. Even after an interminable 110 minutes, nothing comes into focus, both literally and figuratively. This is nothing short of an incredible display of someone grabbing a camera and assuming it’ll be enough to make an actual movie and flailing wildly every step of the way. I am almost in awe of its existence, let alone the fact that someone saw it and decided “sure, we’ll distribute this.” What did that process even look like? Presumably, multiple humans conspired to unleash this on the world, and I have so many questions.
Beneath the Mississippi is a genuinely bad movie experience. In recent years, it’s become chic to goof on terrible movies, especially those that are made for that express purpose. This one transcends even that kind of experience—it’s so awful that it resists this kind of riffing, mostly because it gives you so little material to work with. Instead, it lulls you into submission with its droning music and nonsensical imagery, dragging you to its depths and refusing to pander to your silly desire for coherence or even unintentional comedy (well, you might get a kick out of a newspaper headline that reads “soul survivor”). Sometimes, you need to witness something this bad to just recalibrate and remember just how far you can sink: I find it hard to believe it’ll ever get any lower than this one, which should make me appreciate it when a movie at least has the decency to be coherent. Hell, I’m already reconsidering something like The Levenger Tapes, which was dull but harmless in comparison.
Or maybe being harmless isn’t such a good thing? If nothing else, Beneath the Mississippi is a memorably awful experience, and not one I’m likely to forget. It lands alongside some ignominious company*, to say the least, but it says something that it’s at least bad enough to be memorable. Every spectrum has to have a high end and a low end, and it’s only by indulging both that you can really gain some understanding of what “the worst movie ever” might look like. After this, I believe I have beheld its face.
As such, I can’t say I regret checking out Beneath the Mississippi, if only because it faintly recaptured that sense of rediscovery that comes with someone basically saying, “look you’ve gotta see this shit.” Truly, this one lived up to (down to?) its billing, so much so that I can’t imagine trudging through this sort of random stuff very often anymore, much less play this kind of Russian Roulette on a daily basis. Maybe we should all pour one out in tribute to HMAD--or, better, yet, everyone go buy the book, which recommends 365 other movies that are better than Beneath the Mississippi.
*Some “recommendations” of sorts: Slashed Dreams, Almost Invisible (its credits were written on index cards, but at least they were legible!), Beast of Yucca Flats, The Devil’s Hand, Kill Syndrome, Catholic Ghoulgirls (and other Pendulum Pictures 50-pack offerings), Face of the Screaming Werewolf, and The Amityville Haunting.
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