It was almost impossible for me to contain my excitement when I accidentally discovered, a few months ago, that horror maestro Larry Fessenden was directing a brand new feature. WHO, you say? Well, only the man responsible for a pair of the finest examples of the genre from last decade! 2002’s minimalist “Wendigo” and 2007’s chilling “The Last Winter”(covered here on the blog in a Flashback review from 2012)were so creepy and unsettling, that they served to solidly confirm the promise Mr. Fessenden was pegged for after winning the 1997 “Someone to Watch” Independent Spirit Award for his vampire meditation of that year, “Habit”. But I can’t really fault you if you’ve never heard of Larry. Both films were done on miniscule budgets, and received such limited releases, that it’s a miracle that he has any type of following at all. But he does…and we’ve been waiting. So, it’s with a level of disappointment, that I report that “Beneath” does not get close to replicating the quality of those two “aughties” classics. And I’ve got plenty of theories as to why, but I’m hanging the majority of the blame on it being the first time ever that Fessenden was not working from his own script for a film(this is his fifth feature as director). And it shows. Now, before I give the impression that it’s all bad news for “Beneath”—it’s not. It’s simply a step down after setting a very high standard. There’s plenty to love here though, and much of it is done tongue-in-cheek. It’s just a shame that the writing isn’t stronger. With a sharper script, this baby really could’ve soared. Or I guess in this case…swam.
The plot’s rather simple, really. Six teenagers, recently graduated from high school, attempt to take a rowboat across a restricted lake. The aim is to drink beer and just have an all around wild time—before they head off in separate directions to embark on their adult lives. However, the film begins, with a foreshadowing little prologue, that clues the audience in that there just may be something dangerous at this lake. And the first character we meet, Johnny(Daniel Zovatto)seems to know all about it. For one thing, his family appears to own the acreage that the lake is located on, because he has the key to the gate that lets them in. Plus, he has a run-in with family friend Mr. Parks(a wonderfully played, extended cameo from prolific character actor Mark Margolis), who reminds Johnny that taking these kids on this boating excursion is not the best idea. I’ll say. After that, it’s only a short time before the “monster” shows up. Soon, stuck in the middle of the lake after quickly losing their paddles to battling\avoiding the creature, it becomes a guessing game as to who the next victim will be. And also, just how the selection of that “next in line” comes about.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 release “Lifeboat” has been cited as an obvious inspiration, but 1957’s lesser known “Abandon Ship” comes to mind as well. And then, of course, there’s “Friday the 13th”(especially with the utterance of a pretty-awesome, almost throwaway line), “Jaws”, and, dare I say it—“Jaws 2”. I should also mention Stephen King’s short story “The Raft”, which became one of the segments of 1987’s “Creepshow 2”. So, “Beneath”, besides having some nifty original ideas, also plays as homage and spoof. But, it remains deadly serious throughout—Fessenden is wise enough to know that it’s smarter to play the horror elements straight in these things. It’s also cool that the knowing character of Johnny is alluded to as being Native-American. That gives the film a sly little connection to “Wendigo” and “The Last Winter” before it. I’ve read a lot of comments/reviews from folks who insist that the acting in “Beneath” is bad. I’ve usually found that most people who choose to tear apart performances in films have never acted a day in their lives. And to go after some young thespians in an earnest, low-budget, genre exercise is particularly egregious. These performers(Bonnie Dennison as Kitty, Chris Conroy as Matt, Jonny Orsini as Simon, Griffin Newman as Zeke, Mackenzie Rosman as Deb, and the previously mentioned, Mr. Zovatto)carry out their duties just fine. No award-winning here, but no embarrassments either. Then there’s the matter of some saying that the creature looks fake. So? “Jaws” is one of the greatest adventures\thrillers ever made—and the damned shark looks fake! The sea creature of “Beneath” does look phony, but it’s not too shabby—and overall I admired the design of the big fish. The issues the work has? Well, a couple of situations don’t play out well, including a grisly death involving another boat and a tow line(I’m certain that that could happen, but a more convincing “execution” would’ve been appreciated). And then there’s the inadequate dialogue written by Tony Daniel and Brian D. Smith. There’s a bunch of real groaners in there, including a scene of “stating their case” that I can’t quite determine how seriously we’re supposed to take the monologues. So, maybe that one’s my shortcoming. But the final product is not a failure at all. In fact, it’s fun and kind of scary. There’s some blood and gore, but not too much, and it’s pretty engrossing and tense throughout. But it’s all rather airless when everything is said and done. And say what you will about “The Last Winter” and “Wendigo”, but if the two films had anything—it’s that they carried weight. And “Beneath” does not. So, despite the movie’s title, it all finishes up rather surface and shallow—which turns out to be its biggest sin. However, I’m fully aware of the issues that an independent artist like Mr. Fessenden has in even getting his work made. It’s a titanic struggle most of the time. So, I’m just glad Larry’s back. I’m just hoping he gives us a better film the next time around. And, btw, I got to view this on VOD. So again—screw you Anthony Lane! Grade: B-