Stars: Daniel Zovatto, Bonnie Dennison, Chris Conroy, Mark Margolis
Director: Larry Fessenden
Released by Scream Factory
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
Larry Fessenden has made a series of intriguing films with Habit (1995), The Wendigo (2001) and The Last Winter (2006). He’s got a very dark sensibility and a penchant for darkly lit scenes, too. None of these films ultimately succeed yet they have an artful sense about them. He seems attracted to the more broken sides of humanity that serve to drag everyone down. Fessenden often presents nature as a very malevolent presence. He took the classic Algernon Blackwood short story, The Wendigo about a ghost like creature in the woods to some very twisted and creepy places. Even though there is lots of dank desperation in his stories he exhibits a real fondness and familiarity with the horror genre. He has clearly seen lots of the films that horror fans hold dear. There are references to classics as well as modern motion pictures in all his work. With Beneath he has made his most accessible film to date. For a start most of it takes place outside on a lake in the bright sunlight. The camerawork is very professional this time out with everything easily visible. Colors are strong. The whole production has the most professional feel of anything he has done thus far. It’s a great looking film with solid photography throughout.
The film begins with Johnny getting ready for a day trip. He’s got a picture on his wall of some Loch Ness type monster that he took. He meets several friends at the lakeside and they begin to carry a rowboat into the water. An older man fixing the motor for his small boat tells Johnny he is okay because he has respect for the lake but this friends show no respect. Again there is this theme of nature wronged and vengeance hanging in the air. The group of six set out for a small island to celebrate the end of high school. About halfway there two decide to take a quick dip in the lake which makes Johnny exceedingly nervous. What does he know? In very short order someone’s arm dangling in the water gets chomped and it becomes clear there is a very big fish in the lake that is after them. It circles the boat. We see the huge shape slithering just beneath the surface.
Fassenden uses a simple recipe for this picture. Take a group of people and put them in a tightly closed environment. Introduce a threat, turn up the heat and watch them boil. Soon they will begin to turn on each other We’ve seen this in several Twilight Zone episodes to great effect. People were jammed together in The Night of the Living Dead, The Cube and many others. This is not to say that it’s a bad device at all. The twist this time out is that none of the people trapped are all that nice. In fact we’d just as soon see them all get eaten by the monstrous fish. What makes this work, at least for me is that we get to see that turn, that ratcheting up of their most base character instincts. When it becomes apparent that these five teenagers are indeed trapped in the middle of the lake and held hostage there by the killer fish, Zeke speaks up. He’s the one with the camera that is always filming everyone. He is much more than a first class nerd as we soon find out. He suggests that one of them has to volunteer to go into the water to act as bait so the others can survive. Someone has to distract the fish so the rest of them can paddle to safety. Then without missing a beat, the asking for a volunteer becomes a process of selecting someone. Some offer up reasons why they should live. They talk about the contributions they will make. The rest of them don’t even bother with that but instead go right for the kill. They nominate who they think should go in the water. More than the hungry fish with the big teeth circling the boat, the kids in the boat are more horrifying. The tag line for the film is, “They are only friends on the surface” That’s a clever pun and an accurate statement.
There is more than enough of the huge prehistoric looking fish circling the boat and buzzing by just under the surface to keep the tension up. We also see its dorsal fin slicing through the lake’s glass-like sheen. Fassenden is not afraid to give us plenty of good looks at the monster either. We see the rows of long teeth, the detailed scaly skin and those huge eyes. This is a practical monster not some CGI bit of digital magic. The crew hauled this thing into the water and put it through its paces. It moves pretty well. They get major points for that.
Many acting classes feature an improvisational game called lifeboat. A few people go in an imaginary boat but there is not enough food and water for everyone. They have to figure out what to do. The actors in Beneath all do a good job of showing their baser sides. Everyone is out for themselves. The big push the weak. One of the girls tries to manipulate the guys. High school jealousies are trotted out like trump cards and played for dramatic effect. While all this psychodrama is happening, the fish keeps going at the kids and reducing their number. Survival tactics are tried. Some are imaginative while others are just desperation. The pressure mounts and the numbers dwindle. There may be a little suspension of disbelief required but if you’re willing to stick you foot in the water you’ll have a good time with it.
Video – 1.78:1 The vast majority of the film takes place in broad daylight in a small rowboat on a lake. Everything is brightly lit and easy to follow. Detail is strong. Colors are presented well. The sheen on the water looks very nice, even pretty at times. You can make out the texture on the big fish’s scales.
Audio – DTS in English with subtitles offered in English.. All dialogue is clear and understandable throughout. Music and effects are woven seamlessly into the track. The soundtrack has a very professional balance to it. There are time when the surrounds kick in with ambient shadings.
Extras – Commentary with director Larry Fessenden and sound designer Graham Reznick, Beneath Beneath a making of featurette, Outtakes, webisodes: What the Zeke, What’s in Black Lake, Fessenden on Jaws, Trailer. The making of featurette mostly lets us see the crew at work without a lot of congratulatory chit chat. We watch them haul this huge fish model into the water and try to get it going. It is amusing from a production standpoint. They certainly have an easier time with their model in a calm lake than the shark named Bruce from Jaws that comes to mind.
Blu-Ray – Good / Excellent
Movie – Good