Larry Fessenden is best known for directing a series of spooky, atmospheric horror movies with a lot on their minds. “No Telling” was an environmentalist missive in Frankenstein’s monster clothing. His masterful “Habit” toyed with the vampirism-as-disease metaphor while also incorporating themes involving urban isolation. “Wendigo” explored the darker pathways of childhood with its allegorical monster. “The Last Winter” envisioned global warming as a beast on the verge of taking us all. Working on his own terms while mentoring similarly individualistic horror filmmakers like Ti West, Fessenden has remained one of the genre’s truly modern visionaries.
Given that track record, the idea that he would work on a made-for-TV movie produced by Chiller, the sister channel of the Syfy Network, at first sounds a little off. Yet “Beneath,” a killer fish movie that premiered at the Stanley Film Festival in Colorado on Friday ahead of its summer release, certainly fits the Fessenden oeuvre even while remaining tethered to the constraints of the format.
Shot for around 20 days in Connecticut last August, “Beneath” came from a screenplay that had been lying around Syfy’s offices for years, marking it the first project Fessenden has directed not originally based off his own story. But as many filmmakers make the jump to television production, Fessenden’s work within the medium seemed inevitable. The result has the feel of a “Masters of a Horror” episode imbued with classy references to “Lord of the Flies” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” — even though, at the end of the day, it’s ultimately just a bunch of college kids fleeing a giant rubber creature for 90 minutes.
The story (of sorts) revolves around silent type Johnny (Daniel Zovatto), who carries an ancient tooth around his neck for some unspecified form of supernatural protection. When Johnny heads out on a reunion trip to an isolated lake with his ex-girlfriend, her new flame and a few other loudmouths, he finds himself fighting to protect the group against impossible odds. As a cow-sized piranha begins assailing their boat, the blood flows fast and the body count rises; before long, the remaining survivors enter into a shifty process of voting their peers off the boat and into the creature’s jaws to create running distraction while the others peddle to shore.
The monster, which looks more than a little silly until its teeth clamp down, continues its pursuit indifferently while tensions rise. After a while, the lake itself takes on allegorical dimensions, the survivors trapped in an amoral purgatory of their own making in which virtually all allegiances fade in favor of cold, Darwinian logic. “I wanted to make it very, very spare,” Fessenden told the audience after the movie’s premiere, “almost classical.”
None of that takes away the obvious limitations of the material. Shooting on digital for the first time and working with a cast of largely unknown newcomers, Fessenden has embraced the cheesy premise and had fun with it while exploring just beyond its borders. A creepy old man whose presence bookends the drama, played by Mark Margolis (best known as the infamous wheelchair-bound crime lord Tio Salamanca, who communicated with an ominous bell on “Breaking Bad”), lends a dreamlike quality to the narrative that elevates its plot to an abstract level. With its reliance on ambiguity and mood, “Beneath” applies lo-fi aesthetics to an eerie, isolated chamber drama akin to Fessdenen’s last creepy outing, “The Last Winter.” Like that movie and “Wendigo,” the new film also involves a mythological creature only explained in part — though a “Beneath” prequel has been promised in comic book form, it’s not really necessary.
In a post-screening Q&A, Fessenden explained the process of working within a new set of restrictions. He managed to scrap several network suggestions, including an insistence that the action take place at night (which would have made it impossible to see the blood in the water). He also pared down the original screenplay, which included extraneous flashback scenes, in order to keep the drama within the claustrophobic boat. Most significantly, he refused CGI in favor of practical effects, and avoided turning the fish into a speedy assailant. “Why does every monster fish have to be fast?” he said. “This fish is like fate, just drifting along.”
In that regard, “Beneath” also functions as Fessenden’s wry answer to the lack of ideas in so many cheap monster movies (the dialogue even contains a blatant stab at “Shark Night 3D,” spoken by one of the ill-fated characters). In “Beneath,” the people are ultimately as depraved as their aquatic attacker. Fessenden broke down their plight into bite-sized parables dictated by the format. He relished the opportunity to shoot in eight acts “with a little climax every nine minutes” for commercials. The restrictions, he said, were simply a part of the same creative challenges he has faced over the years. “It’s all a game of seduction,” he said. “I was very appreciative of the network’s concerns.” He compared it to his experiences with MPI Media Group, which has financed some of his previous efforts. “There’s always someone you’re answering to,” he said. “At least in my world, there’s no real autonomy.”
Chiller has already established its interest in collaborating with indie filmmakers, having released the documentary “The American Scream” last fall, though its work with Fessenden hints at broader intentions with the sorts of filmmaker relationships it hopes to create. The company has expressed an intention of releasing “Beneath” theatrically in July alongside its broadcast date.