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Larry Fessenden’s ‘Beneath’ Was One of the Best Horror Films of Last Year. So Why Is Nobody Talking About It?

Larry Fessenden's 'Beneath' Was One of the Best Horror Films of Last Year. So Why Is Nobody Talking About It?

“Beneath” was one of the best horror film of 2013. But most people never heard about it.

Produced by Chiller, a horror-themed sibling to the SyFy cable network still struggling for name recognition and access to cable systems, “Beneath” is the first feature in almost a decade directed by Larry Fessenden. It played a few film festivals and received a limited (very limited) release in July before hitting cable on a channel that few viewers know exists. Which means that hardly anyone has had an opportunity to see the film. With the movie coming out on DVD and Blu-ray this week, that should change.

The limited coverage it has received so far, at least on the horror-centric sites, seems to have missed the point, or at least became so complacent in their own superiority to the conventions of the genre that they never noticed how cleverly Fessenden, who has been turning classic horror genres inside out for over twenty years, and the screenwriters transformed the conventions of this genre—notably the idiotic behavior of potential teenage victims—into defining elements of story and character.

“Beneath” is both a tribute to monster-in-the-woods and the creature-under-the-water horror (the opening dream sequence turns the “Jaws” prologue into a teenage wet dream) and a genuine indie drama in the guise of a horror film. It springs from Fessenden’s love of reimagining classic genres in modern terms and real-world situations, and for using the conventions to tell character stories. And it was accomplished on a commercial cable movie budget.

The opening act unfolds like a classic “teens under attack” horror film: six friends drive out to the woods to celebrate high school graduation with beer and fireworks on an island in the middle of an isolated lake. You can check off the tropes as they roll out: the competitive jock brothers, the nerdy video guy who won’t stop filming his friends (and provokes them in the name of drama), the bubbly and sweet-natured blonde babe that all the guys desire, the other girl (who just may also desire the blonde), and the brooding guy who guides them all to this hidden lake.

Johnny (Daniel Zovatto), the brooding one, knows of the legend a lake monster but neglects to tell his friends. Maybe he really doesn’t believe it, but he brings along a rustic charm just in case and he tries to give one to Kitty (Bonnie Dennison), the blonde. There’s even an old guy on the property (played by “Breaking Bad” drug kingpin Mark Margolis) with the usual warnings. Johnny assures him that he’ll keep the kids out of the water … because that’s gonna work out great. Sure enough, a monster of a catfish the size of a Buick comes prowling as soon as the kids jump in the water.

For the next half hour the kids do all the dumb, reckless, aggressive things guaranteed to strand them in the middle of the lake without a paddle. The jocks, pumped up on testosterone and their own egos, poke it with a stick, or in this case an oar. Old Man Catfish renders it to splinters with a mighty chomp. When they run out of paddles (because they aren’t bright enough to learn from their mistakes) they starts tossing one another overboard, voting members off the boat like a real-world “Survivor,” only here the losers become fish bait, sacrifices to distract an indifference fish god. And the aspiring director, Zeke, is there to record it all in his own reality horror.

Then something interesting happens. What first appears to be a lazy set-up to stake out its victims for the movie menace turns out to be an insidious insight to the true nature of its characters and the basis for the real conflict of the film. The crisis dredges up the envy, resentment, spite, and animosity these kids have been burying all this time under snarky remarks and dirty looks. Get past the genre and this is David Mamet in a boat, a savage portrait of survivalism at all costs. The so-called best friends turn on one other with a venomous vengeance.

“Beneath” turns into a smart, savage film that plays with the familiar conventions and then twists a knife in them, and it’s all done with a small cast, a confined space, and a script that reveals the worst in humanity. It looks less like a TV movie than a theatrical indie. Apart from the opening, it all takes place in the boat on the midst of a wooded lake, shot in the harsh light of day rather than the shadows of night, out in the open with a clean, sharp visual style. Not your usual visual strategy for a low-budget monster movie. 

The stillness of the setting accentuates the ominous threat of the sentinel of a fish, prowling lazily just under the surface of the water, and the explosive conflict in the boat. The group inflicts more damage on each other than the so-called monster does. They paddle furiously and never seems to get anywhere. All the flotsam (including the remains of the dead kids) drift to shore but the boat never moves, as if stuck in place by their inability to cooperate. The lake itself becomes a crucible and the fish a force of nature, waiting for the kids to destroy themselves and then picking off their sacrifices. It’s a test of their humanity. They fail spectacularly.

Fessenden didn’t write the script—it was offered to him by Chiller executives during a pitch meeting—but he worked with the writers, Tony Daniel and Brian D. Smith, on revising and sharpening it. And sharpen they did. For all the tropes front-loaded into the film, it’s more fascinating for the exposition it leaves out. There’s no whispered legend of a lake monster, just a brief glimpse of a headline in the prologue about unexplained death years ago. Johnny never confesses as to why he would lure this crowd to a place that even scares him a little. Is he bringing them out for a sacrifice? Or is it some kind of unconscious drive to put them in harm’s way, maybe play the hero for Kitty, or knock off the competition? And what’s with that vaguely Native American tooth-on-a-leather-strap charm? Fessenden seeds the film with clues and suggestions and leaves it to the viewer to build their own backstory.

“That’s what I wanted, a movie that had all of those touchstones from a classic, clichéd horror film,” Fessenden explained in a phone interview. “I would also like viewers to ask this question: Just because you have an initial frustration with a movie, don’t just assume that you’re superior and that the filmmaker has nothing to say. Maybe you have to reexamine what you have just seen.”

And let’s take a moment to praise the monster. Where the campy Saturday night originals of the SyFy Channel turns to cheap CGI to create their monsters and disasters, Fessenden goes old school and constructs an articulated fish that ominously prowls the lake just under the surface. It breaks the surface with gnashing teeth to deliver the money shots but mostly it patrols and waits to drag off the offerings from the boat. Realistic? Not necessarily, but it is beautiful and primal and alive in its environment in a way so many cheap movie monsters are not.

Which is part of the reason that the film works just fine a straight monster movie. It’s a little light on the gore as those things go but it delivers the monster, the deaths, eerie images, and better-than-average characters flailing to survive. Any genre hound could enjoy it simply on those terms, but Fessenden turns the horror movie tropes into a surprisingly effective metaphor for a society turning on itself when it should be working together. We’re all in this together, insists Fessenden, and if this is our response to a common threat, then we’re fucked.

“Beneath” debuts on Blu-ray and DVD this week from Scream Factory, the horror imprint of Shout Factory, and includes the hour-long “Behind Beneath: Making the Fish Movie,” which takes the viewer through the production for the film from the initial construction of the fish through the shooting, post-production, and premier screening, all without narration or the usual talking heads interviews. It’s a remarkably effective portrait of a production.

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Comments

Flu-Bird

Its ovious the movie was probibly a bomb in te box office

Jessi

Why Johnny had to die -.-?

Drew

Did Fassend promise to read an old script of yours you’ve been dragging around for the past three years? Or are you simply suffering a touch of man crush and hoping for a little bromance?
Beneath is a dreadful movie, wether you have Fassenden’s man meat in your mouth or not.

Max

You make some interesting points, but the acting and cinematography were so unbearably bad. Don't get me started on some of the writing. It's not a good movie.

Lars

This is a bad movie with mediocre actors. At level with Pirannha.

Sophi West

There has been a few great unsung genre low-budgeters of recent months; Christian James' 'Stalled' (a 15k zombie film set entirely in a bathroom and squeezes as much ingenuity out of the situation as humanly possible), Nira Park's 'In Fear' (which almost refreshes your faith in found-footage) and '100 Bloody Acres' (Ozploitation doing what it does best), to name but three. All FAR superior to 'Beneath' none, as far as I have seen, ever mentioned on this site.

Rob Hunter

Did someone hit 'publish' too early on an April Fools Day post? Don't get me wrong, the article is funny, but I'm thinking that wasn't the point.

You make a lot of excuses for the film, giving it credit for *not* including explanations and the like, but you also seem to read quite a bit into its "characters" and story. Wondering about Johnny's intentions as deeply as you are means the character has none beyond the obvious. And not for nothing, but just because the director says the story is deeper in an interview with you doesn't mean he actually gets that across successfully in his film. His intentions appear to be as mysterious and fluid as Johnny's.

I agree that it would be interesting watching best friends descend into savage chaos in an attempt to survive, but you have to start with believable friends for that to work. These characters are shallow even for tropes, and to say "something interesting happens" when their true natures are revealed is just ridiculous. That truth is simply that each of them will do anything to survive… wow! We knew they were jerks from frame one and under duress they're revealed to be jerks. Fantastic development there.

I could believe that Fessenden, who has made some fantastic films, was aiming for a dumb comedy here, but if that's the case both the script and actors fail him miserably.

But yes, the practical effects used to create the fish are good fun.

THOR

Great article. Definitely an underseen movie.

Check out this chart of the best horror movies of the 10s (so far) that I made:
imgur [dot] com [slash] 82nox3q.jpg

PMD

I am more than a little flabbergasted by this. Beneath is terrible. The characters are insanely annoying and the acting mediocre or worse. There's hardly any creature action and many of the deaths don't even involve it. It isn't remotely scary or suspenseful. It's poorly paced and dull. It really has nothing going for it at all save for a few good shots of a non-CGI creature.

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