"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.