Written by: Patrick Doody, Chris Valenziano
Directed by: Ben Ketai
Starring: Kelly Noonan, Jeff Fahey, and Eric Etebari
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Having hailed from a family of coal miners, I think I’m (barely) qualified to say that it’s a harrowing profession and is a natural fit for a horror movie: going underground is terrifying enough by itself, and adding monsters or madmen into the mix only amplifies the horror of it all. Beneath (which is such an evocative title it’s been used twice within the last year) features a little bit of both as the latest below-ground excursion that seeks to rattle claustrophobes and revel in the evil that men can do when pressed to a breaking point.
Well, maybe—see, Beneath is also the latest horror film to wallow in ambiguity. What’s for certain is that it documents an ill-fated mining team’s horrible day on the job. Among them is Samantha Marsh (Kelly Noonan), the daughter of soon-to-be-retired George (Jeff Fahey); as the lead coal miner’s daughter, she naturally causes a stir when she returns home and reveals her position as an environmental lawyer. After a few beers, she’s goaded into joining the group to prove her mettle, a decision that soon turns ghastly when an accident traps everyone below. Despite the presence of a well-stocked safe room, shit goes south in a hurry, as the miners begin to lose their cool after hearing strange noises and experiencing bizarre phenomena.
Cue the expected in-fighting and freak-outs accentuated by a dollop of supernaturally-tinged accents that haul Beneath to some rather familiar territory. Lingering in the background is a decades-old tale about a previous mine collapse that resulted in the death of twelve men, who now may—or may not—still be haunting the joint. The film never quite reveals its hand in this respect, preferring instead to allow a range of possibilities: maybe these spirits have returned for revenge, perhaps by possessing the bodies of the trapped group—or, hell, maybe it’s all just a hallucination that’s forcing everyone to go haywire. The latter scenario is a formula that worked for The Descent, of course, and Beneath burrows down a similar path, as its paranormal possibilities serve as a trigger for familial strife.
It’s certainly not groundbreaking stuff, especially since its characters are largely underdeveloped, including the two leads in Noonan and Fahey. There’s some natural tension between the two given the daughter’s disapproval of her father’s occupation (something that naturally miffs him), but it hardly even rumbles beneath the surface for much of the film before it suddenly erupts towards the climax. Their reckoning feels so forced and abrupt that you almost have to assume it’s being aided by supernatural forces looking to pit these characters against each other, which almost feels like a cop-out in some ways. All of the characters surrounding these two are likewise well-performed but disposable in their anonymity, mostly existing to provide the requisite bickering and the gore quotient (as is the case in The Descent, a fractured leg proves to be a grisly highlight).
That latter point might not have been much of a problem had Beneath embraced the slasher movie dying to carve itself out of the proceedings. At this point, we’ve had so many vaguely supernatural psychological thrillers (including a damn definitive one with a similar setting in The Descent) that a story about a pack of vengeful miners going all Harry Warden on unsuspecting victims sounds refreshing as hell (what a difference a decade or two makes, right? Imagine wanting more slashers back then.) Beneath is at its best when that option is still on the table, though I can hardly argue that it totally fizzles out once it degenerates into a familiar parade of ghastly imagery and bloodshed. It might be cliché, but it’s at least sharply and briskly realized, as director Ben Ketai has a firm handle on the claustrophobic implications.
Being trapped in narrow crevices in the dark needs little embellishment, and Beneath provides few; there’s an immediacy to the intimate camerawork, which often emphasizes the characters’ confinement and desperation. Even when the survivors gather in their relatively posh emergency room, there’s a real “oh, shit” moment when they realize they could be trapped for at least 72 hours, and the film unwinds effectively—if not predictably—from there, as it’s a frenzied soot-and-blood splashed affair with just enough grit and craftsmanship to overcome its familiarity. Noonan’s tough performance especially provides a strong anchor for a film that sometimes struggles to find its footing as a psychological thriller (you need some actual psychology for that, and Beneath only has a vague smattering of it).
If it had sturdier characterization and a stronger focus on its familial through-line, Beneath might have been a bit more of an unqualified success; as is, it’s a fine diversion with some laudable ideas that never quite emerge from the depths of the film’s murky screenplay. It does continue to prove that most of the genre’s more solid offerings can at least find safe haven on home video thanks to IFC Midnight, a label who has quickly become just as indispensable for contemporary horror as Scream Factory is for vintage releases. Beneath arrives to DVD with a disc packed with extras, which are headlined by a commentary with Ketai, writers Patrick Doody and Chris Valenziano, plus producers Nick Phillips and Kelly Martin Wagner. Ten separate interviews with the cast and crew accompany a script-to-screen featurette, a look at the cast’s crash course in mining, some behind-the-scenes material, a faux news reports filling out the film’s story, and a trailer. While Beneath isn’t likely to crawl out of the long shadows cast by the films it evokes, it's a worthy enough entry into this niche. Buy it!
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