OCTOBER 8, 2013
On Monday night I joined a podcast to talk horror movies, and my hatred of unlikable characters came up, how I was sick of seeing horror movies where I wanted everyone to die and found myself rooting for the bad guy, something that shouldn't be the case (with earned exceptions, as with all things). So it's a shame I hadn't yet seen Beneath (not to be confused with the killer fish movie), as I could have used it as an example of how to do it right. Our protagonists are a blue collar group of coal miners, gruff but likable, and clearly FRIENDS (I didn't mention it, but I'm also sick of the group of people who will kill each other if Jason/Freddy/whoever doesn't get to them first). In fact I even likened them to the oil drillers in Armageddon; they bust each others' balls but clearly all love each other and would risk their lives to save the other guy, something bound to come up as we are told right off the bat that there's a tragedy and they will be stuck down there, seemingly with only one survivor.
Actually, before I begin the praise, let me add another "STOP DOING THAT" to the list - starting a movie at the end and flashing back to however many hours or days ago that it all got started (four days, in this case). The movie opens with a rescue team poking through a pile of rubble and someone shouting "We got a live one!", and then we go back to the night before they went down there, giving the audience an assurance that someone makes it out alive. But that's silly - all it does is deflate a lot of the suspense, because it's obvious who will live, and the script doesn't take advantage of this assurance by pulling a fast one - it ends exactly as you would have expected even without the flash forward. On occasion this can be used effectively (I like to mention Fallen as an example), but this isn't one of those times.
But otherwise it's a pretty tense, admirably ambiguous blend of The Descent and Session 9, offering the claustrophobic panic of the former with the "is it psychological or is there a supernatural presence working against them" dread of the latter. Of course we can't see too much at first without having our answer, so there are a lot of off-screen events - characters will walk into darkness, and then we will cut to another area and interact with some other characters for a moment before they hear that first guy scream, run over to the spot, and find him dead (or missing). But the jump scares are often quite good, and director Ben Ketai keeps finding fun ways of blending the two elements of danger - there's a fantastic bit where our heroine (Kelly Noonan) is inside an inflatable tunnel that is being deflated by the pickaxe attacks of an antagonist, putting her at risk of being stabbed or suffocating until she can find her way out.
The acting is also solid, and it's great to see a horror film with mostly grown men serving as "the group". The team is led by Jeff Fahey, who is top billed though clearly wasn't always around for shooting (note how many scenes where his character is technically there but Fahey doesn't actually appear); it's really Noonan's show, along with Cabin Fever's Joey Kern as her love interest. The rest of the guys are slightly familiar character actors, a good approach as it makes it impossible to guess who will be first/last to go, and again since they're mostly likable you don't WANT any of them to get killed. There's one guy who turns into a dick the second the shit hits the fan, but it's just panic - I've seen movies where someone acts just as abhorrent before they even run into any trouble. Plus (spoiler) he's one of the first to go to boot, so it's not really an issue.
I do wish it had more survival elements. Fahey explains that there's enough food to last them a few days, but we never see them eat any of it, and at one point their makeshift shelter is ravaged - did they get the food? Water? There's also an issue with the air becoming toxic, but there's never any real sense of it being an issue - even when the antagonist destroys their oxygen tanks. It's a modern horror movie so of course we get a compound fracture (complete with the obligatory closeup of a bone sticking out of the skin with someone saying "I have to set it!" before counting to 3), but otherwise the only physical issue seems to be Fahey's cough, as he is presumably suffering from black lung disease or something of the sort. Indeed, this is his last trip down to the mine as he is retiring against his will, and his daughter (Noonan) is making things worse by tagging along for the first time as she prepares to speak against coal mining at her law school. The personal stakes are a touch generic, but Fahey and Noonan make it work, particularly in the sweet scene before they leave for the mine, with Fahey instructing her to follow his lead and write a note for her mother/his wife, something he has done every day for 35 years just in case there's a disaster and he doesn't come back. It's these little moments that give the film more of a personality than the average claustro-horror flick, enough to make up for what seems like a lot of missed opportunities to use the scenario for some truly scary/unsettling setpieces.
However, nothing makes up for Ketai's obnoxious insistence on using shaki-cam throughout the film, with the camera jerking around even during simple conversation scenes prior to them even going into the mine. I get and don't even mind the style during scenes of actual tension and danger, but when it's just someone catching up with an old flame, I really can't understand why I should be reaching for Dramamine. If you want to go hand-held to save time (or simply because a tripod won't fit in the small area), fine, but there's no reason to be bobbing around like a goddamn drunk.
Beneath kicked off this year's Screamfest, an event I look forward to with great relish every year as it's not only how I got involved with Bloody Disgusting (which led to the creation of this very site) but it's also close enough that I don't have to fly or even drive very far. In fact, this year it's even closer, being held at the Laemmle NoHo 7 I frequent all year (cheap or free parking, reasonable concessions, less than 10 minute drive from my house, etc) after last year's horrible downtown experiment. And the move clearly worked; the film sold out not one but TWO screens, a good sign for the festival as a whole. I won't be able to make every movie this year due to work duties (blah!), but I'll be there almost every night - come say hi! Buy me a soda!
What say you?