Review - Beneath

Published on Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What do you get if you cross Steven Spielberg’s all-time classic JAWS, THE RAFT segment of King/Romero/Michael Gornick’s superior 1987 anthology CREEPSHOW 2, and Mark A.Z. Dippé’s underrated tongue-in-cheek aquatic chiller FRANKENFISH? I’ll tell you what you should get – a hokey, gory creature feature with an emphasis on fun. But as any chef worth their salt will tell you, there’s more to a great dish than simply following a recipe. Director Larry Fessenden’s water-bound mutant fish thriller BENEATH may have all the right ingredients for a rollicking B-movie blast, but they never quite manage to gel. The feature isn’t lacking in potential, and it certainly has its moments, but they’re too few and far between to salvage what can only be described as a thoroughly unconvincing misfire.

Six friends travel to a remote lake for a day of drinking and partying. They soon realise they’re not alone, and their boat is attacked by a giant fish that seems intent on sinking them. They manage to wound it with one of the oars, but in the process one of their number is bitten. For undisclosed reasons (a toxin in the creature’s bite, maybe? Beats me), the injured party dies a short time later, and the survivors decide to use her body as bait so they can paddle for the shore...

There are two problems with BENEATH. This could either be good news or bad, depending on the magnitude of the problems. In this case, they’re major, and it’s very bad news indeed. The first (and forgive me for harping on, as this is ground I’ve covered many times in the past) is the fundamental unlikability of the characters. This is horror; a certain degree of depravity and duplicity comes with the territory. But there’s a very real distinction between a story’s villain (even one who slowly evolves into the role, or is the subject of a surprise third act reveal) and every single member of the cast. BENEATH’s characters aren’t villains in the traditional sense (although by the end most of them are complicit in more than one murder), but they are unanimously unpleasant, disloyal, cruel and selfish. I can only assume they’re ‘friends’ by default, because no one else would want anything to do with them. Even before disaster strikes and they’re plunged into a pressure cooker situation, the degree of bickering, in-fighting and betrayal in which they engage is staggering. There’s not a single sympathetic character among them, no one for the audience to root for. Things only get worse when the giant fish shows up and the back-stabbing begins in earnest. Such is the level of acrimony on display that we start to root for the fish (seriously, I was worried that the oar sticking out of its side would prevent it from killing the entire cast). Tension in horror films derives from the audience’s ability to empathise with their onscreen counterparts; I didn’t experience a single moment of empathy during BENEATH. Irritation and annoyance, on the other hand...

The film’s second main problem (intrinsically linked to the first) is its ludicrously accelerated descent into violence and murder. Again, I’m aware that this is horror, the genre in which Very Bad Things happen with alarming frequency. I also get that Fessenden and writers Tony Daniel and Brian D. Smith are aiming for a LORD OF THE FLIES vibe, in which the normal rules of society no longer apply and savagery descends, but the truncated timescale in which it happens beggars belief. I can fully appreciate that being menaced by a fanged fish with a grudge would be an unnerving experience, but it’s no excuse for devolving into a tribe of bloodthirsty serial killers in a matter of hours. For one thing, the lake really isn’t that big, and seems to have a current which would naturally carry them ashore sooner or later. For another, they have food onboard, and are surrounded by water – can’t they just wait until help arrives? Apparently not. Apparently it’s imperative that they escape right away – so imperative, in fact, that they’re happy to sacrifice their friends just to travel a few extra feet towards shore. It’s a drastic tactic, one they leap to as a first resort, before even the most cursory inventory of the resources to hand (and a long time before the ‘brainwave’ of chopping up the boat’s benches to use as oars, an idea they only hit upon when they’ve run out of victims). From this we can draw one of two conclusions: that the filmmakers are so concerned with milking their implausible conceit for every drop of melodrama that they’re willing to forego even basic leaps of storytelling logic; or everyone in the boat is a full-blown psychopath right from the start. Both strike me as equally plausible, and equally unsatisfactory.

There are other problems (the contrived manner in which the characters lose the oars in the first place; the contrived lack of mobile phone reception; an unexplained subplot about a magic protective amulet; the providence of the monster; the role of the mysterious old man who pops up at the end), but compared to the film’s major failings they’re mere drops in the lake. On the plus side, the fish is just rubbery enough to be fun, and just animated enough to be (mildly) scary. And if the intention of the cast is to make you despise their characters (which I suspect it might be), they all do a fantastic job. The fact remains, however, that a claustrophobic creature feature set on an eerie, deserted lake should be a whole lot more fun than BENEATH. While there’s nothing wrong with the creature, and Fessenden’s direction manages to wring a modicum of tension out of the paper-thin material, the plot is too contrived, the characters too unpleasant, and the narrative too illogical to qualify as anything but a badly missed opportunity.

Score: 1.5 out of 5
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