Dir. Larry Fessenden
Written by Tony Daniel, Brian D. Smith
Starring Daniel Zovatto, Bonnie Dennison, Chris Conroy Jonny Orsini, Griffin “Hello, Newman” Newman
Here’s a good idea: It’s LIFEBOAT meets JAWS with the cast of the FRIDAY THE 13TH remake. You got a bunch of goofy, stereotypical high school WB actors (the jock, the slutty girl, the nerdy guy, the lone wolf Judd Nelson type, etc) on vacation on a boat in a cursed lack, who suddenly discover there’s a monster in the water and they can’t get back to shore. Sounds like your typical tossed-off cheapie creature feature, the only thing that would give you pause is the director: noted character actor, producer, and occasional director Larry Fessenden, who specializes in glacial, character-driven slow burn horror like WENDIGO and THE LAST WINTER, so this seems oddly out of character for him.
Well, it starts off exactly as moronic and cliched as you might imagine, and it throws a little found-footage pigfuckery in there too, just to further piss you off. But you figure, well, I’ll wait around a bit, and maybe there will be a cool monster eventually. And then you finally see it aaaaand, it’s a giant catfish with big googly eyes.
|Man, giving a mouse a cookie can really lead you to some strange places.|
Here’s the thing about Larry Fessenden: he loves his monsters, but at the first sight of this one I was forced to confront the fact that although he and I share a love of weird-looking creatures that menace terrified campers, we’re just not on the same page about what kind of animals scare us. First off, he did WENDIGO, a quiet, dread-soaked character piece about parents gradually going crazy in the quiet isolation of the woods... and then at the end there is a deer monster who looks like a high school football mascot, but not as intimidating. Sorry, not scary. Then, he did THE LAST WINDER, another long, cold, quiet film of mounting paranoia, this time with an apocalyptic bent and Ron Perlman. Guess what we get at the end? Fucking dinosaur reindeer ghosts! This guy has some kind of ungulate phobia that I simply do not share. I guess I should count my blessings that BENEATH has a big catfish instead of some kind of carnivorous, swimming antelope or something but I dunno, maybe that would have been better.* Catfish are just not scary, regardless of how big or mythical they may be.
|I mean, this is the kind of shit we're talking about here. This is from WENDIGO. Not scary.|
|Reindeer Dinosaur ghost from THE LAST WINTER.|
|And the latest addition to the rogue's gallery.|
But just as I became resigned to giving up on yet another Fessenden project, something unusual happened: the characters themselves began to become more interesting. As their friends start to die around them and they’re pushed into a more and more desperate situation, their stereotypical facades unravel and a surprisingly rich group dynamic is exposed. The nerd suddenly doesn’t seem so harmless and pathetic, the jock doesn’t seem so cocksure and obnoxious, the pretty girl doesn’t seem quite so clueless. Peoples' selfishness and viciousness start to bubble to the surface, and the veneer of civility comes crashing down as the panicked group turns into a desperate lynch mob, and things get surprisingly nasty. Suddenly I realized that the catfish is exactly the right monster for this part, because the movie isn’t really about him. There are monsters in this movie, but they’re in the boat, not the water. The Catfish himself (herself?) isn’t malicious or devilish, just hungry. It’s the people who bring the real darkness here; the big fish** under the water’s surface is just a catalyst to bring it out of them.
|Heads vs tails|
When even the found-footage element actually ends up paying off at the end, I realized something amazing. This is the first Larry Fessenden movie I can honestly say that I 100% loved. It’s also the first of his films that he didn’t write, so maybe that’s a backhanded compliment, but I can also say without reservation that this was one of the most enjoyable surprises this whole Chainsawnukah. I can imagine that a lot of people won’t like it very much, since the genius here is in the interpersonal drama and not the usual horror tropes, but those willing to try something a little different will find a lot to enjoy here. It’s true that a good bit of its milage comes from the postmodern cheap thrills of toying with genre expectations, but the real meat is exactly where it should be: strong performances, carefully constructed scenes, and sharp photography. Indeed, this is one of the prettiest films I saw this year, with Fessenden absolutely luxuriating in the natural beauty of the water and woods, all the better to sadistically torment the young people fighting for their lives in this idyllic paradise. I will say that the movie is at its best when it’s treating this scenario seriously, and it falters a few times (especially at the beginning) when it can’t help but indulge in a few postmodern chuckles at the campy stereotypes it’s ultimately planning to undermine. But that’s a minor enough flaw for me to forgive it, and perhaps it was somewhat necessary for the bait-and-switch it ultimately pulls with your genre expectation. Ol’ Fessywig and I may not share a mutual fear of hoofed mammals, but at least we can come together and agree that BENEATH is a damn fine little horror film.
*EDIT: Longtime friend of the site and fellow Chainsawnukah-goer Dan P points out that Fessenden at least pays tribute to his demented antler-lust by having the kids stick a big spear into the fish's head, which remains there like a narwhal horn through the whole movie.
**Say, is this a BIG FISH sequel? If so, it’s a lot less obnoxious than part 1 and I support that.
|The two female students have a brief conversation in the water about their relationship. Then they almost kiss, so maybe not exactly winning any feminist awards, but it counts.|