From Bloody Disgusting: Betrayal Swims to the Surface in Larry Fessenden’s Creature Feature ‘Beneath’ [Formative Fears]
Formative Fears is a column that explores how horror scared us from an early age, or how the genre contextualizes youthful phobias and trauma. From memories of things that went bump in the night, to adolescent anxieties made real through the use of monsters and mayhem, this series expresses what it felt like to be a frightened child – and what still scares us well into adulthood.
Water, water everywhere, nor any friend to help.
Over the course of our lives, we form numerous relationships. Some flourish into more long-lasting bonds, whereas others are fleeting. As much as we try to hold on to those dear and important people, there’s really no telling if they’ll still be there tomorrow. In Larry Fessenden’s creature feature Beneath, Johnny and his friends are about to have the rudest awakening of their short-lived lives. They may have been tight-knit throughout high school, but when the unthinkable happens one day out on the lake, the connection between the six is severed in the most horrifying way possible.
Even as attitudes change and science advances, some legends simply refuse to die. Such is the case in Beneath — the local Black Lake Monster myth still swims in the back of everyone’s minds after all these years. Johnny (Daniel Zovatto) often thinks of the supposed giant fish seeing as his father took the only known photo of it. Regardless, he ignores his own suspicions and visits the lake with his pals. Not without a safety precaution, of course. Despite being warned by an acquaintance of his grandfather (Mark Margolis), Johnny allows his five friends — unattainable crush Kitty, competitive brothers Matt and Simon, filmmaking auteur Zeke, and athlete Deb — to row out to the middle of the secluded lake without even a warning.
All seems well until a few of them decide to go swimming. The movement immediately attracts the attention of Black Lake’s oldest resident: a colossal fish with an insatiable appetite. Following the death of one of their own, the stranded characters distract the predator so they can get back to shore. How do they do it? By feeding the monster their dead friend’s body. Eventually, though, it will take more than that to keep the fish busy. One after another, Johnny and his friends vote each other off the sinking boat until only one of them stands alone.
It’s common in horror movies to see people band together to fight a looming threat. The interpersonal relationships involved don’t always come out unscathed, but the living characters at least find a common ground; if not a haunting reminder of their ordeal. Beneath explores what happens when the one thing that could keep everyone safe is thrown away with little regard. Johnny’s friends end up systematically abandoning one another in a bid for survival — other teen horrors typically go the other direction. By casting one another overboard to the mammoth fish, the characters destroy the taught belief that if we stick together, we can overcome anything.
Under the notion that humans are inherently social, those with few or no friends are considered weird. The importance of companionship is learned at an early age — these links provide a sense of belonging as well as give us purpose. Yet, with friends like the ones in Beneath, who even needs enemies? The best way to describe Johnny’s group is “uncertain;” they keep up the pretense that everything is fine because that’s what they’re conditioned to do. Everything changes once they leave dry land and discover there was trouble in the waters long before the lake was in the picture.
While the movie chiefly takes place on Black Lake, the drive there is a sign of things to come — Simon (Jonny Orsini) nearly crashes the car because he can’t stop staring at Kitty (Bonnie Dennison) as she makes out with his older brother Matt (Chris Conroy). Zeke (Griffin Newman) annoys everyone with his astute observations, and Johnny’s affection towards Kitty isn’t exactly a secret as he tries to give her a strange necklace to wear (whose origin is explained in a prequel comic book). There’s an undeniable tension between everyone, but no one’s talking about it. Not yet. As soon as the fish kills Deb (Mackenzie Rosman), all the rules of decorum are tossed out along with her body.
Fessenden aims for a more sinister update of Lifeboat with this movie — and he succeeds. He breaks the moral compass and undermines the idea of loyalty. Rules known from a young age and practiced well until death are ditched as the characters’ situation becomes dire. The actions of Johnny and his peers are shameful under scrutiny, but the circumstances are unique. They succumb to paranoia and trivial disputes that cloud their judgment. Although there is a series of irrational choices that wear thin for viewers, those lapses in thinking are earned through process. This isn’t a matter of characters deliberately making bad decisions to further the plot; they’re so scared they just can’t think straight.
What hits the hardest about Beneath is its unapologetic cynicism. There are no heroes here. The story is a display of human nature at its most loathsome. The camaraderie is non-existent, and the overarching theme of distrust goes against everything we know and cherish in both the real world and fiction. The movie acknowledges conventions while dismantling them. Fessenden and writers Tony Daniel and Brian D. Smith tapped into something very dark in Beneath, something provocative even for a genre known for twisting reality and challenging ethics. As for the characters, their relationships were undone not because of a carnivorous fish but because they failed one another during times of trouble. It’s a harsh lesson about growing up that Johnny and the others will never have the opportunity to learn from.
The movie is outwardly memorable because of its creative practical effects and unpredictable behavior. The characters are detestable and the outcome is grim. Even so, Beneath is a shrewd morality experiment that asks its audience a difficult question — what would they do if they were in the same boat — on top of showing what happens when baser instincts supersede compassion.