From Sean Axmaker at Indiewire:
“Beneath” was one of the best horror film of 2013. But most people never heard about it.
Produced by Chiller, a horror-themed sibling to the SyFy cable network still struggling for name recognition and access to cable systems, “Beneath” is the first feature in almost a decade directed by Larry Fessenden. It played a few film festivals and received a limited (very limited) release in July before hitting cable on a channel that few viewers know exists. Which means that hardly anyone has had an opportunity to see the film. With the movie coming out on DVD and Blu-ray this week, that should change.
The limited coverage it has received so far, at least on the horror-centric sites, seems to have missed the point, or at least became so complacent in their own superiority to the conventions of the genre that they never noticed how cleverly Fessenden, who has been turning classic horror genres inside out for over twenty years, and the screenwriters transformed the conventions of this genre—notably the idiotic behavior of potential teenage victims—into defining elements of story and character.
“Beneath” is both a tribute to monster-in-the-woods and the creature-under-the-water horror (the opening dream sequence turns the “Jaws” prologue into a teenage wet dream) and a genuine indie drama in the guise of a horror film. It springs from Fessenden’s love of reimagining classic genres in modern terms and real-world situations, and for using the conventions to tell character stories. And it was accomplished on a commercial cable movie budget.
The opening act unfolds like a classic “teens under attack” horror film: six friends drive out to the woods to celebrate high school graduation with beer and fireworks on an island in the middle of an isolated lake. You can check off the tropes as they roll out: the competitive jock brothers, the nerdy video guy who won’t stop filming his friends (and provokes them in the name of drama), the bubbly and sweet-natured blonde babe that all the guys desire, the other girl (who just may also desire the blonde), and the brooding guy who guides them all to this hidden lake.
Johnny (Daniel Zovatto), the brooding one, knows of the legend a lake monster but neglects to tell his friends. Maybe he really doesn’t believe it, but he brings along a rustic charm just in case and he tries to give one to Kitty (Bonnie Dennison), the blonde. There’s even an old guy on the property (played by “Breaking Bad” drug kingpin Mark Margolis) with the usual warnings. Johnny assures him that he’ll keep the kids out of the water … because that’s gonna work out great. Sure enough, a monster of a catfish the size of a Buick comes prowling as soon as the kids jump in the water.
For the next half hour the kids do all the dumb, reckless, aggressive things guaranteed to strand them in the middle of the lake without a paddle. The jocks, pumped up on testosterone and their own egos, poke it with a stick, or in this case an oar. Old Man Catfish renders it to splinters with a mighty chomp. When they run out of paddles (because they aren’t bright enough to learn from their mistakes) they starts tossing one another overboard, voting members off the boat like a real-world “Survivor,” only here the losers become fish bait, sacrifices to distract an indifference fish god. And the aspiring director, Zeke, is there to record it all in his own reality horror.
Then something interesting happens. What first appears to be a lazy set-up to stake out its victims for the movie menace turns out to be an insidious insight to the true nature of its characters and the basis for the real conflict of the film. The crisis dredges up the envy, resentment, spite, and animosity these kids have been burying all this time under snarky remarks and dirty looks. Get past the genre and this is David Mamet in a boat, a savage portrait of survivalism at all costs. The so-called best friends turn on one other with a venomous vengeance.
“Beneath” turns into a smart, savage film that plays with the familiar conventions and then twists a knife in them, and it’s all done with a small cast, a confined space, and a script that reveals the worst in humanity. It looks less like a TV movie than a theatrical indie. Apart from the opening, it all takes place in the boat on the midst of a wooded lake, shot in the harsh light of day rather than the shadows of night, out in the open with a clean, sharp visual style. Not your usual visual strategy for a low-budget monster movie.