Over the last few decades, Larry Fessenden has become something like a one-man rescue team for modern American psychotronica. Think of a fresh horror-genre indie of note from the last decade and a half, and chances are, Fessenden’s name is on it somewhere. But for all his ubiquity, Beneath is only Fessenden’s fifth mature feature as a director, and it is every inch the work of a dedicated geek, a proudly lowbrow, low-budget monster movie that sees nothing wrong with the cheap-and-dirty shortcuts of yesteryear.
In fact, the movie’s nothing if not nostalgic—for the pre-digital days when homovorous movie creatures had to be built, worn, and operated in three real dimensions. Even Beneath’s setup is shamelessly 1979: Six high school grads trek out into some secluded woods for a hedonistic weekend, and launch out onto a mysterious lake in a rowboat, only to discover that a 20-foot, gape-mouthed monster fish won’t let them reach shore. The cast of characters is also Central Casting standard-issue, all revolving lustily around the blond hottie (Bonnie Dennison): the sensitive, Johnny Depp–ish hero (Daniel Zovatto), the digi-camera-toting dweeb (Griffin Newman), the blond girl’s jocky stud boyfriend (Chris Conroy), his jealous brother (Jonny Orsini), and a closeted lesbian (Mackenzie Rosman) who, perhaps predictably, is the first to feel the teeth.
Yes, the whole movie takes place in the boat, with the characters eventually deciding to sacrifice one another to the hulking mouth patrolling the water, thereby exposing plenty of betrayals and homicidal narcissism in classic Twilight Zone style. Nothing happens—particularly not the fish’s oar-impaled dorsal hump beelining for the boat like the tethered barrels in Jaws—without plenty of cheesy soundtrack portent. This is exactly what Fessenden wants; like his compatriot Ti West, he is a true believer in genre film traditions and in the creative modesty that piddling resources demand. He plays his movie straight, but doesn’t take it seriously—every glimpse of the sawtoothed über-bass, which is fabulously, defiantly, hilariously analog, comes off as a salute to the Creature From the Black Lagoon. Beneath may be an earnest goof, but any intended irony is so spiked with rainy-day-matinee movie love that the result is an oddly guileless horror exercise, unscary but rather adorable.
Fessenden even goes light on the meta-thriller’s most annoying trope—kids in a horror movie knowing what to do or not to do because they’ve seen a lot of horror movies. He wants it genuine—you get the sense Fessenden would like us all to be as innocent as he was as a preteen in the ’70s catching Them! on The 4:30 Movie for the first time. We’re not, but it’s a sweet thought.