United States. Directed by Ben Ketai, 2013. Starring Kelly Noonan, Jeff Fahey, Joey Kern. 89 minutes.
The who-can-you-trust paranoiac terror of John Carpenter’s take on The Thing. The claustrophobic, dimly lit underground horror of The Descent. Both are great on their own, so why not combine them? In theory, you should get the cinematic equivalent of a Reese’s peanut butter cup, right?
Yet Beneath wastes no time in whipping out the clichés. The setup is this: legendary coal miner George Marsh (Jeff Fahey) has one more day of work before retirement. His daughter Sam (Kelly Noonan) decides to join him in the pit for his last day–because dad’s hard work paid for her to go to college, only she decided to give him the proverbial finger and study environmental law, so she’s got something to prove or something like that. Anyway, I probably don’t need to tell you that “last day on the job” plus “bring your semi-estranged twentysomething daughter to work day” equals “bad shit’s gonna happen, hoss.”
Of course, clichés aren’t intrinsically bad things. In this case, I could forgive them if they were a bit deeper, or if they led somewhere interesting. The problem is, they aren’t and they don’t. Despite some nice touches in the first act–the brief love notes George leaves his wife every morning before heading to work, for example, or the implied crush George’s right-hand man Randy (Joey Kern) has on Sam–things quickly devolve into by-rote survival-horror once the roof caves in and everything starts going to crap.
Give Ben Ketai his due: he directs Beneath as if it were a master-class in how to create a low-light, claustrophobic cinematic environment. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it would be liked to be trapped in a collapsed coal mine with an implied supernatural force that may or may not be gradually driving you and your compadres insane, then watch this movie. It’s practically a documentary, and that verisimilitude goes a long way.
Unfortunately, neither script nor cast favor quite so well. The characterization is so thin and basic that it’s hard to tell them apart, and that’s before the actors even show up. The performances are acceptable when taken out of context, but nobody has any chemistry with each other, as if each actor recorded his scenes in isolation and Ketai assembled them digitally in post. George and Sam have a strained relationship, but Fahey and Noonan can’t convince the audience they even met before rehearsals began. Kern hits all the notes of nursing a long-term infatuation but gets none of the feeling.
I can’t say much more for the plot, which never seems to know where it’s going. The legend of the 19 miners trapped in a Depression-era collapse is a neat development, but the script never does anything with it. I can see a benefit from a certain amount of ambiguity here, but this doesn’t seem to be ambiguity to make a point or ambiguity to unsettle the audience. It has the unmistakable smell of ambiguity because the screenwriters simply can’t be bothered to develop their narrative in a coherent manner.
Which is a shame, because Beneath has some positives that really deserve to be showcased in a film much, much better than this.