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Review by: 
Head Cheeze
Release Date: 
Scream Factory
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Larry Fessenden
Daniel Zovatto
Bonnie Dennison
Jonny Orsini
Chris Conroy
Griffin Newman
Bottom Line: 
Click to Play

I have to thank Wal Mart, of all places, for introducing me to Larry Fessenden. While perusing their bargain DVD bins way back in the early oughties, I happened upon a DVD of his 1995 sophomore outing, Habit, which, according to the blurbs on the cover, was a vampire flick in the tradition of Romero’s Martin. It looked like a cheapie independent, but the price was right, so I added it to a stack of other budget priced finds and brought it home, added it to my “to watch” pile, and promptly forgot all about it. I re-discovered it on a night where I’d exhausted all of my other viewing options, and, after a bit of a rough start, the film really captivated me with its twist on the vampire genre, offering, instead, a tale of loneliness, desperation, and madness. Fessenden showed a gift for creating horror through mood, dialogue, and pacing, crafting a film that would have been equally at home on an off-Broadway stage.  It was really refreshing stuff, and, at the time, one of the best micro-budget horror films I’d ever seen.

I’d eagerly awaited his follow-up film, Wendigo, and, while it was met with decidedly mixed reviews, I still found Fessenden’s formula quite fascinating. As with Habit, Wendigo dealt more with human drama than supernatural themes, focusing on a dysfunctional family pushed to their limits, while the titular Wendigo is used as more of a vague suggestion rather than a genuine protagonist. People lining up for a monster movie were thoroughly disappointed, but fans of Fessenden’s previous work were, once again, treated to a truly unnerving piece of psychological horror. Fessenden would revisit similar themes in his fourth feature-length outing, The Last Winter, an eco-horror twist on killer virus flicks that, while effective, lacked the subtleties of Fessenden’s previous work.

When I’d heard Fessenden was revisiting the cryptid territory of Wendigo with a “big fish” movie, I was instantly intrigued as, anyone who’s read my reviews knows I’m a sucker for man-vs-nature stuff, especially when it involves aquatic beasties (all manner of which I am truly terrified of). Of course, like all of Fessenden’s films before it, 2013’s Beneath didn’t get anything remotely resembling a theatrical release in my neck of the woods, so I’d have to wait for its eventual home release. Needless to say, I was delighted when it was announced that the venerable Scream Factory would be doing the honors, and, when I received my review copy, I hopped around like a girl gifted a pony on her birthday, and immediately threw it into my Blu-ray player.

Beneath tells the tale of a group of recent high school graduates who decide to have their last hurrah on the “private” Black Lake, to which one of the group, the Native American Johnny (Daniel Zovatto), has access. Johnny, like everyone in their neck of the woods, is well aware of the decades old tall tales about a man-eating fish that lurks in the depths of the lake, but, unlike his friends, Johnny’s grandfather has instilled a genuine concern of the mythical creature into the boy, and, to be safe, he’s brought along a talisman that he feels will keep his friend Kitty (Bonnie Dennison) safe in the event that the elusive creature makes an appearance. Kitty, of course, finds the whole thing ridiculous, and refuses to wear the necklace as, despite Johnny’s obvious love for her, she’s dating the school’s star athlete, Matt (Chris Conroy), who - in addition to his mercurial brother, Simon (Jonny Orsini); video obsessed movie nerd, Zeke (Griffin Newman), and hottie, Deb (Mackenzie Rosman) – is joining them on their excursion.

The group paddle halfway across the lake toward an island in its center when Matt decides to invite the ladies in for a swim despite Johnny’s objections, and it’s not long before the ruckus attracts a prehistoric looking fish (which, for better or worse, is done practically rather than using CGI) that quickly makes its intentions known.

With Beneath, Fessenden throws all subtlety out the window, making a straightforward monster movie that, despite a hint of Native American mysticism and mostly good production values, offers nothing more or less than your standard SyFy Channel monster-of-the-week offering. While I applaud the use of practical effects over CGI, the creature looks rather goofy and fake, with a massive puppet-like maw and huge, lifeless eyes that made me wish Fessenden took a page from his own playbook, and left the fish up to our own imaginations.  Making matters worse is the fact that none of the characters (save for Johnny, who is the one character who SHOULD be expecting to see the fish) seems at all surprised by the creature’s sudden appearance. Yes, there’s a lot of yelling, but we never get any sort of indication that anyone’s even curious as to what it is they’re seeing; not even Zeke, a burgeoning filmmaker who is documenting everything with his wrist-mounted GoPro camera, and should, at the very least,  be excited to have captured the first evidence of the legendary creature’s existence. Had Fessenden had his actors exhibit at least a moment of wonder or awe, it’d have gone a long way toward lending the proceedings some authenticity. I mean, in this film’s universe, seeing this creature is akin to the Loch Ness Monster paddling by or Bigfoot stomping into your campsite. It should be a huge deal; one that is both terrifying and mesmerizing.  

Instead, everyone screams at the fish (“What do you want from us?” Really?), and pokes at it with their oars.

Of course, after basically feeding the fish their oars, the kids are left floating in the middle of a lake that, with any amount of effort, should have been paddled across in a matter of minutes, but, If they did that, there’d be no movie, so while I get the need for the plot contrivance, it doesn’t make it any less infuriating. This, added to the fact that it doesn’t seem like anyone in this supposed group of friends actually even like each other to begin with, requires viewers to employ a Golden Gate Bridge level of suspension of disbelief, and, at times, even that isn’t enough. Clumsy, seemingly improvised dialogue, bizarre acting choices (especially Conroy, who delivers his character’s lines with the sort of menace and intensity usually reserved for comic book villains), and the fact that I couldn’t empathize with a single character in the lot, round out the items in my grocery list of problems with Beneath.

Still, in spite of all of the negatives, Beneath did manage hold my attention (which is more than can be said for at least half the movies I’m sent), and Fessenden’s direction, while a bit too loose in regards to his actors, is actually quite good when the focus is on the creature, itself. As ridiculous as the beast looks when it’s above water (which is entirely too much), it actually works well when we’re only given brief glimpses of it (in one really nicely handled scene shot from overhead, we see the beast just beneath the surface as it passes under the boat). Fessenden also manages to drum up some suspenseful moments, as well as a few nods to Spielberg’s Jaws, which, obviously, served as an inspiration for the film. Had Fessenden employed that director’s tactic of keeping the fish out of sight for most of the film, reigned in some of his actors, and tightened up the screenplay more, Beneath could have been a pretty good little flick, but, instead, it’s simply a mildly entertaining diversion.

Scream Factory’s Blu-ray presents Beneath in a very nice 1.85:1 1080p transfer that is sharp, clean, and teeming with fine detail. There’s only one point in the film where the image goes sour, and I blame that on Fessenden’s use of a really shoddy looking “day for night” technique in which the image takes on an unnatural golden hue meant to suggest early evening. Otherwise, the print quality is what one would expect from a new, digitally shot film. The 5.1 DTS HD soundtrack is really quite nice, with an immersive spread, strong bass, and natural sounding dialogue. The atmospheric sounds of the lake really come through, here, from the distant cries of birds to the water gently lapping the side of the boat.

Bonus features includes a feature length commentary with Fessenden and sound designer, Graham Reznick, as well as a really engrossing behind-the-scenes feature entitled Behind Beneath: Making the Fish Movie (HD), which consists of a generous amount of raw production footage. We also get a brief featurette in which Fessenden discusses Jaws and its impact on him as a filmmaker (HD), as well as a collection of Outtakes (HD), and a featurette entitled Poster/Premiere (HD), which alternates between footage of the poster being printed and the cast attending the film’s premiere. Rounding out the extras is a pair of “webisodes” – What the Zeke? and What’s in Black Lake? (HD), and the film’s theatrical trailer (HD).

Beneath had all the necessary ingredients to be an above average creature feature, but, sadly, something went awry in the kitchen, and the result is a half-baked mishmash of Jaws and Stephen King’s The Raft. It’s not a terrible movie, and, as a devotee of even the cheesiest of shark flicks, I found myself reasonably entertained, but, when compared to Fessenden’s other films, it’s a disappointment. Consider this one a rental.


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