JULY 14, 2013
SOURCE: ONLINE (SCREENER)
I've discussed my fear of fish a couple times before on this site, so it's probably not too surprising that I found Beneath to be scarier than the average Jaws ripoff. Not that I would laugh in the face of a shark, but with them I know where I stand, and since I can barely swim I probably wouldn't be going out into the ocean far enough for one to get me like that idiot Kintner boy. But a regular lake, like the one I went in hundreds of times growing up? Sure, I'd go in there, and according to this movie, I'd promptly be eaten by a giant (but not TOO giant) man-eating catfish. So my fear has only been restored, and will stick to well lit, very tiny swimming pools.
In fact, there's something in the movie that unsettled me more than any of the actual kill scenes - a long overhead shot of our heroes in their boat as the fish makes its way over to them, bumps the boat, and just sort of hangs out nearby for a bit before going under and swimming away again. It's a scene that was probably dictated partially by the limitations of the practical (YES, practical!) monster - it can't do much and was probably being operated by guys in the water swimming around and going as fast as they can, but that's what makes it work. It's so casual about its "attack" that it unnerved me more than any scene of it rapidly approaching on someone in the water - it's close, and it's posing a real threat at all times.
Indeed, the movie more or less takes place in real time, which is crucial to point out as the kids don't seem to be that far from the shore. They have no oars (and eventually the fish pops a hole in the side, forcing them to bale water as they cautiously paddle with their hands), which accounts for their slow progress, but a viewer not paying close attention will probably just get annoyed, thinking that they are going too slow only to make the movie work. I mean, I'm sure there is some license taken with the timeframe (not unlike a 30 second sequence in a movie about a bomb going down from 10), but it's something director Larry Fessenden and his writers clearly tried to explain away by only rarely skipping over a chunk of time. So the situation becomes more nerve-wracking, especially once the boat begins to sink and the fish keeps coming back for fresh blood.
See, of course they can't just be a group of close friends who would die to help the others - it's a modern horror film, so if anything they barely like each other. But it's the rare case where this actually pays off, unlike a slasher type where it's just something to add (fake) drama. Here, their tenuous friendships and inadvertently revealed secrets (yes, as always, a character's infidelity is an issue) are enough reason - when ALL of their lives are on the line - to "vote off" someone on the boat every now and then to distract the fish enough for them to risk dipping their hands into the water to paddle. It can be a bit silly - they definitely could have done without everyone defending why they shouldn't be killed, as two of them basically have the same excuse ("I'm going to be famous someday!"), and the movie has already done enough for us to not really like any of them that much - but it's a fun little wrinkle all the same, and adds some tension even when the fish isn't nearby. I actually had no idea who'd ever be next to go (the movie curiously kills off one of its two females first), so even though I wasn't particularly rooting for any of them, I still found myself caught up in the "who will be next" scenes since it was never an obvious choice.
Of course, if you're not afraid of fish, then there probably isn't enough here to make you forget that you're essentially watching a feature length version of "The Raft" segment from Creepshow 2. Even with the voting and real time element, it still feels padded and repetitive at times, so if you find the monster silly instead of THE MOST TERRIFYING THING EVER, I can see this being a bit of a chore for you. There's a hint at a baffling mythology (the fish isn't some new discovery - locals know about it?) that probably should have been saved as a reveal instead of something we learn right off the bat, as it automatically clues us in not only to the danger, but to one character's rather confusing plot arc - why did he bring the girl he loved out there when he knew there was a giant killer fish in the area? It's worth noting that this is the first feature Fessenden has directed that he didn't write himself; it's a shame he didn't bring a bit more of his style into the plotting. He can be hit or miss, but his movies at least never feel like traditional horror flicks, nor do they offer up cliches (there's even an idiotic "guy pretends to be taken by something in the water to scare his friends" scene - have these been amusing in the slightest in the past 30 years?). It's a full 90 minutes, so unless they had some sort of contractual minimum runtime (very possible since this is a Chiller production and will thus be airing on their channel someday, I'm sure), they could have trimmed some of this silly fat and had an even better film.
But it works as an old school, "late night" or "regional" monster movie, not unlike Glass Eye's recent Hypothermia (and superior to that one - better monster!). The lack of CGI is so refreshing that I'm willing to overlook some of its scripting issues, and I'm glad to see Fessenden directing again as it's been over 6 years since Last Winter (which I should revisit; my primary complaint seems to be that it was too slow, something that usually is less of an issue on a 2nd view). Maybe he was just getting into shape for something that fits more in his filmography - if so, as a "stretch" it's a pretty entertaining one, and given all the attention this weekend on Sharknado, I was mostly just happy to watch a monster movie that was taken seriously.
What say you?