(2013, 86 mins, color, Red Epic, dir. Larry Fessenden)
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As a horror spoof, "Beneath" is and isn't what it looks like. If you've ever seen "Jaws," or "Friday the 13th," you are already familiar with the film's plot. A group of dimwitted horny teenagers celebrate the end of high school with a canoe trip, but are attacked by a giant man-eating catfish. "Beneath" is similar to "Piranha 3D" in that its creators encourage viewers to roll their eyes at the movie's distressingly callow meat puppet protagonists. But "Beneath" fitfully succeeds where "Piranha 3D" failed. As shrill as it often is, the film's situational peril makes otherwise unlikable characters sympathetic, or maybe just sympathetic enough.
Director Larry Fessenden ("The Last Winter," "Wendigo") and screenwriters Tony Daniel and Brian D. Smith want you to simultaneously empathize with pubescent horndogs who think with their crotches, and chafe at the thought of spending more time trapped with them. The protagonists are more often insufferable than not, but "Beneath" is still a weirdly personal and thoughtful generic exercise.
At first, it's hard to tell how intentionally satirical "Beneath" is. The protagonists are introduced to us gracelessly by Zeke (Griffin Newman), a geeky aspiring filmmaker who thinks he's going to be the next great auteur. Zeke is and isn't a running joke. He cattily introduces us to all of his frenemies, including Matt (Chris Conroy), a jock who didn't make it as a football star, and Kitty (Bonnie Dennison), a flirtatious human accessory who has slept with almost everyone on the ship, including best friend Deborah (Mackenzie Rosman).
Zeke is a caricature of the self-involved, camera-wielding ciphers who film everything in contemporary horror films. He's the least likable character because he treats his friends like film subjects ("Thanks a lot, Matt. That's a really great scene."). He's the clearest indication that "Beneath" is not a straightforward, C-grade Spielberg rip-off. But once the film's monster catfish shows up, it's apparent that the film's creators aren't just messing with viewers. Fessenden and his two screenwriters take time make fun of the cookie-cutter nature of contemporary, SyFy Channel-ready horror films. But they're also working inside that well-worn template.
The talent and intelligence that Roger Ebert hailed in his review of Fessenden's "Habit" is present in "Beneath," albeit in a diluted form. For example, the catfish is almost unimportant to the film's main drama; You can see this in the way that Fessenden shows the creature unceremoniously appearing from the bottom of the lake. The film's human characters pose the biggest threat to themselves. The group's camaraderie devolves a little more with each scene as they sacrifice each other for the sake of the greater good. In these scenes, you can see Fessenden's love for such horror classics as "Night of the Living Dead", even though the arguments that his protags have aren't about race or class inequality, but who's screwed whom.
There's the rub: how much does Fessenden and company's sincere interest in their characters matter, given that the film is humanizing ugly, self-involved brats? These kids are only as interesting as they are believably cruel. And while it's not a consistent problem, the filmmakers can't help but infrequently wink at viewers. Deb's last name is Voorhees, like the hockey-mask-wearing serial killer form the "Friday the 13th" movies. And at one point, Zeke wails, "Uh, have you ever seen 'Shark Night 3D?' It's exclusively about sharks in fresh-water lakes!"
Still, the film's creators succeed in making these desperate outbursts make sense. These lines are spoken by young characters, after all, and the film's actors make the most of that. Newman's performance is weirdly believable because Fessenden wants you to believe that Zeke is petty enough. So even when he speak in clichés, Zeke's only revealing how desperate he is. These kids are ugly, but they're believable, even when Zeke cackles, "Row! Row for your lives, ahaha!"
While the film's characters sometimes get in their own way, the scenes in which they make brutal utilitarian decisions are tense. And when the film does get violent, you can see that it was directed by someone that cared enough to make you uncomfortable. It might be Fessenden's most accessible film. There's a lot of frustration on the screen, but only because Fessenden is once again insisting that there's so much more to horror films than banal characterizations and programmatic jump-scares. Ultimately, "Beneath" is better than your average Roger Corman clone because it is more serious than trivial.
Beneath Is a Muddled Meta-Thriller
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.
BENEATH Swims A Line Between Straight-Faced And Winking
Larry Fessenden takes the old fashioned horror-as-allegory approach to his work. Recently (thoughBeneath is his first feature in nearly seven years) this has meant adapting the environmental horror aesthetic of 70s films like The Boogens to the present decade by using an inspired minimalism. His technique in Beneath owes more to ?suspense? films like The Birds than it does to the explicit gore of more famous 80s slashers and the last decade's torture horror.
Beneath, however, could never be considered a thriller or suspense film because it's plot seems to have been chosen (from beneath a pile that had lain on the director's desk for years, so they say) for its extremely generic qualities. Six teenagers head out on a small boat to party, but when their lives are threatened by an inexplicably enormous fish their erstwhile hedonism transforms quickly into a vicious mob mentality. The real horror is humans themselves, etc.
The plot isn't what keeps this boat afloat, but it was never intended to. Fessenden's new project is more interesting as an exercise in minimalist filmmaking intended to occupy that increasingly blurry space between film and television and as an act of subtle environmentalist propaganda in a genre that has become so tongue-in-cheek that most messages come out too garbled to understand.
Beneath lays its cards on the table pretty early on. You get a taste of the message to come as soon as the teens cram into the car in the first five minutes on their way to the unnamed lake. They are irritating, sure, and you are forgiven if a lack of patience for the inane dialog inhibits your enjoyment of the film. But Fessenden is an aesthetically rigorous guy. By keeping the kids nothing more than a collection of toned bodies and weakly improvised half jokes and insults, he establishes them as all surface.
There are no depths for the film to explore or even allude to in these characters; the only depths belong to the environment, the lake. Even when their tolerance for each other quickly erodes into homicidal competitiveness and sophistry we get the feeling that the horrible potential of the would-be partyers was so near the surface it could never be what the title Beneath refers to. The binary is between the inevitable death waiting in the murky depths and everything else -- plot, characters, the game of filmmaking itself included.
One reward we do get for having to watch sexist jocks and aggressive nerds pretend to be friends is a laugh or two. The characters are funny because they take their dumb exchanges seriously. 'Crazy to think about -- high school is over,' says Deb during a pre-horror, humanizing swim. 'Yeah that's weird,' replies Kitty, the woman all the boys are crazy for 'Remember that time we went to summer camp when we were 15?' 'Yeah.' And with that, their conversation concludes.
Terrible dialog? To me it seemed more like a riff on the predictability of characterization and the meaninglessness of human interaction. It's a riff that's repeated throughout the movie. When Deb gets her arm bitten reaching for an oar and bleeds to death, the teens ad-lib a cliched funeral oration ("she was brave, a hero") before throwing her body ignominiously to the piranha. When the characters must provide justification to their peers to avoid being thrown off the sinking boat, their reasons for living boil down to "I'm gonna be someone someday" or "I'm strong." Side with the fish and you'll laugh; try and identify with the characters and you're bound to be depressed.
Self-awareness in horror is as big a part of the game these days as the blood, and Beneath walks the line between straight-faced and winking pretty well. Johnny, the one character who the audience might want to root for, is a horror enthusiast and his room is filled with horror in-jokes that I didn't fully get.
Zeke is an annoying filmmaker -- the movie switches occasionally to POV mini-dv cam occasionally for some of his first person narration. Though all the characters (with the exception of Johnny, who is merely weak) have hideous personalities, Zeke the filmmaker is the worst. Fessenden seems to use Zeke to satirize the whole project. While the other characters do seemingly productive things like bail water or paddle with their hands, Zeke just films everything and is responsible for suggesting that the characters vote each other off the boat, Survivor-style.
Through Zeke, Fessenden alludes to the worthlessness of the whole entertainment/filmmaking project. "I'm the only one of you worthless people who will ever amount to anything!" screams Zeke before he's tossed to the fish. Maybe not. When the footage he has shot resurfaces in the third act, what it shows is damning rather than redemptive.
Which brings us, finally, to the monster. It looks ridiculous, like fishes usually do. There's no CGI in the film, and the fish's rubbery aspect and clumsy movements do well to mitigate its onscreen terror potential. But it looks good. Real, like any earth creature would. For those that got turned off monster-horror in the past decade because they couldn't abide characters fleeing endlessly from CGI cartoons, here you go. Fessenden doesn't shy away from showing it, either; it's not the 'mysterious depths' that will kill you, it's a big weird fish with bug eyes. The fact that the teens can't escape from it just 100 yards from shore makes them seem that much more pathetic and rash in their decision to sacrifice each other.
Beneath was financed by Chiller Films, a horror spin-off of the SyFy channel. From my understanding, it is being released both in theaters and on television nearly simultaneously. This is a good idea, and not only because the boundary between television and film is pretty much indistinguishable in all but budgetary terms these days.
On TV with commercial interruptions, Beneath will probably play out like a relatively uninspired but aesthetically pure genre piece. In theaters, Fessenden comes across as more of a budget auteur using horror traditions to tell a story about the complete failure of the human race. The characters' only ambition is to "get outta here." As far as I can tell, "here" is earth and they never do, never will.
BENEATH is a movie that plays best if you don’t take it too literally. That may seem an odd thing to say about a flick in which a killer fish chows down on hapless teenagers, but then most nature-amok low-budgeters aren’t directed by Larry Fessenden, who never metaphor he didn’t like.
Having previously explored various permutations of the supernatural in the thoughtful chillers HABIT, WENDIGO and THE LAST WINTER, Fessenden takes a dip in made-for-cable monster-movie waters with BENEATH, a Chiller TV production which is getting theatrical exposure starting today at New York City’s IFC Center and playing other cities as well, and is also available on VOD (go here for info). Though produced for the small screen, it has a polish and atmosphere that make it right at home on the big one, and the latter also serves notice from early on that there’s going to be a little more under the surface (pardon the expression) than one usually finds in this sort of flick.
An opening dream sequence establishes that apparent protagonist Johnny (Daniel Zovatto) might have some idea of what awaits him and a quintet of his recently graduated high-school friends when they travel to an isolated lake for one last get-together before going their separate ways. The group consists of four guys and two girls—never a good ratio in a scenario where relationship issues are bound to raise their ugly heads—and they all pile into an old rowboat to head across the water. When they stop halfway over so a few of them can take a dip, while Johnny tries (though not too hard) to dissuade them, a six-foot flesh-eating fish raises its own ugly head and tries to eat them, then goes on to thwart their attempts to paddle to safety.
It sounds like—and is—a traditional setup for a youth-in-peril film, but what makes BENEATH distinctive is the way Fessenden twists Tony Daniel and Brian D. Smith’s script into a kind of horrific morality play. The way he shoots the introductory scenes, there’s a fatalistic air hanging over the trip from the very beginning, to the point where warnings by a local old-timer (played by veteran actor Mark Margolis) aren’t really necessary to let us know these kids are doomed. Nor does he attempt to build too much sympathy for them, the guys in particular, who also include entitled jock Matt (Chris Conroy) and his competitive brother Simon (Jonny Orsini), who’s got a barely disguised thing for Matt’s girlfriend Kitty (Bonnie Dennison), who’s also Johnny’s ex and once had a fling with their friend Deb (Mackenzie Rosman). The sixth member of the gang is “Zeke the geek” (Griffin Newman), an aspiring filmmaker who annoys everybody by constantly taping them on his wrist-mounted GoPro.
In lesser hands, this bunch might get annoying to the point of tuning out for the audience as well, but the way Fessenden plays out the scenario, it becomes a darkly comic study of people showing their worst sides under pressure, becoming as great or greater a threat to each other than the aquatic creature stalking them. They attempt to put on a civilized veneer, constantly putting life-or-death decisions to “a vote,” even though the end result is barbaric. They become so overcome with playing out the little minidramas between them that it isn’t until the end that one of them comes up with a solution to the problem that the viewer can figure out within the first 20 minutes. And hovering over it all is the question of whether Johnny set the whole trip up to maneuver at least some of his friends into danger.
Meanwhile, the fish circles, waiting for the next human snack to fall (or be tossed) into the drink. Happily eschewing current CGI trends, Fessenden elected to use a practical monster (by Fractured FX, run by Justin Raleigh and Ozzy Alvarez, who did the nifty critters for SPLINTER) that may not always quite convince as a living thing, but has a physical presence that makes its scenes work. The fish comes to have a symbolic presence, too, serving as a harbinger of the doom that the characters are bringing on themselves; when it gets fruitlessly speared with a piece of oar that protrudes from its back for the rest of the movie, it’s less a callback to the barrels in JAWS than a constant visual reminder that the teens can’t stop the fate that’s coming for them.
Lest it seem like I’m getting too deep about this, BENEATH can also be enjoyed on simple B-movie terms, with enough fish attacks and blood (courtesy of makeup FX creator Brian Spears) to satisfy the basic jones for watching lower lifeforms attack tasty humans. It’s the (pardon the expression again) undercurrents Fessenden brings to the project, though, that make it stand out, along with the usual high production values of his and fellow producer Peter Phok’s Glass Eye Pix. Gordon Arkenberg’s cinematography nicely contrasts the beauty of the natural surroundings with ominous mood, and Will Bates (son of Hammer Films acting legend Ralph Bates!) supplies properly edgy, off-kilter music. BENEATH is the kind of movie where schlocky thrills are the bait, but it winds up giving you more to chew on.
Fans of intelligent low-budget horror need no encouragement to anticipate a new movie by Larry Fessenden, who’s done more with less for decades (see The Last Winter). But the writer-director’s latest, in which five teens in a rowboat are menaced by a flesh-hungry fish, is really only half a Fessenden movie. Thanks to the script by Tony Daniel and Brian D. Smith (of 2008’s Flu Bird Horror “fame,” for lack of a better word), this nature-run-amok B picture comes with its own evil twin—one that’s an embarrassing assembly of shopworn tropes, played out in inert dialogue by actors less lifelike than their mechanical marine nemesis. From the alpha-male jock to the whiny nerd clutching his omnipresent camcorder, they’re a thinly drawn, intensely dislikable bunch who only grow worse once the blood starts flowing.
But the going gets more pleasurable once you realize that’s the point. This isn’t a movie about people who find inner strength when faced with adversity, but a gleefully dire portrayal of human selfishness in which the rare flashes of altruism only let others gain the upper hand. Although Fessenden does fine work shooting his equivalent of Lifeboat, the movie’s surface is often rough. Yet the title doesn’t just refer to what lurks in the lake’s still water. It’s a guide to where Beneath’s substance lies, the acid heart inside its plastic chest.
Johnny (Daniel Zovatto) takes five of his classmates out to his family’s land on Black Lake to celebrate their high school graduation. Notice I did not say “friends” because these associations are much more superficial than that. These are high school kids, remember, so they choose their “friends” as if selecting political allies — and it is the selfish motivations of these particular teenagers that keeps Larry Fessenden’s Beneath afloat. This is precisely why so many horror films focus on high school kids, because the power dynamics of teenagers are so damn fascinating. Besides it is their youthful know-it-all naiveté and carelessness that always seems to get them in trouble in the first place.
Kitty (Bonnie Dennison) is the blonde femme fatale, whom everyone lusts after. She is the connecting dot who brought the other five people together. Time and time again, Kitty is the source of tension in the narrative, coming between two hormonal teens. She is one of those typical popular girls who chooses to be with whichever guy has the best chance of rescuing her from mediocrity and boredom. In this case, it makes sense that Kitty is paired up with the most conventionally attractive male of the group, Matt (Chris Conroy); the jock and the alpha male who everyone else falls in line behind. Simon (Jonny Orsini) is Matt’s younger brother who has always walked in Matt’s shadow. Unable to excel at athletics like his brother, Simon finally became his own person when he scored a respectable academic scholarship. Presumably, the nerdy Zeke (Griffin Newman) is allowed to tag along for the ride because he might become a famous filmmaker some day. He promises to make Kitty a Hollywood starlet some day. In the meantime, Zeke films everything — but at least Fessenden is smart enough not try to turn Beneath into a found footage film. Last is Kitty’s friend Deb (Mackenzie Rosman). Rather than distracting some of the guys’ attention away from Kitty, Deb makes it pretty clear that she also happens to have a bit of a crush on Kitty.
With little respect for the serene natural surroundings, the teenagers carelessly set off fireworks, frolic in the icy water, and pop open the beer cooler. So much for respecting the beautiful lake and the giant flesh-eating fish lurking beneath the surface… Oh, wait, Johnny forgot to tell them about the legend of the carnivorous predator. Well, okay, Johnny does try to convince them not to go into the water, but as the meekest — and presumably the nicest — of the group nobody listens to him. When it comes down to it, the teenagers bring their fate upon themselves. If they acted like true friends to each other, maybe they would not have ended up face to face with a monstrous and toothy fish while stranded in the middle of the lake.
Beneath examines the difficult choices that these six teenagers must face. When the boat becomes a sick and twisted reality show, the characters must selfishly attempt to legitimize their existence in order to avoid ending up as fish bait. They may say that they are putting the good of the group above the good of the individuals, but every decision each individual makes is drenched in selfish motivations. It’s kind of like Survivor, but with real life consequences. Sure, these characters are just like most horror film protagonists, making one stupid decision after another; but in the context of Beneath, their stupidity actually makes perfect sense. Besides, its hard not to give Fessenden — as well as writers Tony Daniel and Brian D. Smith — credit for coming up with one clever excuse after another for keeping the protagonists’ rowboat drifting aimlessly in the middle of Black Lake.
While watching teen horror films, I like to observe how intellect, sex appeal and physical strength are weighed within the context of the narrative — specifically, which trait is deemed by the filmmaker to be the most beneficial for survival. This micro-budget horror film has some very interesting things to say about how and when the characters die, but revealing them would spoil all of the fun.
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.
The Thing(s) In The Lake: Discussing Larry Fessenden's latest off-beat horror opus
Scout Tafoya: Larry Fessenden's first film was a Super 8 remake of Spielberg's Jaws which included a pretty accurate miniature representation of the vessel The Orca. It's half parody, half-tribute, all proof that Fessenden was someone who got the details right and has his own way of doing things. When he started making horror films they felt real, every inch of them. They were horrific long before the monster showed up because he got the details of anxiety and aggressive behavior just right. The real villain of his film Wendigo isn't the violent and nightmarish forest-dwelling spirit at all. On top of being a unique director, Larry's also a singular presence on camera and of course one of the best indie film producers who's ever lived, so naturally when he took a break from directing I was fine with it because he was using his time admirably. That said I was more than a little thrilled to hear he'd once again directed a horror film and the more I learned about it, the more it became clear that he was returning to that little homemade Jaws parody with a bigger budget and a real monster. And that would have been enough, but Fess' is too interesting a filmmaker to leave it at that.
The joys of his latest, Beneath, are tactile. You can see the monster and the characters really touch it. That was a satisfaction I thought long gone from mainstream horror: CGI means you can have any creature you can dream up attacking your characters, you just can't prove it's there. If all this film's budget went into the mutant in the lake, then it was money well spent. But that sense of reality, of being able to reach out and put your hand on everything is also in the character design. At the start these people are shades away from cardboard cutouts (this is on purpose) but as soon as the first victim's blood fills the boat, they become real people with wicked survival instincts. If getting off the boat means everyone else has to die, then that's how they're going to play it. But it takes goading before the characters who seem primed to be the 'villain' take matters into their own hands. And characters who seemed fated to be heroic slowly prove they're less than meets the eye. It's a sort of slow-burner waiting to see who's going to snap and do something out of self-preservation. Their dialogue also has that weird, half-improvised feel of nervous people trying to seem imposing. It's just weird enough to be totally believable. And of course the film's best joke is that the characters can see the shore the whole time and the monster is kind of cute if you look at it the right way. They're only trapped because they keep damning themselves. I loved its old fashioned approach to the monster and loved the completely contemporary approach to the human dynamic. What'd you make of it? Did you want them all dead or were you rooting for someone to make it back to shore?
Lucas Mangum: I'm glad you brought up character. I liked the issues the characters had with each other because it definitely helped make the film so much more than just a mere monster movie. Fessenden showed real competence by not limiting the conflict to two or three characters. Each person has some kind of secret beef with the other people on the boat and the tension escalates perfectly. I'd say it demands patience from the viewer, but the fact that they were also being attacked by a monster kept things moving right along for those of us with short attention spans. And what a monster it was! I got really excited the first time it appeared on screen. It definitely conjured that enthusiasm I had as a ten-year-old seeing the shark in Jaws for the first time, or the squid in Disney's 20,000 Leagues. Did you have any issues with the film?
Scout: Well, in hindsight they don't seem like issues and seem more like purposely thorny edges. For instance, the fact that the female character who we spend the most time with has slept with everyone on the boat (with one exception) would seem like misogyny, but it's clearly Fessenden turning up the cliches to 11. What got me in the end was the way the film treats her character in the final act - without spoiling anything, I was disappointed, even if it was essential to sort out the fate of another character. I guess my concern was whether there was a way to get to the ending he wanted without taking the approach he did (I apologize for the maddening vagueries, but I do want viewers going in with a clean slate). The treatment of women isn't misogyny so much as a general misanthropy, which while perhaps purposely directed at a generation that won't have been old enough to have made the mistakes they're accused of making, it works because of the parodic look at the genre, but also because there are so many ways for people to be vicious these days. One thing Fessenden rightly acknowledges is that everything gets filmed these days, whether through cameras or cell phones, which means no one can hide their behavior anymore. The lake serves as a nifty little metaphor for their forced exposure to each other. They have nowhere to swim to - they're stuck with the truth and the people it pits against them. Beyond that I suppose I couldn't help feeling it was a deliberately slight affair (the patient attitude of the monster drains a little tension from the precedings, even if that's probably how it'd go down - more reality hemming in on tropes). Wendigo, Habit and Last Winter have real gravity to them that this wants. Perhaps it's the character sketching but it's hard to bet on anyone because they keep infuriating each other. I liked them all, which is rare, but didn't love anyone so my stake in the ending was minimized. But of course there's so much to latch onto here (it strikes me as a most European approach to horror writing) that it hardly matters that there could have been a little more. Next to Maniac, The ABCs of Death and American Mary this still emerges as among the most thoughtful genre films of the year and certainly among the best American horror films for quite awhile. As with Fessenden's other films, Beneath was certainly made with care.
Lucas: All excellent points. My gripes: I felt like the Johnny character was handled poorly. We were led several different ways on what his fate would be, and without giving away too much, the way he ended up wasn't what I expected. Not in the 'pleasantly surprised' way either, more along the lines of feeling lied to by the screenplay. Also, I am a bit burned out on, without sounding too judgmental, films where everyone is a bad person. Of course, I fully acknowledge that it served this story well, but I wanted someone to root for. Night of the Living Dead explores the same concept of people's ugliness coming out in a crisis, but we still had Ben as our character to follow and identify with. Now the tension is handled so well and the film is so damn strange (in that wonderful Cabin Fever kind of way; it actually reminded me a lot of Eli Roth's debut), it was very easy for me to look past all of that. I think, and I can't believe we're already far enough into the year to consider this, but I think Beneath is gonna be on a lot of top ten lists this year. It will almost certainly make mine.
Scout: As far as horror, yeah...this'll be on that list. No question. Even if we got ten great horror films between now and then, I'd still include it because it does so much so differently and there's too much right for me to get totally down on the few missteps. (I agree about Johnny, by the way, even if I had to admire the gumption of the script for treating his arc that way. Not satisfying, but twistedly believable, like so much of the film).
Lucas: Oh yes, I have to give it props for not being afraid to be its own thing. It doesn't fit comfortably with any of the stuff that's come out in the last 5-10 years, and in my eyes that's a triumph. I mean there are pieces here and there like it's partly a found footage film, and the characters are your naughty kids in the woods (if three-dimensional) but even so it fiercely stands out.
WhatThe Zeke? | What's in Black Lake
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