Beneath (2007) / Thriller-Horror

MPAA Rated: R for some violence and disturbing images
Running time: 83 min.

Cast: Nora Zehetner, Matthew Settle, Gabrielle Rose, Carly Pope, Warren Christie, Jessica Amlee, Gillian Barber, Brenna O'Brien
Director: Dagen Merrill
Screenplay: Kevin Burke, Devin Merrill

Review published August 2, 2007

As a young girl, Christy (Zehetner, Brick) was involved in a traumatic car accident that saw her older sister, Vanessa (Pope, Finder's Fee), burned alive.  Vanessa was hospitalized for a period before finally passing away, although Christy has begun to doubt her sister's demise when she begins to see strange visions involving her troubled final days, and the fact that she may not have actually been dead at the time of her burial.  Twenty-years-old now, Christy returns to her hometown from college to confront these recurring visions.  Her visions are more potent than ever, despite her medication, and she soon tests the patience of the entire community with her insistence that her visions might be true.  Without much help from her in-laws or other friends, it's up to Christy to get to the bottom of her visions, as well as the strange events still occurring in the house she grew up in.

MTV Films turns in a respectable effort with this horror release that doesn't exactly break any new ground, but it is, at the very least, better than most of the theatrical releases aimed at the 18-25 crowd in the genre.  Of course, that's not saying a great deal, and the film itself, while delivering a few decent chills and twists, never rises above its derivativeness to truly make it worth going out of one's way for.  Unlike most MTV films, this one isn't burdened by incessant soundtrack hocking, musical montages, or faux-emotional pap about teens finding their niche in the world.  Although it does feature a young woman at the center of the film, she isn't remotely hip or peppy, and the entire story proceeds forward with the serious tone required to let us know that first time writer-director Dagen Merrill is making a straight-faced horror film, and not some gimmicky flavor-of-the-month scare-fest.

The run time is barely over the 80-minute mark, which seems about right for the story that it is -- not too long, not too short.  The R-rating might be questionable, especially when you consider films like The Ring and The Grudge were afforded PG-13 ratings with considerably more disturbing images. It's a bit violent at times, but there's no sex or nudity, and I don't really recall much, if any, foul language. Although it's a mixed bag in terms of the story itself, I think that genre fanatics may find it a decent diversion for a haunting story, and it does have a fairly impressive last-act surprise for those patient enough to sit through the rather gloomy plot developments. 

If there's one thing that could have kicked this film from so-so to one of the better releases of its type, it would be the emotional element that really gets us going as we see the heroine in mortal peril, along with the heartbreaking loss of her sister and the potentially traumatic existence she may have endured following the horrific accident.  In some ways, Beneath plays a little more like its near-namesake, What Lies Beneath, without the star power.  Of course, I didn't really care for that film, so don't think of this as a favorable comparison.

A few contrivances abound, perhaps necessary to keep the plot moving along, but it does sap the intelligence of the overall piece when doctors, cops, and just about everyone else have moments where they seem to lose sight of their supposed responsibility.  Christy seems to have a freedom of movement that's convenient when necessary, such as when a doctor turns his back on her to take a phone call at the right moment and the medical records she needs to see in order to gain a valuable clue is literally right in front of her, just ready to be read at a moment's notice.  These sorts of things happen several times, as she sleuths her way to answers with minimal effort -- letters with damning evidence against certain characters seem to pop right out on cue.

Beneath might be more macabre than truly horrific, playing more as a creepy thriller with some intense moments interspersed than a full-on shocker.  A little more art and a little less artifice might have put this into Poe-like territory, and a bit more mystery and suspense generated as to the strange events in the house could have made this a nice modern-day rehash of DiaboliqueAs it stands, Merrill does an adequate enough job in both his writing and direction to think he has a future in the business, but he never quite took the risks necessary to really make it worthwhile viewing for those not already die-hard, eerie horror aficionados. 

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo