What is the point of prefacing your horror film with text stating that it’s based on a true story? Obviously it’s meant to add additional degrees of terror — this really happened and it could happen to you too! — but while a film like The Amityville Horror benefited from the claim because its veracity was difficult to confirm back in the pre-internet days of 1979 the truth behind today’s movies can be ascertained with a few clicks of a mouse.
What I’m saying is please stop opening your horror films with onscreen text pretending any of what we’re about to see is true. It’s dumb, and it more often than not shows a desperation on the part of filmmakers who lack confidence in the quality and power of their actual film. Of course, if you absolutely insist on doing it anyway it helps to follow it up with a strong enough movie that we forget all about your unnecessarily silly intro.
Which brings us to Beneath.
Samantha (Kelly Noonan) escaped her small mining town for the big wide world and went on to become an environmental lawyer, much to the chagrin of her father George (Jeff Fahey). It was his career mining coal in the bowels of the earth that put his little girl through law school, and on the eve of his retirement from the job she’s returned home to help honor his accomplishments. She finds herself the lone voice arguing the unhealthiness and environmentally unsound practices of coal mining, and after being challenged as to her ignorance of the job she decides to go down with her dad and the team on his final descent.
A couple of the guys say it’s bad luck for a woman to enter the mine, but they’re overruled and the team descends the hundreds of feet to the tunnel system they’re currently working. She’s barely learned how to shovel coal when a drilling machine mishap opens a thin vein in the wall and brings the cave roof collapsing in around them. The survivors retreat into an emergency pod to await rescue, but they soon discover that they’re not alone down there. The oxygen is dropping, toxic fumes are taking its place and someone — or something — is trying to make sure none of them see the light of day ever again.
Director Ben Ketai and writers Patrick Doody and Chris Valenziano have picked a seemingly well-tread premise for their feature, but a few missteps aside they succeed in breathing fresh life into the stale environment of a terror-filled mine shaft. They deliver some genuine chills alongside a handful of wonderfully claustrophobic sequences, and the result is a film that scares and keeps viewers on their toes.
One of the film’s biggest strengths is the script’s ability to play both sides of the fence in regard to the threat at hand. Events tease the possibility of both supernatural shenanigans and a more straightforward psychopath as the culprit behind the multiple deaths, and both options feel fleshed out enough to justify the proceedings. The crack that opens in the mountain leads to a revelation about “the nineteen,” a group of miners who where lost and never recovered after a cave-in back in the ’20s, but equally compelling is the mental stress and delusions the survivors begin suffering as the oxygen depletes and panic sets in among them.
Both are tangible options, and the film enhances the terror with camera work and editing that fill the cavern with an eerie vibe. The camera moves silently through the tunnels like an ethereal POV, a handful of shots hang on the darkness of a tunnel for a few extra beats suggesting that something is there just beyond the light and the miners’ efforts to move through tight spaces constrict our own chests through the use of tight framing and labored breathing.
The cast does fine work with both Fahey and Brent Briscoe being comforting standouts, but Noonan deserves credit for keeping a difficult character from slipping too far left or right of her balanced center. Samatha begins as our guide in this tale, and the genre dictates that she, the sole female, fit a certain mold as the terror unfolds. She’s no Ripley (from Alien), but her journey from whiny and useless to someone far more proactive is presented in interesting ways.
Beneath shakes off its generic trappings early on to deliver a fantastic blend of chills and thrills, and the script keeps viewers guessing in a way that never feels manipulative or cheap. Comparisons to Neil Marshall’s The Descent are inevitable, but while they’re entirely different beasts they’re both well-crafted and visceral experiences that drop viewers into a dark world of claustrophobic dread. Oh, and they’re also both entirely fictional stories.
The Upside: Suspenseful and occasionally scary; does a great job teasing both a psychotic and/or supernatural cause; well-acted all around; strong production design
The Downside: “True story” bs in opening text is an unnecessary distraction; Samantha’s character could use some tightening up
On the Side: There was a another horror film called Beneath released recently, but it is… not very good.
Beneath hits VOD on June 27th and opens in select theaters on July 25th.