Paramount // 2007 // 81 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // July 31st, 2007
Terror lives below.
Vanessa (Carly Pope, Dirt) and her sister Christy visit their parents' grave. Since Christy is 14, Vanessa gives her a necklace that their parents had given her on her 14th birthday. Vanessa lets Christy drive on the way home, and there is an accident. Vanessa is severely burned and dies some months later. At the wake, Christy is convinced Vanessa is still alive and trying to get out of the coffin, and she causes a scene.
Six years later. Christy (Nora Zehetner, Heroes) has been in an institution and then to school out of town. Haunted by dreams and flashbacks, Christy keeps a sketchbook in which she draws what she remembers. She is called back to town for another funeral, and she sees Vanessa's former husband, John (Matthew Settle, Brothers and Sisters), and their young daughter, Amy (Jessica Amlee, Eve and the Fire Horse). Amy is concerned that something supernatural is living in her house: the dark thing. Her father and grandmother dismiss her fears, but Amy is convinced she's right, and she has evidence that could prove it.
In the meantime, Christy's nightmares have gotten worse since she came back. She is haunted by images of a wooden lid crashing down and hands scratching at it. Was Vanessa buried alive? Is Christy channeling her sister's spirit? Or has returning home just triggered her guilt from the accident?
When I saw the MTV Production tag on this film, I was expecting an MTV movie, with lots of quick cutting, sudden jolts, hard-driving score, and a perpetually screaming young heroine. While the dreams and flashbacks are shown in quick and flashy montage, for the most part, the film moves at a steady and somewhat somber pace. At 81 minutes, Beneath feels like a short story and, in fact, I seem to recall reading a couple of short stories that could have provided the inspiration for this movie.
This is essentially an "old, dark house" mystery. John lives in a large, labyrinth-like home with secret passages and closed-off rooms. There are mysteries beyond these doors, but they don't necessarily hold the answers that Christy hopes to find.
The acting is decent: Zehetner gives us a by-the-books portrayal of the haunted heroine, and Settle is creepily inscrutable. Amlee is very good as Amy, avoiding the cloying clichés often associated with a juvenile performance. The big reveal is more melancholy than terrifying, and in questionable taste. First-time director Dagen Merrill, a finalist on Project Greenlight, co-wrote the script.
Beneath is being released directly to DVD in a no-frills package at a high price ($26.99). With its low-key chills, Beneath plays better at home than it would have in a theater. It's like a well-shot and well-crafted episode of an anthology series such as Night Gallery or Thriller. I really don't understand the R rating, since there is no sex or nudity and minimal gore. The widescreen picture is clear, if unexceptional, and there's a nice 5.1 Surround audio track that, as expected, "jumps" during the "scary" moments. The only extras are previews for other movies.
As with most thrillers, this one requires a huge dollop of suspension of disbelief, and not just for the supernatural and psychological elements. You're better off not asking why Vanessa, a married woman with a young child, would let her 14-year-old sister drive on this twisty back road or why doctor would happily produce Vanessa's medical records because of Christy's seemingly baseless concern that her sister was buried alive. This kind of shorthand to get back to the story helps ensconce Beneath in the realm of television.
Overall, Beneath is a decent, compact chiller that owes less to MTV than to latter-day Rod Serling. It's a good rental for a quiet night at home.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R