★ / ★★★★
Six friends have just graduated from high school and so they decide to throw a final get-together before everyone goes their separate ways. They plan to cross a lake on a boat and throw a party on other side, but only one of them, Johnny (Daniel Zovatto), is aware of a giant flesh-eating fish that resides in the water. Though Johnny warns the others that it may not be a good idea to swim in the lake and that they should keep rowing to the other side of the shore instead, not one listened… until Kitty (Bonnie Dennison) makes contact with something strange in the water.
“Beneath,” written by Tony Daniel and Brian D. Smith, is a joke of a horror picture, so egregious even on the most elementary level that I could not believe I was able to sit through it. It might have worked as a horror-comedy because the characters are essentially skeletal archetypes, ready to serve as punching bags. There are one or two funny references to David R. Ellis’ “Shark Night 3D” and Sean S. Cunningham’s “Friday the 13th,” but alas, it chooses a straight-faced approach when it comes to the arc—which is a big miscalculation.
The only characteristics that the picture has going for it are the beauty of the lake—it looks like a place I would actually be interested in visiting—and the look of the giant fish. It is an interesting choice, one that is refreshing, to not present a CGI fish. Instead, it is reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” in that it looks mechanical during some of the grizzly attacks. The fact that it looks tactile adds to the sensation that the characters—cardboard cutouts as they are—are in real danger.
But inspiration stops there. The screenplay is so desperate for characterization that the writers somehow thought that turning the dialogue into a soap opera would create a semblance of dramatic gravity. Do not be fooled. What is shown here is not how friends talk to one another—even if, deep down, they do not like each other. Because the script is so artificial, no real tension is built. The attacks come and go with little to no impact. That makes it a bore and there are very few things worse than a creature-feature where blood is being shed but the experience is like staring at a nondescript wall.
Some will find it refreshing that the so-called nice characters are taken out of the equation first. I did, too, for a while but the unlikeable characters that remain on the boat offer no personality or way of thinking that is worthy of our time and attention. Scenes that involve people having to vote on who should be sacrificed to the fish so that the others that remain may have a chance at escaping come off stupid and laughable rather than a genuine commentary about a group’s will to survive.
Directed by Larry Fessenden, “Beneath” does not work because it has no comprehension about group dynamics including the subtle shifts that occur when a member is taken out of the equation. Notice the so-called grief after the first death. It is completely fake. Because it presents no good reason for us to care about what had just happened or what might happen to the recent high school graduates, what should be a thrilling or suspenseful experience is reduced to simply waiting for everyone to die.
Don’t Breathe (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
Fede Alvarez, director and co-writer of “Don’t Breathe,” takes inspiration from great horror-thrillers which utilize space effectively in order to establish, sustain, and release tension. At one point, there is reference to an excellent scene in John Carpenter’s “Halloween” where the heroine is trapped in a confined space with her attacker. What results is a picture that, although not original, is highly watchable and consistently entertaining because the equation is feverishly being evaluated as complex factors are introduced to it.
The material is light on character development which can be overlooked due to its fast pacing. The respective motivations of the three burglars (Dylan Minnette, Jane Levy, Daniel Zovatto) who decide to break into the house of a blind man (Stephen Lang) and steal six figures worth of cash are simple and clear, each one given a specific place on the moral spectrum. Character depth is icing on the cake but not necessary in a film like this.
Silence can be deafening considering the fact that the faintest noise, like the creaking of the floorboards, can alert the blind man, who is not as innocent as he seems, to the location of burglars-turned-potential-victims. Standout scenes involve silence partnered with tightly controlled lighting that create ominous shadows and the camera pans around the room—we wait in careful anticipation when the silence will be shattered and it is time for the thieves to move briskly in order to have a chance at survival.
Although the story for the most part takes place inside two-story house with a basement, it gives the impression that every room is utilized to its maximum capacity. We grow familiar to the layout of the home with dark and tragic secrets. Notice that just about every space revisited later in the picture contains a memory involving the unsuspecting trio, whether it be the hall in front of the door to the basement, the closet, the laundry room, the homeowner’s bedroom, the front door leading to freedom… or at least an impression of it.
Lang plays the blind man with a convincing air of dominance. Despite the character’s inability to see, highly memorable are instances when he uses his hands to pummel the trespassers into unconsciousness. The sheer brutality of it is not found in his eyes or even his arms—but the hands: they are like sharp branches one second, a steel hammer the next. The camera sits still when his hands are used, less still when a gun is involved.
“Don’t Breathe” is relentless, even in the manner in which the story ends. I admired that there is neither an easy nor a clean-cut happy ending. With the kind of brutality that transpires in that Detroit home, it is clear that no one should walk away unchanged physically and internally. That kind of trauma sticks around for years, if not till it’s time to check out.