★ / ★★★★
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.
Shallow Ground (2004)
★ / ★★★★
When a boy, naked and covered in blood, appeared at the police station with a knife, the three officers (Timothy V. Murphy, Stan Kirsch, Lindsey Stoddart) in charge of the small town suspected he had committed murder. But when a medic (Natalie Avital) looked at the blood sample, she discovered that the blood had come from three or four different people and the cells had been dead for about a year. “Shallow Ground,” written and directed by Sheldon Wilson, was a horror movie that made no sense. It didn’t know whether to be a slasher film or a supernatural thriller; it ended up a hybrid of both but the story was too weak to sustain our attention. There were hints that the events that were happening in the small town were happening in the city as well. Was there some kind of virus that plagued certain areas? Maybe the strange events were triggered by something alien like in George A. Romero’s zombie flicks. Instead of taking advantage of our curiosity and exploring that angle, there was a barrage of painfully unnecessary flashbacks involving a girl that one of the cops failed to rescue from a hooded, knife-wielding killer. One or two flashbacks would have sufficed but there were about ten. None of them served to push the story forward. The writer-director just wanted to hammer the fact that the cop was plagued by guilt and that was the reason we should root for him to survive. Furthermore, the picture relied too often on false alarms aided by its obnoxious music. Due to its formulaic use of scary music, we grew accustomed to its techniques. We knew exactly when something would pop out of the dark corner so there was no tension in the kills. The eerie whispers, rustling leaves, doors opening and shutting were simply not scary. The movie also tried to scare us with blood. It was almost amusing how much blood was used to the point where I managed to put them in groups. One type of blood was the kind that moved as if it had a mind of its own. It reminded me of the very inspired Black Oil saga from Chris Carter’s “The X-Files.” When touched, it gave someone a jolt and the person was able to see another’s darkest secrets. It helped to drive people to kill “the sinner.” The second type of blood was, like the film’s pacing, stagnant. It did no harm to the person who happened to touch it. I called it “regular blood.” Both types looked incredibly fake and neither generated scares. Weren’t the filmmakers aware of the fact that blood by itself didn’t necessarily equal to a good horror movie? Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” was scary because the shark ate people and then we could see blood in the water. Blood was a byproduct of something horrific, not the element that caused the terror. “Shallow Ground” failed because it tried to be too many things at once. Jack of all trades, master of none.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Jaws,” based on a novel by Peter Benchley, started off like a romance picture with two teenagers eyeing each other by a bonfire and their eventual decision to swim in the ocean. The boy, drunk, never made it in the water and the girl never made it out because a shark had taken ahold of her lower limbs. We observed her being dragged across the water like a ragdoll as her high-pitched screams turned into deafening silence. Directed by Steven Spielberg, “Jaws” was a success because the horrific images we saw matched the horror of images we did not see. Sometimes we relied on the characters’ expressions and the words they used to describe what they saw. It was the Fourth of July and Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) was asked to look into the dead body. His instinct told him it was a shark attack but the mayor (Murray Hamilton) was convinced it was just a boating accident. The mayor wanted to protect Amity Island because its economy relied on summer vacationers. The cop was more concerned about people being shark bait. Spielberg was careful with revealing too much early on. For instance, when the girl’s mangled body was washed along the shore, we could only see her hand surrounded by small crabs and the rest were covered in sand. A less controlled film would have showed blood and intestines all over the place. We didn’t lay eyes on the shark until an hour into the film. It gathered tension by allowing us to imagine how big the shark was especially since it could easily take down jetties and small boats. After a few more victims, ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) was called to help with the investigation. He clashed with Sam Quint (Robert Shaw), a local fisherman who agreed to catch or kill the shark for the right price, in terms of how to deal with the situation. Quint didn’t like what to be told especially by someone who was educated. He saw it as a sign of condescension. Their interactions were often amusing which served as a nice contrast with the horror surrounding them. The humor found a way to sneak up from behind us and just when we thought it was safe, the shark appeared and we were back to being wide-eyed and gripping onto whatever was near. I admired the progression in the shark attacks. In the beginning, we couldn’t see the shark at all. Toward the end, our characters were literally inches away from it and, with John Williams’ memorable score, we could see its gargantuan stature and the power it generated in such close proximity. If I were to make a list of must-see summer movies, “Jaws” would be on top. I was impressed not only because of the horror, but because it captured how it was like to relax at the beach. It got the small details right like the sounds of the wind blowing in our direction, the screams of joy when children played, and the way the sounds were muffled when we dunked our heads underwater. I love being in the ocean but one of my biggest fears, reiterated every time I see this film, is opening my eyes in the water and there happened to be a hungry shark coming my way.
★★ / ★★★★
Lake Victoria was the place where college students gathered to spend their Spring Break. But when an earthquake caused a rift on the lake floor, a subterranean lake was revealed which happened to house the original piranhas once thought to be extinct, it was up to Sheriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue), Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames), and a seismologist (Adam Scott) to warn the party-goers to get out of the water before they became fish food. Alexandre Aja’s “Piranha,” an out and proud B-movie, is difficult not enjoy because it embraced bad horror movie elements with open arms while paying genuine homage to movies like Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” and Joe Dante’s original “Piranha.” I was particularly impressed with the film’s climax involving a school of piranhas attacking hundreds of barely clothed college students. When panic finally set in, I enjoyed that human error (or desperation) was taken into account. Like the piranhas that ate each other for millions of years to ensure the survival of the species, if a person was desperate enough to live, he wouldn’t think twice of putting someone else in harm’s way. It’s instinctual. The film’s self-awareness worked to its advantage; it knew it wanted to attract mostly heterosexual males so it delivered big breasts and long legs. It even had an extended scene of naked women making out underwater. As I watched with incredulity, I couldn’t help but laugh at what I was seeing. It was like watching two seals making love on Discovery Channel. More amusing was the fact that all the guys were far from attractive. Just when I thought it had no more surprises under its sleeve, a male organ was bitten off. Moreover, its over-the-top nature was enjoyable due to its exaggeration of how college kids spend their Spring Break. (When probably only about 5% celebrated this way.) Enter Jake (Steven R. McQueen), the sheriff’s son, who was somewhat of a social outcast because he listened to music like The Ramones and The Pixies. According to the movie’s logic, people who listen to that type of music were just not cool. But Jake wanted to belong. He wanted to party at the lake, drink alcohol, and maybe even win over a girl (Jessica Szohr) he was obviously attracted to. Instead, he was stuck babysitting his younger brother and sister. Perhaps the lesson Jake learned at the end of the day was underage drinking led to death. At least there’s some truth in that. “Piranha” had some suspenseful moments but I wish the writers, Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg, had spent less time making fun of college culture and more time on the science behind the piranhas’ survival mechanisms. And was it too much to ask to have at least one smart and resourceful teenager? Jake had potential but he didn’t primarily think with his brain.
Donkey Punch (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Donkey Punch is the term used when a man and a woman are engaged in anal sex and the man punches a woman on the back of the head. Supposedly, the anus tightens and it gives the man more pleasure. Now that we have the definition out of the picture, I wished I would have enjoyed the film a lot more because its nightmare-at-sea backdrop reminded me Phillip Noyce’ thrilling “Dead Calm.” In “Donkey Punch,” three girls (Sian Breckin, Nichola Burley, Jaime Winstone) met four guys (Tom Bluey, Julian Morris, Jay Taylor, Robert Boulter) in a bar–who were obviously looking for sex–and the girls almost immediately agreed to go aboard a yacht. After one of the guys donkey punched one of the girls, he accidentally broke her neck. The rest of them had to decide what to do with the dead body. All of the characters lacked common sense and moral compass. Honestly, it didn’t surprise me because they were rich and (arguably) good-looking and that’s a common conceit when it comes to thrillers like this. But what I didn’t expect was its lack of ambition to turn the genre around and deliver twists that worked. After the borderline pornographic sex scene that went terribly wrong, it was a standard turning-on-each-other picture and it was a matter of guessing who would make it until the very end. I became so bored that I wished the shark from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” would have appeared to eat them all up. (The film did have nice shots underwater where the shark could’ve appeared from an angle.) I wanted to see blood and carnage with a little bit of imagination and intelligence on the side. I was sick and tired of their whining and “Oh, my gods!” When the two girls were locked in a room, they spent their time crying and arguing instead of formulating a plan to outsmart those stupid and indecisive men. And when the girls were out and about in the yacht, they didn’t bother to look for weapons. The kitchen was not that far. They didn’t even need knives or guns. It would have been so much more fun if the characters were smart enough to use chemicals or fires or electricity. In a nutshell, the film being set at sea was utterly useless. The script got stuck in delivering creativity that the story might as well have been set in Woodsboro like in Wes Craven’s “Scream.” Written and directed by Oliver Blackburn, “Donkey Punch” is a one-joke, straight-faced, non-thrilling thriller that glorified sex and drugs. As far as survival story goes, the film lacked tension and therefore it was no fun. I wished I watched an episode of “Gossip Girl” instead.
Deep Blue Sea (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
As campy as this movie was, it had genuine thrillers and horror. Director Renny Harlin tells the story of a group of researchers who breed genetically engineered sharks in order to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. The sharks’ genes had to be altered because their normal size did not produce big enough brains to store more proteins–proteins that activate inactive Alzheimer-ridden neurons. The researchers consisted of Saffron Burrows, Stellan Skarsgård and Jacqueline McKenzie. Thomas Jane was the person who wrestled with sharks in order to incapacitate them so the researchers could extract brain matter, Samuel L. Jackson was the funder of the project, Michael Rapaport as the physicist, and LL Cool J as the god-fearing chef. I liked the fact that this picture used humor in order to relieve some of the tension on screen. There were a plethora of very funny one-liners, especially from LL Cool J as he tried to fight off a shark in the kitchen. But the one character I had a big problem with was Burrows. For such an intelligent person, she made such stupid decisions, especially toward the end. It was as though the film wanted to note a sort of evolution in her morals, which really wasn’t necessary at all because, as a scientist, she must be objective and be able to weigh the pros and cons of situations. If I were in her position, I would not have felt as much guilt for creating very intelligent, giant sharks if it meant saving millions of people who suffer from Alzheimer’s. As a person who works with people who are ravaged by the disease, I can understand how serious it is and losing a few lives in the process would not have impacted me as much if I were to consider the big picture. Also, this might be a minor complaint, but the movie implied that one can “bring back” those who were in severe stages of the disease. In reality, it’s not possible because the memories have been lost. Stopping the degeneration and even prevention, on the other hand, are entirely possible. But granted, this movie was released in 1999 and we didn’t understand the disease as well back then. Overall, this is a thrilling film with several clever ideas but does suffer with a weak first few minutes and ending. “Deep Blue Sea” is simply a story of survival–a cross between “Jaws” and “Daylight.”
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This is one of the strongest Bond films to date because it was able to highlight the franchise’s best elements after the uncharacteristically mediocre “Live and Let Die” and “The Man with the Golden Gun.” While it’s full of memorable action scenes, the film would’ve been something else if it wasn’t for the intelligent script and Lewis Gilbert’s snappy direction. Instead of focusing on the side-quests like the previous two installments (which greatly slows the pacing), this one is purely about the main villain’s (Curd Jürgens) goal of eliminating New York and Moscow using nuclear weapons. He is an effective villain because he’s not the type of criminal that one can stop using bribery. He’s perfectly happy with where he is; the only change he wants to make is to create underwater cities. Jürgens has a henchman named Jaws (Richard Kiel), who definitely gives James Bond (Roger Moore) and Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) a lot of trouble. Whenever Kiel was on screen, I couldn’t help but pay attention because he exudes menace in every frame (he could bite off chains, for heaven’s sake!). I did admire the underwater scenes near the end of the picture and the scenes in Egypt near the beginning. “The Spy Who Loved Me” was able to use those places not just as a backdrop but also places where a unique adventure would happen. In this sequel, I found it strange that I could stand Moore a bit more. I think he was at a point where he was finally comfortable playing Bond (either that or he grew on me). It was also nice to have Bach as Agent XXX–she was sexy, strong, and smart–and quickly became one of my favorite Bond girls. I also have to give Carly Simon credit for the opening theme song. Not only does it fit the film but it stands on its own; I couldn’t get it out of my head because she sang the lyrics with such sensuality. Even though this Bond picture is far from perfect, I did love its back to basics swagger. With a little more darkness and kinetic hand-to-hand combat scenes, this would’ve been one of my top five Bond movies.