★ / ★★★★
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.
Shark Night (2011)
★ / ★★★★
A group of college students (Sara Paxton, Dustin Milligan, Chris Zylka, Sinqua Walls, Alyssa Diaz, Katharine McPhee, Joel David Moore) visited a lake house in Louisiana for some fun in the sun after finals. One of them, Sara (Paxton), was from the area but she left her hometown three years ago and never went back. Her friends thought it was strange how Sarah, in all the years they’ve known her, never became intimate or even hooked up with a guy. Meanwhile, the barely clothed undergraduates, gleefully playing in the lake, were unaware that the water was infested with sharks. “Shark Night,” based on the screenplay by Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg, lacked the courage to come off as completely ludicrous. If it had been more confident, it could have worked as a parody or even a satire. From its first scene involving a topless girl who had to search for her swimsuit in the water, it was obvious that the material wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. The shark attack lasted for about three seconds of choppy editing and it wasn’t scary in the least. While a handful death scenes, aided by CGI, were rather neat, the few seconds prior to the characters’ deaths felt almost like wasted time. There was no patience from behind the camera prior and during the attacks. The formula was this: The camera would go underwater and about five seconds later, someone screamed out of pain. Sometimes having a character just pulled from underwater by a very strong shark and its victim never having to scream for help could work just as effectively or even more so. Let the camera linger for about five seconds on the surface of the water. Doing so would give us a chance to observe waves created out of panic turn into utter quiescence–an illusion that a shark attack never happened. Moreover, the movie could have benefited from more extreme typecasting. For instance, Nick (Milligan) was supposed to be the geek who wanted to become a doctor. He had his MCAT coming up but the only reason he decided to come with was because he pined for Sara. They knew each other through other friends but he lacked bravado to ask her out on a simple date. He didn’t think he was good enough for her. Yet without his glasses, he looked like another jock who should have all the confidence in the world. How were we supposed to believe that he had something to prove? The one character I found most interesting was Blake (Zylka), the blonde Adonis obsessed with fake tanning. He wasn’t especially smart, even self-absorbed at times, but when tragedy struck, it turned out he was the most sensitive and relatable. Having a final girl, which inevitably just had to be Sara because it was her hometown, was anticlimactic and frustrating because the character wasn’t established as strongly as she should have been. As a rule of thumb, for horror movies that require a “final girl,” the protagonist has to be someone we will be behind no matter what. Sara wasn’t that person. Ironically, it was Blake. It could have been an excellent twist if the writers had been more aware of and fleshed out the inconsistencies in their screenplay. Directed by David R. Ellis, “Shark Night” was tame compared to other bloodfests like Alexandre Aja’s “Piranha.” It wasn’t even as fun.