Oct 28, 2015
Day 28: BENEATH (2013)
Environmental lawyer Sam (Kelly Noonan) has returned to the small town where she grew up to celebrate her father's imminent retirement from the local coal mine. Though she is still well-loved by everyone in town–including her former flame Randy (Joey Kern)–her job puts her slightly at odds with her family and old friends. Sam explains that it's not the workers she's fighting against, but the greedy corporations who put profits before safety. The men counter that no one really cares about the environment or any of that so long as the lights stay on and there is food on the workers' tables. The back-and-forth ribbing escalates until Sam decides that in order to prove...something...she will head into the mine with everyone on the morrow for her father's last shift.
As you might expect, things go poorly.
By "poorly" I mean "there is a collapse and rescue is three days away." Although the prospect of sitting out the 72-hour wait in a rescue chamber (basically a small shipping container outfitted with water and oxygen) isn't ideal, it soon becomes apparent that boredom will be the survivors' smallest concern. Voices and noises lure the men out into the darkness–is it other survivors, trapped, or is it something else? Members of the small group disappear without a trace. Supplies are sabotaged, forcing the men (and Sam) to go deeper into disused mine shafts in search of oxygen tanks and maybe a way out. There are tales of other miners trapped below decades earlier who were never found. Some of the men show signs of an infection of sorts, and an alarming propensity for violence. So what gives? Is there some supernatural explanation? Is it simply coal mine madness brought on by the dwindling amounts of oxygen in the air?
Beneath works best when it maintains its ambiguity, when we are full of questions about what's lurking out there in the dark...or if there's anything lurking at all. But eventually–unfortunately–the scary CGI faces come out and this turn of events is a big boner killer. The bigger issue, though, is that while the CGI faces explain too much, they don't really explain anything at all. Beneath straddles the line and ends up planted firmly in some weird, unsatisfying neutral zone. It feels like a smart, subtle movie that succumbed to "horror trappings", right down to a pretty beat, low-key last minute genre sting. It brought to mind my beloved The Haunting (or The Haunting of Hill House, if you prefer) with its "...whatever walked there, walked alone." Less can be so much more if the writers and director believe in that notion, and for Beneath to ultimately cop out with a "less isn't enough" was disappointing.
It's especially disappointing because what works in the film works quite well. The survivors are essentially the same types we've seen in every other "group of survivors must survive" scenario (they're usually facing off against zombies). Yes, we've got the rookie, the fish out of water, the irritatingly pragmatic self-preservationist, the hotheaded tough guy, and so on...but the serious tone and capable actors (including a grizzled Jeff Fahey and a few other "hey, I know that person from somewhere..." faces) help elevate the characters out of the murky depths of tropedom.
In its best moments, Beneath recalls some of The Descent's best moments, where it's claustrophobic panic that gets your pulse racing, not the monsters or violence. Trapped in pitch black, narrow passages as the mountain creaks and groans above, threatening collapse...it's a nightmare scenario. From there, however, it's as if the filmmakers don't commit to a particular direction, neither going with all-out "horror movie" chaos, nor trusting themselves enough to maintain the mystery. It's still worth a watch, but you may end up frustrated by what could have been.