“Terror lives below”
Director: Dagen Merrill
Cast: Nora Zehetner, Carly Pope, Don S. Davis
Synopsis: Christy returns to her hometown years after a car accident that disfigured her older sister. Haunted by the accident in which she was the driver, she learns that her worst nightmares have either come true … or are about to.
Given the fact that first-timer Dagen Merrill’s Beneath was produced by the teen-focused MTV label, it’s quite surprising just how tame and old-fashioned the film is for most of its running time. A gothic horror story set largely in a brooding mansion full of narrow corridors and secret passages, and inhabited by stock sinister and/or eccentric types, it benefits from eschewing the rapid editing and pacing of other MTV movies, but its lack of budget gives it something of a TV movie look, and Merrill, who co-wrote with Kevin Burke, relies too much on obvious plot contrivances at times in order to get his heroine where he wants her to be.
That heroine is 20-year-old Christy, played by the waif-like Nora Zehetner. Christy is something of a damaged individual, the result of a traumatic car crash when she was 14. For some accountable reason, her older sister, Vanessa (Carly Pope – Elysium), saw no possible downside to allowing Christy to drive back down the winding road from the cemetery in which their parents are buried and paid the price in an accident which threw Christy clear but engulfed Vanessa in flames. She’s left with the kind of burns that leave her looking like a bright pink ET, and young Christy’s left with severe mental trauma which requires treatment in an institution.
Now Christy’s heading home for the first time since Vanessa’s funeral, an occasion which was marred by Christy freaking out after convincing herself that her sister was still alive in the coffin. It’s another death that’s brought her home — that by heart attack of a family friend who helped Christy through the trauma of her parent’s death — and at his funeral, Christy is reunited with Vanessa’s husband, John Locke (Matthew Settle), who bears her no grudge, John’s mother, (Gabrielle Rose — The Stepfather, Repeaters), who clearly does, and niece Amy (Jessica Amlee), who has no recollection of her at all. Invited to what was once her own family home, Christy immediately gets the impression that something isn’t right, and this impression is all the greater because of a series of disturbing — and unexplained — visions from which she’s being suffering in which she sees her sister’s hands scratching at the closed lid of her coffin.
Having established the groundwork upon which it’s natural for the story to move forward, Merrill and Burke let things grind almost to a halt as Christy fights against her own doubts and the unhelpfulness of those around her in order to get to the bottom of exactly what happened to her sister. Only the troubled Amy seems willing to help, but it’s not long before she’s wandering around the rambling mansion with a knife in her hand and a dazed look in her eyes.
Beneath is more of a mystery thriller than a horror movie, and to be honest it’s not really much of a mystery. The villain of the piece is obvious early on — and not only because they’re repeatedly seen wearing a turtleneck sweater — although there is an unexpected twist in the final reel which goes some way towards making up for the predictability of most other aspects of the story. Nora Zehetner gives a subdued performance which, if I were feeling charitable, I might be disposed to put down to the fact that her character is quite clearly heavily dependent on happy pills, but which I suspect is the result of poor direction from Merrill. Certainly, it’s clear from other areas of Merrill’s work on this movie that he was feeling his way, and in terms of pacing and editing in particular, Beneath would have benefited from a more experienced hand at the helm.
Things do pick up in the final reel, and the concluding scenes give an indication of just how much better the movie could have been if it had just made the threats to Christy’s well-being more physical than psychological. By then, of course, it’s too late to salvage much from which is otherwise a very ordinary outing.