Rewind Review: 2011’s ‘Beneath the Darkness’

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Beneath the Darkness is a Horror movie that is both supernatural and psychological. When a film references Edgar Allan Poe, and The Tell Tale Heart in the first 5 minutes, you can be certain that it intends to align itself with American Gothic literary traditions, specifically guilt, madness, and murder. The other work of literature prominently referenced in Beneath the Darkness is Shakespeare’s Macbeth, another exploration of guilt, madness, and murder—with a ghost.

Check out my review after the jump.

Official Synopsis: When high school friends Travis (Oller), Abby (Teegarden), Brian (Lunsford) and Danny (Werkheiser) decide to check out the rumors, they are shocked to see the supposedly grieving widower dancing with a mysterious woman behind the curtains of his bedroom window. Their curiosity aroused, the four teens wait for Ely to leave the house before breaking in to investigate. But instead of finding clues to the woman’s identity, they stumble on a grotesque, long-hidden secret. The sadistic mortician next door will now stop at nothing to literally bury his past.

While Beneath the Darkness is definitely a good movie, it’s also easy to dislike, mostly because it feels so damn familiar and generic. I mean, the story takes place in a town called Smithville—you just can’t get more generic than that. We’ve seen every major aspect of this film in numerous incarnations, like: Teenagers in Trouble, the Suspicious Hermit/Proprietor, the Haunted House. Like Fright Night and Suburbia, a group of hormonal high-school kids pay the price for peeking into their neighbor’s windows. Of course, the adults all think they’re overreacting and the local police force epitomizes incompetence (such a tired cliché). “The lights are on, but no one’s home”; is this simply an innocent line of dialogue or a directorial Freudian admission that the film is hollow?

But if you give it a chance, Beneath the Darkness actually has a few interesting things to offer. I was especially impressed with the presentation of a serial killer who’s obsessed with burying people alive; you’d have to be a real sick motherfucker to get off on that kind of depravity. And isn’t premature burial a semi-common theme in American Gothic? Why yes it is.

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So if Beneath the Darkness isn’t being terribly original, at least they borrow from some dependable sources. When we see a silhouette in an ominous window, we instantly think of Alfred Hitchcock; references/similarities to Psycho, specifically, are numerous—like when Travis calls Ely a “Psycho”.

For better or for worse, the success of this film (or lack thereof) rests squarely on Dennis Quaid’s shoulders. His portrayal of widower mortician Vaughn Ely feels almost like a vanity project showcasing his step into a character that’s unusual in his particular filmography. But does the fact that we hardly ever see Quaid as a bad guy prejudice us? Are we simply unwilling to accept Quaid as a villain, wishing him back to his more comic and altruistic roots? Perhaps. Because Quaid is actually quite menacing in the film. His character is like a hybrid of Normal Bates and Jack Torrance. When Quaid ventures into manic territory, is he falling short, or does his evil face bear too much resemblance to his funny face?

There is never any doubt that Vaughn Ely is a madman; we are witness to his sadistic tendencies at the film’s onset. He’s a chameleon, hiding his insanity behind the veneer of a respected member of the community. The odd but unassuming loner who keeps to himself and probably wouldn’t hurt a fly—until the mask falls. What’s problematic is that we never know who Ely was before our narrative begins. He’s a widower and he’s insane, so… did his wife’s death drive him insane or was he already crazy? It’s kind of an important question when we’re trying to pull everything together at the film’s conclusion. We’ve got to appreciate the effort Quaid put into this role, his enthusiasm, but that final breaking of the fourth-wall was a horrible way to end a film—and really fucking silly. Oh yeah, and that electric cigarette looked ridiculous—hardly sinister.  Unless it’s important for another reason…?

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While Quaid’s performance is paramount, it’s not the only aspect of the film that’s problematic; the storytelling and presentation are all over the place. Then first act of the film is definitely pushing a supernatural agenda, spending a lot of time talking about ghosts, debating their credibility. This exploration of the otherworldly, however, is quickly dropped and forever abandoned in favor of a more realistic narrative; straight forward psychological Horror. If it’s not a movie about ghosts, it’s strange to spend so much time dwelling on their possibility; it also creates a needlessly meandering story.

And then there’s that confusing subplot regarding the death of Travis’s sister Erin and the “ghost” he saw. If you haven’t seen Beneath the Darkness, you might want to skip the next paragraph, because I’m about to hypothesize a theory.

So did Travis really see a ghost when he was a kid, that night his sister Erin died? It looked like smoke, didn’t it? What was the epiphany he had when the Doctor was stitching up his wound? Someone telling him it’s not his fault? Was this his sister’s “ghost” or someone else in the room. That’s what gets me wondering about who Vaughn Ely was before the film started, before his wife died. Is it possible that he was some sort of night stalking child killer? Then I remember that annoying electronic cigarette; Ely must have one serious nicotine addiction. Of course, ten years ago, when Travis’s sister died, electronic cigarettes weren’t in mainstream use, so Mr. Addicted must have been quite a smoker. If he was in the room when Erin died, does this explain why the room was filled with smoke?  (Remember, Ely tells Travis that his sister was “Special”.) And was Travis’s inability to protect his sister from an intruder the reason why he suffered from such extreme guilt? Nothing on the message boards confirms my theory, but then again, most of the comments are simply about how disappointed most viewers feel about the film. I’m actually trying to give it a chance, searching for a hidden secret that makes this seemingly mediocre movie a clever winner. But if this was meant to be the film’s “unexpected twist”, I can’t believe the filmmakers would have been so opaque about communicating this point. So serious, what the heck? Let’s discuss.

Okay, if you haven’t seen Beneath the Darkness, it’s okay to start reading again, as I’m about to wrap things up.

Beneath the Darkness has a great soundtrack, excellent presentation, smooth cinematography, and above average practical FX. Unfortunately, it never really feels like the film is worthy of all the effort put into making it. Something’s just missing. Perhaps the film is simply too familiar. Perhaps we’re unable to accept Dennis Quaid as a psycho killer. It’s a well-made film, decent PG-13 Horror that isn’t bad, but probably won’t knock anybody’s socks off—especially if you’re an aficionado.

2.5 out of 5 Skull Heads.

Fun Fact: Quaid’s band, Dennis Quaid and the Sharks, contributed a song to the film’s soundtrack.

Trailer: HERE

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Directed by Martin Guigui
Produced by Ronnie Clemmer,
Scott Mednick
Written by Bruce Wilkinson
Starring Dennis Quaid
Tony Oller
Aimee Teegarden
Cinematography Massimo Zeri
Editing by Eric Potter
Studio Sunset Pictures

 

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About Saucy Josh

I write a blog for intelligent Horror movie aficionados called Blood and Guts for Grown Ups: https://bloodandgutsforgrownups.wordpress.com/ View all posts by Saucy Josh

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