Courtesy of IFC Films/Sye Williams Photography

Beneath (2014) Review

[dropcap size=big]B[/dropcap]rilliance in filmmaking exists in many forms. Actors can turn in once-in-a-lifetime performances. A story concept can be break new ground. Courageous cinematography can capture a whole new facet of the human condition. Sometimes, however, brilliance can be as deceptively simple as maximizing a limited budget to manage expectations and then exceed them. Beneath is a brilliant film for that very reason. It’s rare that a horror movie should deserve such praise, but it’s clear that the filmmakers set out to create an excellent film first and a horror movie second.

Veteran coalminer George Marsh (Jeff Fahey) is retiring after a lifetime of digging, so he and his crew celebrate his closing days with one final dig. His daughter, Samantha (Kelly Noonan), decides to accompany her father as a way of connecting with him and closing a chapter in her life that she now opposes. Some of the men are uneasy in Samantha’s presence, feeling that a woman would only bring bad luck. Fortunately, her old flame, Randy (Joey Kern), works with her father and can keep the other men at bay while they work. But when the men accidentally tunnel through a supporting wall, they trigger a cave-in, which kills some of the crew while trapping the rest 600 feet underground. Their only option is to wait 72 hours for rescue, but with dwindling oxygen playing with their minds the survivors must decide if the human-like sounds echoing through the dark passageways are fellow miners in need of help or something sinister.

At first impression, it’s easy to think that Beneath isn’t aiming very high in terms of production value, especially since it opens with a few videos shot with a cell phone. But this is just sleight of hand to make viewers think they’re in for some low budget found footage. Instead, Beneath falls into the “haunted house” sub-genre of horror, with a claustrophobic coal mine as the setting. And here’s where the film really shines.

The filmmakers have done a magnificent job at building the subterranean life these coalminers live, from their coming to work before sunrise to the horrific sounds of their machinery. For a few scenes early in the film, viewers simply get a short tour of how these men work, and it all feels absolutely authentic. Viewers get to experience their cramped locker room, their daily goodbyes to the sun and their slow descent into the darkness. And then it’s to the main work area, which is fraught with managed peril, but is so commonplace to the workers that they don’t even seem to notice the danger until it’s overwhelming. The filmmakers use these scenes wisely to give audiences a sense of familiarity, which only heightens the horror when the familiar becomes strange.

Scaring viewers is easy; make them focus on something in the background and then have something pop up suddenly in the foreground while playing an artificially loud sound, and audiences will jump in their seats. While Beneath is certainly not above using these tactics (sparingly), the horror it focuses on is more psychological and foreboding. It’s the kind of disquieting fear that lingers and follows you to bed, clouding your mind with thoughts of being buried alive in close quarters with something trying to kill you. And while the claustrophobia and hopelessness in this movie never quite reaches the depths of The Descent, the film most likely to be compared to this one, Beneath comes respectably close.

Rounding out the overall excellence are the acting and the visual effects. The acting usually isn’t a focus in horror films, because most of the characters die before the actors can clearly illustrate their roles. But while the body count is high in Beneath, all of the actors manage to remain memorable even after they perish. Additionally, the visual effects are unexpectedly stellar. Whether it’s the realistic gore or the twisted faces of the villains in the film, audiences will have plenty to shield their eyes from.

For all of its good points, this is not a flawless film. The rules of the horror are not always distinguishable, especially when part of the horror is psychological. Are the villains actually there or are they just hallucinations? Another misstep is beginning the film with a rescue team discovering a survivor. Not only does this cripple the forlornness that audiences should empathize with, but it also partially gives away the ending. These grievances aside, the complete product is still top tier and worth any filmgoer’s attention. Not every film strives to be the best, nor should they, but, in this case, Beneath reaches the highest caliber of the horror genre.