Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Ben Ketai
Writer: Patrick J. Doody, Chris Valenziano
Producer: Nick Phillips, Kelly Martin Wagner
Stars: Jeff Fahey, Kelly Noonan, Joey Kern, Brent Briscoe, Mark L. Young, Eric Etebari, Rene Rivera, Kurt Caceres, David Shackelford
Buried alive after a tunnel collapse, a mining crew descends into madness that may be related to something trapped underground with them.
Not to be confused with the Larry Fessenden-directed creature feature of the same name, also released in 2013 so as to further add to the confusion, director Ben Ketai’s “Beneath” is the story of a group of miners and one civilian daughter trapped underground following a cave-in. Don’t read too much into the “inspired by true events” tagline at the opening though, as there is of course no such “true story” involving miners and monsters or 100-year-old ghosts. The writers were merely motivated by the seemingly frequent news reports of mine tunnel collapses in recent years, making that the loosest interpretation of the term “inspired” as possible.
After some drunken jesting at the hands of her father’s coal mining co-workers on the eve of his final shift, Sam proposes to prove a woman like her can handle a day underground by joining the men on her dad’s last day. Just as a movie cop on his last day is destined to duel a serial killer or citywide crisis, so is this movie miner assured an impending cave-in, particularly when his civilian daughter is there to accompany him. The tunnel collapses, panic sets in, and when word arrives that they must wait three days for rescue, the situation quickly escalates from bad to horrible.
The men uncover a strange cavern connecting to an old tunnel once occupied by a 1920’s mining crew whose bodies were never recovered after they became trapped beneath the mountain. Some of the present day crewmembers soon start experiencing haunting visions while others inexplicably begin behaving psychotically. With oxygen levels depleting and cabin fever rising, are the miners succumbing to poison, hallucinations, a supernatural force, or something inconceivably worse?
“Beneath” is effective as a paranoia thriller with strokes of psychological terror and supernatural underpinnings. Well-produced and bearing a sharp visual look, the movie comes close to competing on a level with “The Descent” and other subterranean horrors, although some subtle missteps keep “Beneath” on a mostly steady simmer instead of allowing it to heat up to a full sizzle.
I cannot figure out what the movie gains by opening on a scene of the rescue operation discovering mutilated bodies and inferring that only one person survived, only to restart with a “Four Days Earlier” text. A number of films make this mistake of seeing fit to begin on an epilogue that gives away the ending unnecessarily and “Beneath” is one of them. Now the viewer goes through the next 90 minutes knowing all but one person dies and anyone who has seen just one horror movie in his/her life can correctly guess who the lone survivor will be.
The rest of the introduction is otherwise quite good. The miners bond at a bar, no one gets overly inappropriate with the one woman in the group, and little touches like tapping a keepsake wooden plank for luck before entering the mine establish camaraderie, not just characters. They are a stereotypical motley crew of fresh-faced rookie, chauvinist alpha male, grizzled veteran, etc., but I imagine a mining crew would have these same personalities in reality, too.
The bar scene is shot with a puzzling handheld camera style though. It isn’t just any old handheld style, but the deliberate “NYPD Blue” shaking that makes one wonder if the camera operator is suffering an epileptic fit. This is one of several creative decisions “Beneath” makes that aren’t for the better. Giving subdued exposition sequences the atmosphere of an earthquake undercuts the terror of a mine collapse, when such camera techniques would be better suited for amplifying chaos instead of underscoring beer drinking and conversation.
Curious choices extend to the scripting, as well. Given that Jeff Fahey and Kelly Noonan are the film’s stars, their father-daughter bond should be the relationship centerpiece. Instead, the daughter is paired with a pseudo-love interest for most of her tour in the mine while dad operates elsewhere. Crafting a storyline around a father and daughter working through personal tensions while confronting a crisis may be cliché, but “Beneath” goes so far against expectations as to be conspicuous by how little the father and daughter interact until the finale.
Also, this becomes enough of a plot point that the logic of it bothers me: I don’t know if this is how mine operation rescue chambers work in real life or if “Beneath” took liberties with the design, but it seems like a serious structural flaw for the oxygen tanks to be positioned on the outside of the chamber. Isn’t the point of making the chamber a metal case so that it can withstand a cave-in? What sense does it make to put the valves, connectors, and reservoirs on the exterior if trapped miners may be unable to get outside and change the tanks or if falling rocks can damage them?
None of the above is an outright deal breaker, but the cumulative weight of these little rocks prevents “Beneath” from digging out of its own rubble, so to speak, and climbing to the top of the crop. The claustrophobia is there to a degree, but not to the full choking effect that similar movies have been able to capture. The coalmine of “Beneath” is a soundstage that is occasionally believable, although inconsistently. Several scenes take place in open spaces the size of an average dining room, which makes a middle act of slowly sidling down dimly lit corridors more burdensome than truly confining and suspenseful.
Even though I spent much of this review pointing out what doesn’t feel right, there is still more than enough that does. The pace stumbles down the back half and the resolution is deflated by revealing the ending before the movie begins. But the cast makes the most of serviceable roles, the lighting is impressive, and overall, director Ben Ketai still delivers a great deal of the tension that undoubtedly comes from the frightening ordeal of being buried alive 600 feet underground.
Review Score: 70