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Over the last few decades, Larry Fessenden has built a strong cult rep­u­ta­tion as an inde­pen­dent film­maker with a unique, per­son­al­ized take on the hor­ror genre.  Whether he is direct­ing his own work or pro­duc­ing for oth­ers through his com­pany Glass Eye Pix, he shows ded­i­ca­tion to chal­leng­ing the expec­ta­tions of the hor­ror audi­ence.  Beneath is his most recent direc­to­r­ial work as of this writ­ing and it shows a fierce intel­li­gence that will take those expect­ing the usual low bud­get hor­ror tropes by surprise.

Beneath-posYou could be excused for mis­tak­ing Beneath for the usual hor­ror pro­gram­mer due to its tra­di­tional setup.  It begins with a sex­tet of recent high school grad­u­ates ven­tur­ing out to a secluded lake to cel­e­brate their free­dom from school.  Johnny (Daniel Zovatto) has put the trip together and his plan is to sim­ply take a row­boat across the lake to a pri­vate campground.

However, that plan changes when alpha male Matt (Chris Conroy) decides to take a long swim with his queen bee girl­friend Kitty (Bonnie Dennison) and her pal Deb (Mackenzie Rosman).  Johnny is left on the boat with film-geek motor­mouth Zeke (Griffin Newman) and Matt’s second-banana lit­tle bro Simon (Jonny Orsini).  A large, seem­ingly pre­his­toric fish emerges from the depths and begins to men­ace the partiers.  As the dan­ger sets in, they are forced to make some hard deci­sions and the unspo­ken ten­sion of their rela­tion­ships sur­faces in unex­pected and bru­tal ways.

Beneath-01Beneath reveals itself to be a brac­ing alter­na­tive after its tra­di­tional open­ing half-hour.  Without less­en­ing the dan­ger the killer fish presents, the script by Tony Daniel and Brian Smith allow it to become a cat­a­lyst to some vicious dis­plays of social Darwinism amongst the friends that are scarier than any aquatic threat could be.

There’s a pleas­antly sur­pris­ing unpre­dictabil­ity to the dynamic these char­ac­ters share, which con­stantly shifts as the group’s num­bers dwin­dle: each char­ac­ter gets the chance to be both tor­men­tor and vic­tim as alliances frac­ture and reshape around them.  You’ll be sur­prised by who lives Beneath-02and who dies — and the sto­ry­line also boasts a darkly humor­ous end­ing that doesn’t cop out on the story’s dark “high school as soci­etal micro­cosm” world view.

Fessenden directs the slow-burn may­hem with a style that is unex­pect­edly lyri­cal, using the nat­ural beauty of the lake­side set­ting as an ironic back­drop to the cru­elty that erupts from the char­ac­ters’ inter­ac­tions.  Gordon Arkenberg’s lush pho­tog­ra­phy plays a big role in cre­at­ing that lovely/brutal dichotomy and Will Bates pro­vides a score that is hyp­notic with­out laps­ing into horror-music cliches.  The sound design by Graham Reznick seals the atmos­phere, lend­ing a sub­tle creepi­ness to the film’s over­all vibe.

Beneath-03Fessenden also does well with his actors, all of whom offer vivid turns: Conroy is mem­o­rable as the alpha type who comes to regret his tough-guy ways while Dennison cre­ates a believ­ably queasy por­trait of some­one who doesn’t like hav­ing to pay the price for manip­u­la­tion.  Orsini reg­is­ters strongly as the sec­ond banana who thrives on get­ting to put oth­ers down while Zovatto sup­plies an x-factor as the mem­ber of the group who has secret knowl­edge of what is going on.  There is also a nice brief role by char­ac­ter actor vet Mark Margolis, play­ing a sin­is­ter local who knows a thing or two about the lake’s Beneath-04secrets.

That said, the scene-stealer of the piece is Newman, who turns what could have been another comic-relief char­ac­ter into a mem­o­rable por­trait of schem­ing and des­per­a­tion.  As the dan­ger kicks in, his sar­casm quickly reveals itself to be a Trojan horse for the dark­est, most Darwinian mind­set of the group.

In short, Beneath isn’t just another teen-kill hor­ror flick.  It has the dar­ing to sup­ple­ment the expected thrills with a darker theme that sug­gests that no mat­ter what threat they have to deal with, the human race will always be its own worst enemy.  That’s pretty heady stuff for a low-budget hor­ror flick and Fessenden’s com­mit­ment to see­ing it through really sets Beneath apart from its competition.