They thought they were friends. A man-eating fish proved them wrong. In director Larry Fessenden’s Beneath, six recently graduated high school friends cross paths with a massive, sharp-toothed fish on the secluded Black Lake. Confronted with a life-or-death situation, the teens discover how weak their bond really is as tempers rise, panic sets in, and the fish opens its jaws for the next meal.
Warned not to go out on Black Lake by family friend Mr. Parks (Mark Margolis), Johnny (Daniel Zovatto) leads his pack of pals out on the water one morning, anyway, figuring they’ll just cross to the other side in their rowboat. Besides, this is his big chance to reconnect with ex-girlfriend Kitty (Bonnie Dennison), even though her alpha male current boyfriend Matt (Chris Conroy) is along for the ride. Matt’s academic scholarship-receiving brother Simon (Jonny Orsini) also pines for Kitty, while sporty Deb (Mackenzie Rosman) just wants to make some final lasting memories with the gang. Aspiring filmmaker Zeke (Griffin Newman) seeks to capture these good times on the GoPro camera attached to his wrist. But when the lake’s freakishly large fish appears during a mid-lake swim, the group’s carefree day takes a hellish turn.
Fessenden’s flick is something of a rarity these days: it’s a creature feature that relies heavily on practical effects rather than CGI, as the human-terrorizing fish was present during filming in its full animatronic beauty. Inspired by the bizarre-looking denizens of the ocean’s bottom, Fessenden created an initial design for the fish that includes oversized teeth, sharp quills, and a haunting yellow and black eye. And yet, there’s a bass-like quality to the shape of Fessenden’s fish that lends credibility to its existence in a freshwater, backwoods environment. I loved watching this fish in action. Its animatronic form hearkens back to like-minded flicks from the 1970s, and it makes the fear onscreen more palpable than any digital rendering could have done.
As bloody and unnerving as the fish’s attacks are, the real horror is the psychological torment unfolding on the rowboat. Beneath shows how humans can change under stress, as these young adults resort to ritually voting someone off the boat as a distraction to save the rest. This component of Tony Daniel and Brian Smith’s screenplay could come off as unbelievable, but the actors make it feel real with their frenetic desperation. The actors also gamely portray transformations as their time in the slowly sinking rowboat continues, becoming more wretched to each other and haggard in appearance.
The cast consists of talented young adult actors. Newman as Zeke gives an admirable fast-talking performance, while Conroy adds a convincing world-weary layer to Matt. In the audio commentary, Fessenden even mentions at a turning point in the film that Orsini “has become like Ray Liotta in Something Wild.” Watching these characters behave so badly to one another, I was suitably frustrated by their selfish actions, but captivated by the added element of danger. I appreciate Fessenden’s dark take on human nature; his placement of such social commentary in a deadly fish tale justifies the making of the movie itself, as it’s a fresh take on a somewhat familiar story.
Shot in 18 days in almost complete natural light on an actual lake in Connecticut, Fessenden’s cinematography is top-notch, especially considering the challenges of filming mostly on water. A lot of filming took place from a plywood and barrel construction referred to as “The Barge.” From this platform, the blurred focus long shots and symmetrical overhead camera angles lend a dreamlike state to the film that makes the bloody reality of the fish’s onslaughts that much more jarring. This camerawork, coupled with a score that evokes the most tension when the characters are arguing rather than when the fish appears, creates a unique take on the deadly fish trope, showing that this time the people inside the boat are just as lethal as the fish in the water.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release of Beneath features crystal clear 1080p high-definition and excellent DTS-HD Master Audio. There are over two hours of bonus features adding depth to the story and its characters, including entertaining web episodes of What the Zeke?, as well as “A Look Behind Beneath: Making the “Fish Movie,”” a documentary that increased tenfold my appreciation of the hard work put into making this flick on the water. The audio commentary by Larry Fessenden and sound designer Graham Reznick is also worth your time, as a lot of treasured anecdotes are recalled and motives for the film’s creative choices are explained. Once again, Scream Factory has put out an impressive, all-encompassing product for horror fans.
If you’re looking for a solid creature feature that’s made in old-school fashion, then you can’t go wrong with Beneath. But also inherent in Fessenden’s latest feature is a disturbing psychological edge that should appeal to a wide base of horror hounds. You may not find a lot of likeable characters in Beneath, but you will likely find a lot to like in the way it was made.
Movie Score: 3/5, Disc Score: 4/5