BENEATH (2007) dir. Dagen Merrill

Director: Dagen Merill
Producers: Sean C. Covel, Troy Craig Poon, Chris Wyatt
Writers: Kevin Burke, Dagen Merrill
Stars: Nora Zehetner, Carly Pope, Matthew Settle, Jessica Amlee

Guilt is good. It’s the price we pay for an honest soul.

beneath_cover

BENEATH (2007)

When Christy Wescot (Nora Zehetner) returns to her hometown, Edgemont, Montana, it is with great reluctance. The place isn’t the site of fond memories—rather, it is where Christy’s parents and sister, Vanessa (Carly Pope), are buried; her childhood home now inhabited by Vanessa’s cold, distant widower, John (Matthew Settle); precocious daughter, Amy (Jessica Amlee); and in-laws, the Lockes. Six ears prior, after visiting the Wescot parents’ graves, Vanessa good-naturedly agrees to let fourteen-year-old Christy drive them home under her supervision. Tragically, Christy crashes the car and, though she is flung from the vehicle, Vanessa remains trapped inside as the car bursts into flames—barely surviving with burns covering the entirety of her body. Six months later, she dies, and Christy is hospitalized due to the severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder she suffers following the ordeal. She learns to coexist with the violent visions that interrupt her daily life, coping through the use of medication and by sketching her visions in a book she carries around.

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Vanessa (Carly Pope) and young Christy (Brenna O’Brien) embrace, visiting the cemetery on the anniversary of their parents’ deaths. Photo courtesy of Dagen Merrill and Mike Southon.

When she returns to Edgewood, it is to attend the funeral of Joseph, a family friend and caretaker of the Lockes’ estate. There, she reconnects with John and Amy (and, less fortunately, Mrs. Locke) and, curiosity piqued by Amy’s fear that a “dark thing” has killed Joseph, decides to stay in town for a few days. Little does she know that what Amy has discovered is far worse than any ordinary haunting, and its killings are far from finished …

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“Do you believe in dark things?” (From left: Jessica Amlee, Nora Zehetna.) Photo courtesy of Dagen Merrill and Mike Southon.

I turned on BENEATH with low expectations. The film has a painfully average rating of 5.4 on IMDb, a user rating of 38% on Rotten Tomatoes (apparently, critics have not yet bothered to weigh in). At first, BENEATH is easy to dislike. Nora Zehetner is convincingly otherworldly—the depth of her giant eyes artfully depicts Christy as visionary and her affect is both fearful and determined—but her effectiveness is offset by Matthew Settle and Jessica Amlee, who are merely mediocre. The plot, too, is difficult to follow—Christy’s perceptions are so wrapped up in nightmares, premonitions, imaginings, and flashbacks that reality is often impossible to discern. The effect is a story that is haphazardly stitched together—and, though frustrating, this tack is eye-opening in its portrayal of Christy’s perspective, as well as the perspectives of other people with mental illnesses for whom reality and fiction appear to be one and the same. The world viewers inhabit with Christy is beautifully painted with lustrous cinematography and moving touches of music.

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Photo courtesy of Dagen Merrill and Mike Southon.

Following the film’s violent beginning—the scene of the accident—BENEATH cools to a chilling sense of foreboding. Christy’s ghostly materialization in the funeral home in all black, before Joseph’s coffin, is an eerie sight to behold indeed. What’s more, the Lockes’ manse is richly Gothic, draped in bloodred and black, hallways separated by curtains and double doors; the winding quality of the place is intensified by the secret passageways that worm through the house—old shortcuts to the abandoned mines below. Christy’s forays throughout the halls perfectly mirror her psychic journey through the maze of her mental illnesses (it is revealed that Christy has also been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder). The sense of unreality is reinforced by the alarming suddenness with which characters appear and disappear, the slammed doors and rippling curtains that interrupt the Locke home’s preternatural stillness.

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Christy’s therapist advises her to sketch her visions, which often overlap with flashbacks (as this painted portrayal of the car accident exemplifies). Photo courtesy of Dagen Merrill and Mike Southon.

Part of the fascination of BENEATH is the constant doubling: most obviously, Christy and Vanessa, sisters, are doubles; less obviously, the film pairs horror and mystery, reality and fiction, delusion and intuition, death and life. As Christy’s visions begin to play out in reality, the film shifts from suspenseful to downright scary. Here, as the pace shifts and the events of the film speed up, the viewer’s reservations—if their taste is anything like mine—will melt away and one has no choice but to settle in and enjoy the story as it twists and turns before finally unfolding.

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John (Matthew Settle) has few answers for Christy, who is determined to get to the bottom of Amy’s fears … and the mounting deaths in the Locke household. Photo courtesy of Dagen Merrill and Mike Southon.

Gore: ★★★★
Christy’s flashbacks of Vanessa’s ravaged body after the accident are as unpleasant for the viewer as they are to her … the Dark Thing, too, leaves traces of gore in its wake. Nonetheless: it’s worth noting that there is minimal gore. This is a film that deals, subtly, in suspense and a pervasive sense of foreboding.

Horror: ★★★★
There is much to be horrified by here: Vanessa’s pain and disfigurement, Christy’s terrifying visions, and certainly the prospect of Amy, a vulnerable child, facing dark forces virtually on her own. As the premonitions begin to manifest, the horror solidifies into dread—all the more compelling.

Suspense: ★★★★★
I would be truly surprised if you weren’t on the edge of your seat an hour into this one (or earlier). The film is, first and foremost, a mystery—and, thus, more and more exciting as the conclusion nears.

Terror: ★★★
The film’s eeriness outweighs actual terror, though there is no shortage of general creepiness and ominousness.

Quality: ★★★★
Despite mediocre ratings and a couple of unwise casting decisions, BENEATH shines as a creepy underdog, hidden in the messy fray of late ’00s horror flicks. It’s perfect for horror fans who prefer to avoid intense gore or terror, but fun for even the most radical horror junkie.

I watched BENEATH on Netflix Instant Stream (free with a subscription). You can also rent BENEATH starting at $2.99 on iTunes and YouTube. You can buy your own (used) copy of BENEATH on the Barnes & Noble Marketplace starting at $3.48.

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