CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: BENEATH THE DARKNESS (2011)
By Michael Arruda
(The Scene: A funeral parlor. Three teenagers sneak inside to find an open casket. They approach the casket, but suddenly a man with a shotgun bursts into the room.)
MAN: What are you doing here? This is trespassing, and I can shoot you for trespassing!
FIRST TEEN: Please, sir, we weren’t trespassing. We were— snooping.
(SECOND TEEN slaps FIRST TEEN on head, calling him an idiot.)
MAN (In mocking voice): We weren’t trespassing. What a bunch of pussy—willows! (to camera) It’s a shrub! (to teens) I know why you’re here. You’re trying to pin that murder on me, but you meddling kids won’t succeed. And you want to know why?
SECOND TEEN: Not really.
MAN: Shut up! I’m going to tell you anyway.
(A body suddenly sits up inside the open casket, and the teens, seeing it, scream and flee. The body is MICHAEL ARRUDA, and he’s very much alive.)
MICHAEL ARRUDA: Excuse me, but I paid good money for this casket. The least you can do is keep it quiet around here.
MAN: What the—?
(Door bursts open and sheriff and a bunch of deputies enter, placing the man under arrest.)
MAN: Damn! I would have gotten away with this too, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids and their critic! (points to MA).
SHERIFF: Thanks for the call.
MA: No problem. I have a movie to review, and I can’t do it with a psycho killer on the loose. (MA suddenly pictures L.L. SOARES ranting and raving about a movie and trying to attack MA with an axe.) On the other hand, I do it every week.
(Sheriff and deputies lead MAN out of room. MA climbs out of the coffin.)
MA: Welcome everyone to another edition of CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT. Today I’m reviewing the new thriller BENEATH THE DARKNESS, a movie about a psychotic mortician, played by Dennis Quaid, cast against type, pitting him against a group of hip teenagers, and so, at times, this one does resemble the old SCOOBY DOO cartoons. There’s just no Shaggy or Scooby. Yep, the best parts are missing.
And I’ll be flying solo today as L.L. is on another assignment, which means that maybe I can just review this movie without fighting for my life.
(A knife flies through the air, narrowly missing MA’s head as it plunges into a wall.)
Who threw that? Some things never change.
In BENEATH THE DARKNESS, Dennis Quaid plays a demented mortician named Ely, and as the movie opens, Ely is burying someone alive. We find out later that the guy had fooled around with Ely’s wife, so Ely does away with both of them.
The action jumps to two years later, where a group of teens decide to break into Ely’s home for kicks, since he’s a weird mortician and all, and so that sort of thing is scary and fun….I guess. Anyway, Ely catches them and is none too happy about having unwanted guests in his house. He’s so unhappy that he kills one of them.
When one of the teens, Travis (Tony Oller), tries to tell the police what happened, they don’t believe him because Ely has covered up the crime, making the teen’s death look like an accidental fall down the stairs. And since Ely is a respected member of the community, and a former high school football star, the police believe him and not the kids. Ah, the difficulties of being a teenager!
Ely is so smooth, that later when Travis and his almost-girlfriend Abby (Aimee Teegarden), return to the mortician’s home to search for clues to prove Ely’s a murderer, Ely has Travis arrested on burglary charges. But you can’t keep a good teenager down. With the help of his friends, Travis escapes from police custody. Travis then has to prove Ely is a murderer and rescue Abby, who has since been abducted by the murderous mortician.
(A flying object hits MA in the head.)
MA: What the—? (picks it up from floor.) What’s this? It looks like a— Scooby snack?
(SCOOBY DOO and SHAGGY enter room).
SHAGGY: Gee, Scoobs, I think your Scooby Snack hit that guy in the head.
SCOOBY: Scooby Snack?
MA: I have it right here. Here you go. (tosses it to SCOOBY). Just watch where you throw those things.
SCOOBY: Scooby Dooby Doo!
SHAGGY: This is one creepy place. I wonder if it has a kitchen. (They exit)
MA: If there’s one word that comes to mind when describing BENEATH THE DARKNESS, it’s underwhelming. This film underwhelms big time. Yet, it wasn’t quite the disaster I feared it would be. It wasn’t stupid or dumb, and the characters were all rather likeable. It plays out like a low-key TV movie.
I liked the opening scene a lot, but that was about it. Ely forcing the man who slept with his wife at gunpoint to dig his own grave and then burying him alive made for a chilling intro to this movie. I can’t say that I’ll be using the word “chilling” to describe anything else about this film.
When we first meet our “meddling” teenagers, they’re studying Poe’s A TELL-TALE HEART, and later Shakespeare’s MACBETH, and both these literary works are tied into the movie’s plot, as the film deals with the theme of guilt, and ghosts.
There’s a neat sequence shown in flashback where Travis sees a strange ghost-like apparition hovering over his sister’s bed, and he’s frozen in fear and doesn’t do anything about it, and she dies later that night. This leaves him with tremendous guilt. The apparition was cool-looking, different from the usual spectral haunts seen in the movies these days, but the movie never returns to this apparition. It’s one and done. Had the film gone to the well with this ghost a few more times, it might have had something.
Dennis Quaid isn’t bad as Ely, the psycho mortician. He manages to make a decent demented bad guy, but the problem is the character isn’t much of a psycho. If the teens don’t go snooping around his house, he’s home-free. He had gotten away with the murders of his wife and her lover, and it’s not like he’s going around killing people every year. He’s not Norman Bates. Although, like Norman Bates, he keeps a dead body in his house. While Bates kept the dead body of his mother, Ely keeps the dead body of his wife in his house, even dancing with it at times. But this is hardly new and refreshing territory, nor is it all that shocking or scary.
I also had a problem with the reason why Ely was crazy in the first place. Ely snaps because his wife had an affair, but yet, we never see why this was so painful for him. We never see him deeply in love with his wife. We don’t know anything about her, and so as it stands in the movie, it’s not much of a reason for him to go bananas. Perhaps he was already a bit crazy. We don’t know, because the movie doesn’t go there.
The movie also doesn’t take advantage of Ely’s profession, a mortician. The teens make references in the movie about how creepy Ely is, and there is certainly lots of potential for a mortician to be creepy, but we don’t see it in this movie. For instance, we never see Ely busy at work, embalming bodies or driving a hearse, or doing anything associated with his job. The Tall Man, he isn’t!
(Door opens and TALL MAN from the movie PHANTASM (1979) enters).
TALL MAN: Come here, BOY!
MA: Where the hell have you been? If you had been in this movie, it might have been scary!
TALL MAN: You’re not the boy!
MA: Of course I’m not. But if you’re looking for a teen and his talking dog, I think they headed for the kitchen.
(TALL MAN sneers and exits.)
MA: I guess the biggest surprise in BENEATH THE DARKNESS is that the teens in this one weren’t all that bad, and I guess that’s not saying much, but the point is, they kept this movie from being a Wes Craven bomb. No dumb dialogue, and no stupid boneheaded characters.
While I liked Tony Oller as the lead hero, Travis, because he made for a likeable person, he’s hardly exciting, which goes back to the main problem of this movie, that it’s underwhelming. As Travis, Oller plays a nice guy, someone you would have met in SMALLVILLE. His actions in this story are driven by his guilt over his sister’s death, over his belief that his inaction that night in her room when he saw the ghost hovering over her, led to her death. This is why he takes the lead in trying to stop Ely. He doesn’t want to be an inactive wimp again. As motivations go, it’s not bad.
As Abby, Aimee Teegarden actually receives top billing in this one. Again, like Oller, she gives a very likeable, believable performance, and I enjoyed watching her, but was I ever worried that she wasn’t going to escape from Ely’s clutches? Not really. After that initial “buried alive” sequence, this movie played out like a safe drama rather than an unsettling thriller.
BENEATH THE DARKNESS was directed by Martin Guigui, with a screenplay by Bruce Wilkinson. If you’re looking for a light thriller, then you’ve come to the right place, because that’s what these guys delivered, a movie that never really goes to the dark places it needs to visit. The best thing I can say about BENEATH THE DARKNESS is that it’s not stupid, and everyone does a decent job with the material. It’s just that the material belongs on TV.
Speaking of which, BENEATH THE DARKNESS didn’t get a wide release and wasn’t playing at a theater near me. However, as so often is the case with movies that don’t get wide theatrical releases, it was available immediately on OnDemand Cable TV for a fee, and so I watched this one at home. Interestingly, it was listed in the OnDemand menu as being Rated PG-13, yet it’s Rated R, which was funny because it plays like a PG-13 movie. The only things in the film that warrant an R rating are a few F-bombs here and there. There’s no gore or nudity.
So, why didn’t I hate this one? Well, I liked the characters, for one thing, and I actually kinda liked watching Quaid play a psycho. Sure, he was better in LEGION (2009) and PANDORUM (2009), but he’s one of those actors who’s always OK, and so he’s easy to watch.
The movie also didn’t insult my intelligence. The story was decent, though underdeveloped, and the directing, writing, and acting were all handled seriously and competently.
To my surprise— because I feared it would be awful— I give BENEATH THE DARKNESS two knives.
Sometimes a bowl of vanilla ice cream just hits you right, I guess.
(Door opens and in run SCOOBY DOO and SHAGGY, each carrying a towering stack of salami sandwiches).
SCOOBY: Ice Cream?
SHAGGY: Run, Scoobs! Here comes that freaky tall guy again!
SCOOBY: Freaky tall guy!
(They run past MA, as TALL MAN pursues. They all suddenly run in fast motion.)
MA: Gee, I wish some of the bad movies I have to sit through moved as fast as that. I think I’ll stop by the kitchen before I leave and grab myself one of those salami sandwiches. See you next week everybody!
© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda
Michael Arruda gives BENEATH THE DARKNESS ~ two knives