There is a sameness in the way horror movies begin. A group of friends load up their car and head into the country for a binge of sex and booze. Or a family moves into a new town, a new house, to help recover from some tragedy, usually the lost of a child. Or a death or some other dark event brings the protagonist home after several years away. The latter is how Beneath begins. Despite this predictable beginning and a small checklist of other horror-movie clichés, I found Beneath to be an exciting and frightening movie. It is exactly what I wanted in a horror movie–suspense, mystery, sympathetic characters, and an horror that–at least for the spell of the movie–I believed.
For the Netflix Now series, I have three guidelines. 1) It is a movie currently available on Netflix Instant Play, so you can watch it on your pad, your computer, or your television streaming video. 2) It’s a movie I’ve never seen before. And 3) I expect I’ll like it. I expected to like Beneath because it stars Nora Zehetner. I first saw Zehetner in an independent movie called Brick, where she plays the femme fatale in a film noir that is set in a high school. I later saw her as a semi-regular character in Heroes, a television series I watched as a guilty pleasure. And I saw her a third time in one episode of Warehouse 13, another television guilty pleasure. When I saw that she was the starring actress of Beneath, I wanted to see how she did a leading role.
She plays Christy, a young woman who had been raised in institutions, including mental hospitals. When she learns that a childhood father-figure, Joseph (Don S. Davis) died, she returns to her hometown for his funeral. A staple of horror movies is that the protagonist has some personal issue, for which the horror stands as a extended metaphor. For Christy, this is guilt over her sister’s death. Armed with a sketchbook filled with macabre sketches she had drawn over the years, and feeling the need to protect her niece, Amy (Jessica Amlee), she begins to investigate her sister’s death. She asks questions that everyone tells her had been answered long ago, but the more she digs, the more she realizes those answers are false. In this way, Beneath is as much a detective movie as it is a ghost story.
Dagen Merrill directed Beneath, which he cowrote with Kevin Burke. Though working in a long formulaic tradition, they give us something fresh and original. Nothing is over-the-top here, a flaw with most contemporary horror movies that prefer CGI effects and gore to real horror. The setting is creepy but real. The characters are relatable, and it is easy to sympathize with Christy. I don’t know that there is anything remarkable with Zehetner’s performance. From the other shows I’ve seen her in, I believe she has a knack for playing conflicted women, women imbued with dark emotions and personal dilemmas, and she plays such a character in Beneath. That makes her the right casting choice.
The thing I like most about Beneath is that it builds tension and suspense with plot and character development rather than with special effects and jump scares. This feels like a throwback to the horror movies of my youth, to the horror movies that made me love the genre. I’m thinking about the Beli Lugosi’s Dracula movies or the 1963 The Haunting or almost any Vincent Price movie you can name. Beneath isn’t as atmospheric as these movies, but, intentionally or unintentionally, it pays homage to them. It is well worth seeing.
Verdict: Worth your time.
Note: There are two movies titled Beneath available on Netflix Instant Play. This review is about the one released in 2007.The other came out in 2014 and it is also a horror movie. Not a bad one. In fact, watching them back-to-back might be a good idea for fright night.