We open with a man jogging at night along a wooded road with his dog. Another man quickly catches up to him. This would be Ely (Dennis Quaid), the local mortician. What begins as a cordial conversation immediately escalates into something much more terrifying when Ely pulls a gun on the man. He orders the man to act normally and jog towards a van. The now panicked man repeatedly asks what this is about. Ely angrily asserts that the man knows exactly what this is about. The next scene takes place in a cemetery; Ely forces the man to dig a grave, at the bottom of which rests an empty coffin. I don’t think I need to spell out what happens next. If you’re predisposed to claustrophobia, you actually might not have much of a problem with this scene, for even the final shot seems surprisingly and illogically open.
Beneath the Darkness, like most horror movies about small towns and psychopaths, requires tremendously high suspension of disbelief on your part, as it involves the unlikeliest turns of events and the oddest character quirks. What saves the film – by my estimation, at least – is that the filmmakers seem keenly aware of how ridiculous the whole thing is. Never once do they try to cover up the story’s shortcomings with crude slasher tactics like inane dialogue, horny teenagers, naked girls, and scene after scene of relentless gore. Instead, they simply let it happen. With the exception of Quaid, whose character is certifiably insane, none of the actors were directed to go over the top. In fact, they appear to take their roles seriously. Ah, but appearances can be deceiving; by playing it straight, they are in effect adding to the story’s silliness. The result is a film that’s surprisingly fun to watch.
On the basis of its dismally low rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it seems I’m quite alone in my opinion. I could go along with everyone else’s assessment, but where’s the fun in that? I appreciated the clichés, the stock characters, and the ineptitude with which the story is told. I think the intention was to make a silly movie and then challenge audiences by passing it off as a serious thriller. And I have to admit, there is something morbidly fascinating about the idea of keeping a corpse in your bedroom and waltzing with it nightly, all while talking to it as if it could actually hear you. It brought back memories of the music video for Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” in which Petty, playing a mortician, dolled up a lifeless Kim Basinger and danced with her in a tiny candlelit room.
Taking place in a small Texas town, the plot centers on a troubled teen named Travis (Tony Oller), who has been moody and rebellious ever since the death of his sister ten years earlier. The experience of witnessing her death left a lasting impression; he believes he saw some kind of paranormal presence standing next to her bed. This does not neatly fit in with the rest of the narrative, but never mind. Travis has come to believe that Ely’s creepy funeral home is haunted, and he ropes three of his friends into scoping out his house one night in the hopes of witnessing some kind of paranormal activity. Foolishly, they decide to actually sneak into the house. They see something they’re not supposed to see, resulting in Ely murdering one of Travis’ friends in a blinding rage. Travis saw the whole thing happen. Ely isn’t worried; he is, after all, a pillar of the community. No one is going to believe Travis, the angry and disturbed ghost hunter.
Of Travis’ friends, the best developed is Abby (Aimee Teegarden), who will inevitably become Travis’ love interest. Granted, she’s not required to be much more than a female sidekick in a horror movie, which means she must eventually be captured by Ely and threatened with the prospect premature burial during the climactic final sequences. All the same, she’s not reduced to the level of a dead teenager cliché. She has a brain, and her emotional range is convincing – at least, as convincing as it can be in a movie like this. As for Travis, he must muddle through conventions of his own, not the least of which is being apprehended by the police, becoming a fugitive, and having to rescue Abby before Ely has the chance to throw a single shovelful of dirt onto her.
What are we to make of a subplot involving Travis’ teacher and her husband, who she believes left her a long time ago? I kept asking myself this throughout most of the film. An explanation is at long last provided during the final ten minutes or so, and although it’s a highly unlikely one, I had to admire the way the filmmakers cleverly worked it into the storyline. The long and short of it is, Beneath the Darkness is a perfectly adequate horror film – in large part, I believe, because it’s deceptively campy. The only time it becomes overt is during the final shot, and which point Quaid looks menacingly at the camera and delivers what is surely the silliest line in the entire film. You have to hear it to believe it. Unlike what most other critics will tell you, I think that’s something you should actually try.