Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Beneath: Where’s that Canary When They Need It?

As a soon-to-be retired coalminer, George Marsh’s way of life is slowing dying. So is he, but maybe not as slowly as he assumes. Naturally, there is an epic cave-in on his last day in the mine, but there might be more pressing concerns for his stranded party than their dwindling oxygen supply in Ben Ketai’s Beneath (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

To celebrate his retirement, Marsh’s daughter Samantha has returned from New York to attend his send-off. Perhaps she shouldn’t have. True, her father’s lungs are as black as, well coal, but he resents being pressured into retirement. After all, he never missed a day’s work in the thirty-one years since the mine opened. He also takes her environmental law practice as a not so subtle rebuke. Despite her new life, she can still relate to the guys relatively well, particularly her former high school sweetheart. She tries to convince them, she is really in their corner. It is the corporations she is against. However, they seem to think they wouldn’t have jobs without the mining company. As the discussion gets heated, she accepts a dare to come down with them the next morning.

That would be her father’s last day on the job, which pretty much guarantees some sort of movie disaster. Add in his fish-out-of-water daughter and a rookie with only a few weeks experience into the mix and you have the makings of a perfect subterranean storm. Indeed, something duly goes drastically wrong. As Ketai’s primary characters hunker down in the shelter awaiting rescue, strange things start to happening, risking their survival.

When it comes to genre films set within mine shafts, Beneath leaves Abandoned Mine in the dust. Ketai certainly creates a claustrophobic mood, but the real strength of the film is his sympathetic grasp of the working class environment. Never condescending, Beneath conveys the pride of the miners, derived in no small measure from the dangerous conditions they face each day. Yet, the film is almost too subtle presenting the question whether supernatural forces are plaguing the survivors or it is a case of rampant oxygen-deprived psychosis.

Unfortunately, the film also focuses on the wrong Marsh, following Samantha’s POV and largely sidelining the perennially under-rated Jeff Fahey, as the grizzled George. Kelly Noonan is perfectly fine as the rebellious daughter, but her perspective is pretty standard issue woman-in-horror-movie-jeopardy stuff. Amongst the supporting miners, Brent Briscoe definitely stands out as Marsh’s jovial buddy, Mundy. Witchblade’s Eric Etebari also glowers memorably as the uptight, chauvinistic Masek.

Without question, Beneath is one of the moodiest films acquired by IFC Midnight. While it is certainly a genre film, it never comes across as exploitative. Nevertheless, it leaves an intriguing side-plot regarding a similar 1920’s disaster frustratingly under-developed and closes with the clichéd eye-roller of a denouement. Better than the gruesome poster would lead you to expect, Beneath is recommended for those who horror films that cross-over category labels. It opens this Friday night (7/25) in New York at the IFC Center.