'Beneath': Film Review
Ben Ketai’s sophomore feature co-stars Jeff Fahey, Joey Kern, Kelly Noonan and Brent Briscoe
When movies like Beneath claim that they’re “inspired by actual events,” a fairly broad range of interpretations can apply to the statement. With tense, protracted mining disasters in Chile, China and Europe making the news fairly regularly, however, there’s plenty of material available for a solid drama or thriller about miners trapped underground. Ben Ketai’s film is neither a literal interpretation of such events nor a particularly involving example of creative license either, making theatrical release more of a necessary prelude to eventual distribution through IFC’s various home entertainment and VOD services.
Briefly returning to her coal-mining hometown to help celebrate her father George’s (Jeff Fahey) retirement from 30 years in the mines, environmental attorney Sam (Kelly Noonan) impulsively volunteers for a brief foray underground during his final shift to prove her respect for her dad’s profession and his loyal crew. The group includes foreman Mundy (Brent Briscoe), impulsive strongman Masek (Eric Etebari) and George’s young buddy Randy (Joey Kern), a former crush of Sam’s who is soon showing some rekindled interest.
Down in the tunnels, work proceeds apace until the crew’s mechanical extractor breaks through a wall of coal, revealing a cramped passageway deeper into the mine. Before they can investigate, the weakened face collapses, killing several miners and badly injuring Mundy. A call on the emergency line to the surface ascertains that a rescue team will need at least three days to penetrate into the mine, so the group retreats into a large metal shelter the size of a cargo-shipping container for safety. Now feeling appropriately frightened and claustrophobic, Sam develops terrifying hallucinations, which she keeps to herself.
Meanwhile, the apparent cries of injured comrades reach the group from deeper in the mine and they set off to attempt a rescue. Their search leads through the mysterious passage and reveals the remains of shafts dug decades before by a group of miners trapped underground who died in a similar disaster. As the search continues, members of the group mysteriously disappear, turning up gruesomely murdered, or become spontaneously psychotic and attack their comrades. Sam struggles to maintain her composure and find a way to extricate her father from the mine, as his chronic lung condition becomes increasingly critical and her own disorientation intensifies.
Though the premise of a mine haunted by the unnaturally buried dead isn’t without interest, Ketai, working from a script by Patrick J. Doody and Chris Valenziano, never quite manages to effectively draw out the film’s supernatural elements. Miscalculations regarding the film’s pacing are initially to blame, as the scares are withheld for the first hour of running time.
Once the gore gets flowing, however, the violence is largely by-the-numbers as the survivors are quickly whittled down. Fahey is more or less in his element with this type of genre material, but hasn’t been graced with one of the meatier roles. Despite the superficial conflict implied by Sam’s pro-environmental stance, after the action moves below ground, both her convictions and her lawyerly logic evaporate, leaving Noonan trying to appear panicked rather than resourceful.
The set built for the underground mine location looks fairly realistic in the requisite low-light situations that Ketai and cinematographer Timothy Burton navigate with apparent skill, but the reductionist plot eventually forces both the protagonists and the filmmakers into a blind shaft without a productive exit strategy.
Opens: July 25 (IFC Midnight)
Production company: Revolver Picture Company
Cast: Jeff Fahey, Joey Kern, Kelly Noonan, Brent Briscoe, Mark L. Young, Eric Etebari
Director: Ben Ketai
Screenwriters: Patrick J. Doody, Chris Valenziano
Producers: Kelly Martin Wagner, Nick Phillips
Executive producer: Sean Gowrie
Director of photography: Timothy Burton
Production designer: Michael Marton
Costume designer: Phoenix Mellow
Editor: Toby Wilkins
Music: Andres Boulton
No Rating, 81 minutes