Horror movies these days seem to require strong doses of social commentary along with the requisite scares. Its theatrical release conveniently sandwiched between the feminist-themed The Invisible Man and the elites vs. deplorables thriller The Hunt, Max Pachman’s directorial debut Beneath Us concerns a rich white couple exploiting undocumented immigrants before torturing and unceremoniously disposing of them. Unfortunately, despite its uncomfortable resonance, the pic barely scratches the surface of its provocative ideas, sacrificing nuance in favor of cheap shocks.
The film begins realistically enough, with rich white woman Elizabeth (Lynn Collins, X Men Origins: Wolverine, The Merchant of Venice) corralling a quartet of Mexican day laborers to work at the palatial home she owns with her husband Ben (James Tupper, Big Little Lies). The house bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a Southern plantation, with the addition of such modern embellishments as an electrified fence. It’s but one of many properties that the couple have apparently renovated and then flipped for a profit.
The men, including de facto leader Alejandro (Rigo Sanchez), who’s desperately saving money to bring his wife and child to the U.S.; his younger brother Memo (Josue Aguirre), who’s recently arrived in America; and their cohorts Hector (Roberto Sanchez) and Antonio (Tomas Chavira), who are initially happy to be working for the sexy gringa about whom they make leering comments in Spanish behind her back.
It soon becomes apparent that Elizabeth is not just willing to exploit illegal, underpaid workers, but is actually a vicious psychopath. She seems to firmly enjoy crushing some errant mice in her kitchen, and eventually she and her husband, both well-armed, reveal their true intentions, which is to force their prisoners to do their will and, once the job is done, murder them and leave their bodies underneath the house where they’ve just labored.
Subtlety doesn’t prove to be a major element in either the film’s screenplay, co-written by director Pachman and Mark Mavrothalasitis, or the flamboyant performance by Collins as the men’s evil tormentor (Tupper is much more subdued, almost to the point of blandness). The anti-immigrant arguments uttered by the white characters are extreme enough to make Trump rally attendees cringe. Collins leans into her sultry villainous role as if auditioning for Grand Guignol, whether using her formidable high heels as a lethal weapon or performing a sexy solo dance while brandishing a shotgun. At one point, her character makes the men strip down and work naked, as if to turn the tables on them for their previous lecherous comments.
The would-be victims are at least given some depth in terms of characterization (and, refreshingly, much of their dialogue is actually in Spanish). One of the more resonant scenes involves Alejandro visiting a pawn shop to make a deal with its owner to arrange to transport his wife and child across the border, with the man telling him that children cost extra. Alejandro agrees, but insists that his family not be locked in a trunk for the journey. The man agrees, crossing his heart to seal the deal.
Despite its provocative scenario, Beneath Us (the title, of course, is a pun) proves generic in its reliance on horror movie tropes, lapsing into familiar and not particularly well executed scenes of brutality and gore. The movie isn’t nearly as smart as it pretends to be, exploiting its timely premise much in the same way that undocumented laborers are so often exploited by their employers.
Production company: Vital Pictures
Distributor: Vital Pictures/NME
Cast: Lynn Collins, James Tupper, Rigo Sanchez, Josue Aguirre, Roberto Sanchez, Thomas Chavira
Director: Max Pachman
Screenwriters: Max Pachman, Mark Mavrothalasitis
Producers: Luis Ignacio, Chris Lemos
Executive producers: Jay Hernandez, Will Knochel, Brad Friedlander, Kevin Casebier
Director of photography: Jeff Powers
Production designer: Martina Buckley
Editor: Taylor Alexander Ward
Composer: Josh Moshier
Costume designer: Rosalyn Isidro
Casting: Lauren Bass, Jordan Bass
Rated R, 90 minutes