A farewell trip across the lake turns into a voyage of terror in Larry Fessenden's "big fish" movie BENEATH, out on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.
Six high school graduates – alpha male Matt (Chris Conroy, SORORITY ROW), his brainier brother Simon (Jonny Orsini, GIRL MOST LIKELY), Matt's girlfriend Kitty (Bonnie Dennison, STAKE LAND) and her friend Deb (Mackenzie Rosman, Ulli Lommel's THE TOMB), sensitive Johnny (Daniel Zovatto, INNOCENCE), and film geek Zeke (Griffin Newman, THE TREATMENT) – decide to take a party trip before going their separate ways. Unfortunately, Johnny has arranged for them to boat across Black Lake despite urban legends of something lurking in the waters, and old-timer Mr. Parks' (Mark Margolis, BLACK SWAN) warning that they should respect the lake. It isn’t long before a giant prehistoric befanged is taking chomps out of the boat and the teens. Without oars, cell phone service, and the boat taking on water, these so-called friends must vote on who provides the sacrificial diversion in hopes of the others getting to shore.
A co-production between the Chiller network and director Larry Fessenden's Glass Eye Pix, BENEATH features an amusing-looking yet proficiently constructed animatronic beastie and an attractive cast of utterly unlikable characters; but the film's tagline "They're only friends on the surface" demonstrates that Fessenden's interest lie in the drama on the boat rather than aquatic gut-munching. While there are some refreshing character turns – Simon is actually the more "dick-ish" character for being in his brother's shadow, sensitive Johnny winds up being more of a tool than a hero, and "I film everything" guy is constantly called out on his borderline sociopathic behavior – the film winds up being more generic and less interesting than Fessenden's earlier efforts, particularly the creepy WENDIGO and HABIT (probably one of the best "modern" vampire movies out there). One's interest in the film may be more dependent on how much one can tolerate the surviving characters' preoccupation with personal betrayals when they should be using the lulls between attacks to paddle faster to shore.
Scream Factory's Blu-ray presents the feature in a 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen transfer that is generally slick apart from the blown-out and sometimes smeary video-within-a-film bits from Zeke's Go Pro camera (actually operated by the actor, although sound was recorded separately). Audio is offered up in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and a 2.0 stereo downmix that highlight the score and atmosphere as well as the more subtle manipulation of the sound design during the more dreamy passages. Optional English subtitles are also provided. Director Larry Fessenden and sound designer Graham Reznick are on hand for an audio commentary. Of the origins of the project, Fessenden recalls how he had been pitching original content to the Chiller Network when they offered him the script for BENEATH. He saw it as a way to pay tribute to JAWS as well as more intimate films like DUEL and LIFEBOAT, and worked with the writers to strip away all of the contextual flashback material and convey the characters' past relationships purely through the film's dialogue. They discuss the challenges of shooting in the water, including placing a camera crane on a 20' x 20' custom barge of plywood and barrels as well as the combination of practical effects and invisible CGI (the fish's eye movements, removing the anchor holding the boat in place for shooting in underwater shots, and even the characters swimming in the background of the scene where the ones on the boat first notice something in the water). They discuss Fessenden's visual motifs including the use of "indifferent" overhead shots and his concept of using a handful of long single takes in which to convey the group dynamic with their interaction, the framing, and the camera movement, as well as the film's aural motifs from the score to the sound design.
"Behind BENEATH: Making the 'Fish' Movie" (60:00) features behind the scenes looks at the detailed construction of the mechanical creature in its various stages as well as the boat (actually three identical boats with different degrees of damage). Also included are excerpts from the screen tests of the six lead actors and some of the table read where Fessenden also tries to convey his visual concepts of the scenes to the actors. We see the camera barge being constructed on the water and get a look at how some of the impressive shots were captured on the water, the mechanical creature functioning in the water, reaction shots from the cast (which look silly without the creature cutaways), as well as some commentary from the cast and crew. The outtakes (14:39) feature several alternate line readings, a few bloopers, a few blown takes involving interaction with the mechanical creature, and more of Zeke's GoPro footage (with the original inferior sound recording). The poster/premiere (2:05) intercuts some video from the premiere with a visit to the printing shop where the poster was being produced.
Also included are the web promo videos: "What the Zeke?" (18:33) and "What's in Black Lake?" (11:42). "What the Zeke?" highlights the character's mania for videography with ten web shorts in which he auditions Kitty for his film ZOMBIES VS. WEREWOLVES VS. NINJAS, harasses Matt about taking the lead, visits his effects technicians (and dubs himself "the Dario Argento of Connecticut"), captures some incriminating video mentioned in the film, as well as an "unboxing" video of his newly-purchased GoPro camera. "What's in Black Lake?" is a video diary with Fessenden himself playing a conspiracy nut discussing the background of Black Lake and harassing Johnny about the local legends. The first five minutes of "Fessenden on JAWS" (17:07) shows how he turned an unfinished 8mm stop-motion JAWS homage (sans shark) into a Siskel and Ebert "Dog of the Week" parody followed by a modern-day look at the surviving props in Fessenden's basement including an impressively detailed miniature boat (with interior) with working lights, dials, and pulleys. The disc also includes the theatrical trailer (1:38) as well as a cardboard insert with a code for a digital copy of the film. The cover is reversible with the "Terror lies just below the surface" tagline on the default cover and the more apt "They're only friends on the surface" one with different art on the reverse. (Eric Cotenas)
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