Monday, April 13, 2015

Project Decent Enough: Beneath the Darkness

Welcome back to Project Terrible. To close out this round, I'll give things a proper burial with my film from Michele...

Gonna come right out and say it...what the heck does that even mean? Geez, it's like Darker than Black here.
Beneath the Darkness is a suspense film starring Dennis Quaid as the mortician Ely, a respected member of a small Texas town who is secretly an extremely disturbed man. That's not a spoiler, by the way--the film opens outright with Ely forcing a man to dig his own grave and then burying him alive. This isn't a mystery film at all, and doesn't pretend to be.

The main plot concerns a group of teens who hear a local ghost story about Ely's house--apparently dancing ghosts supposedly show up if you go there at night. They go, and do indeed see someone dancing--knowing that Ely lives alone, they decide to investigate further.

By breaking in. As one does.

Anyway, they find Ely's wife's preserved corpse, Ely finds them, one thing leads to another, and one of the teens ends up dead. That sets up the film's main plot: can the remaining teens prove Ely is a killer, or will they end up dying in the attempt?

And...I'm actually going to leave plot discussion there for the most part. This isn't a great film, but it's good enough that I don't want to toss in any real spoilers. If you enjoy suspense films, you might want to see this--read on to figure out.

What does this film do well? First, Dennis Quaid. Your mileage may vary on his performance, honestly, but I found it very entertaining. He clearly had a lot of fun with the role. His Ely is a man adept at hiding his sinister side, but not quite natural about it--he has a lot of awkwardness about him, not quite interacting with people correctly. He's respected, and it makes sense for him to be so--but you can still see that people think he's a bit strange. Quaid makes great use of timing, or rather, a lack of timing to make Ely seem just a touch "off"--pausing too long to reply to someone, separating facial expression changes from dialogue, that sort of thing. But that's only one side. The other side of Ely shows when he's in a situation where's he's confident--when he gets to lord it over some innocent victim or someone who he feels wronged him. There, strangely, he acts far more natural and smooth--he seems more alive, and clearly takes joy and pride in what he's doing. He's prone to jokes and laughter, and takes almost a welcoming or whimsical mood when dealing with captives or victims. It's a very interesting role and Quaid pulls it off well.

Everyone else does a perfectly servicable or even good job. The teens have good chemistry together and their banter feels natural. Their interactions after everything starts going wrong just seem right, as well. They feel like a group of buddies and it really helps the film. Travis, the film's hero, manages a nice variance between quiet doubt and intensity and is a hero that the viewer can get behind rather well.

The only one who I felt let the film down a little is Travis' mother, who I just thought seemed a little too careful with her role. She doesn't seem to let her emotions quite free enough, and while that's fine (and even beneficial) early in the film, later scenes with her seem too subdued. It's not a bad performance by any means--I just think she needed to let her performance grow with the plot a little more.

The film does a good job setting mood, as well. It doesn't do anything spectacular, but it makes effective use of light, shadow, and sound throughout to differentiate between the everyday and the dangerous. It's a basic technique, but one that a lot of films can still screw up.

The plot is something of a mixed bag. The general concept is good and it progresses well...but it does have flaws. I'll get to a couple of them later, but the more important worry about the plot is just that it moves far, far too slowly. I've had a few films like this as part of Project Terrible--films that are actually fairly decent, but decline a little just because they are too long for the plot they have to tell. I just feel like if you trimmed about ten or fifteen minutes off of this it would actually end up a stronger film. There are some lengthy pauses in scenes that don't serve nearly as well for "suspensefulness" as the director seems to have thought--instead, they just make the film longer. There's also some minor moments that don't really have much to do with anything that could probably be cut.

That's actually one of the film's other plot problems: there are a lot of dangling threads in this film. I don't mean plotholes--though there are some. What I mean, though, are elements of the story that just don't seem to go anywhere. A lot of them concern character building for Travis. The film establishes a lot about how he acts at school--how he's in to plays and stories about guilt, and good at P.E., but doesn't put in any effort otherwise in classes and won't join any sports teams. It also builds up that he's sure he saw a ghost in his sister's room when he was little, and that his sister died that night and he thought he should have done something about it. It all ties together fine, but the problem is that though all this does establish quite a bit about Travis and give him motivations, that's clearly all it is there for. Once we've established Travis' guilt-ridden persona and used his ghost story to get the teens in a ghost-hunting mood, the school parts of his story and the ghost story pretty much cease to matter and no further development is done using them. There really needed to be more--teachers getting involved in the case more, maybe, and one trusting Travis because of knowledge of his potential, perhaps? The bigger one is the ghost story, which...basically goes nowhere. You could have just as easily had Travis tell that he heard his sister coughing and went up to see her but got scared when he saw her die, and always thought if he'd called his mom sooner he could have saved her. That gets at the guilt without touching ghosts, since the film doesn't use ghosts again. Ever. Another one? Travis' doubt/belief storyline with is mother, which is at least resolved, but honestly not in any way that ends up mattering to the overall plot.

As I mentioned, the film has a few plot holes, too. The biggest one, honestly, is how Ely gets away with the first teen's murder when the kids break in to his house to go ghost hunting. He scares two of them away, but grabs the last one, and then Travis (who was lookout) comes in to try to help him. After Travis and the other boy beg Ely to let them go, Ely shoves the other boy down the stairs, and he ends up badly injured from the fall.

Now, if it stopped there, I'd actually be okay. It'd be the word of a respected citizen against the word of a bunch of local troublemakers, and Ely could just claim (as he in fact does) that the teen fell down the stairs trying to run and it was all a tragic accident.

Problem is, Ely tries to claim that despite the fact that, in front of Travis' eyes, he proceeded to walk down the stairs after his victim and break his neck by stomping very hard on his head. Which leaves a visible mark on his face.

Which I'm pretty darn sure could be matched up to Ely's shoeprint or at least shoe outline by any reasonably competent police department. 

It'd be one thing if Ely were actually shown to have corrupted the police force, but...the film doesn't go there. The cops are honest, and though they like Ely since he's old friends with some of them, they seem totally willing to look in to his business and the film doesn't seem to be portraying them as idiots--the movie just doesn't believe that you can pick up any evidence from studying facial bruising inflicted via a stomp, apparently. More than that, it evidently believes that an injury received via stomp looks identical to one received from rolling down the stairs. I don't know a lot about forensics, but that just rings false to me. At the very least, it feels like there should be some indication that leads them to investigate Ely more and doubt him from the get-go. Instead, it's pretty clear they just take his side of the story and chalk it up to a tragic accident.

There are other odd little incidents, too, like Ely somehow managing to explain that the tarp strangely draped across part of his yard is to kill off the grass to prepare for a tomato patch...which the cops just accept without looking beneath the tarp even though it would be easy to do so. Overall it just feels like the film wanted to have some interesting moments or fun suspense bits but didn't think much about what would be more realistic or how things should logically happen. It's not frequent, but when that comes up periodically it does hurt the film.

Overall, though...I get what they're going for, and it works. It helps that the timeline for the film is actually quite short, so while a few days pass after the first teen's death, the rest of the film's events then pretty much happen within a night or two. I can easily see things pretty much resolving themselves before the cops really get an investigation going once things start in earnest, especially since the film does at least do a decent job of establishing that the cops don't really trust Travis. Minor logical flaws aside, the central point is that Ely is dangerous, Travis knows it but can't prove it, and he's going to need more evidence to get justice for his friend but getting that evidence is going to be dangerous. It'd be a stronger film without the shoeprint question or the tarp bit, but I accept the point of those scenes...just not the exact method.

There are a couple more minor problems that bear mentioning. First, though the film does a nice job with using light and shadow to set also uses far too much darkness in certain parts, particularly when the teens are exploring the house. Some shots are just flat-out impossible to watch, as you just see a bunch of dark blobs moving about in a bigger dark blob. Those parts are short, but still--they could be much better with some work. The other thing is the soundtrack--it's fine for the most part, but every now and then it seems convinced--convinced--that it is the soundtrack for a slasher film filled with jump scares, and it'll throw in these dramatic musical cues or sudden ascents and such for...nothing, really. It made me laugh a few times, most notably for a bit where Ely just kind of walks up--sure, a bit quickly, but not a jump scare--in broad daylight at a funeral at a cemetary with tons of people around and the musical cue is like if he'd sprung suddenly out of a hidden panel in the wall in a creepy old mansion in the middle of a lightning storm at midnight. Someone needed to have a serious talk with the composer about just what the film was about. I think there was some miscommunication.

There's nothing particularly bad about Beneath the Darkness. There's nothing standout about it, either, but it works well enough as a film. If you like suspense films and are okay with one that moves somewhat too slowly, you can get some decent entertainment out of it. If nothing else, Quaid seems to relish his role, and is fun to watch...and really, this is one that I think is decent enough to spend a little time on. It takes too long to get going and has some slowdown from time to time, but by and large it gets the concepts right and puts everything together well enough. Not in any way terrible...I can't say whether you'll like it or not, but it can be worth a shot.

Beats getting buried alive, anyway.

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