Film Review: Beneath the Darkness

The best way to consider this wayward mess is as an unintentional genre spoof.

There’s nothing scarier than being buried alive—remember The Mummy?—and Beneath the Darkness wastes no time playing on this sense of dread with an opening sequence that has seriously deranged Ely Vaughn (Dennis Quaid) doing just that to a hapless, helpless man. It’s a kick-ass opener, but, unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to its creepy promise.

Besides being a mortician and a widower, Ely is one weird guy, and he’s the object of fascination for a bunch of teenagers, obviously bored out of their minds in their tiny Texas town. Quiveringly sensitive Travis (Tony Oller) is haunted by the recent death of his sister. Abby (Aimee Teegarden) is the comely school study partner with whom he shares a love of literature everyone else considers dorky. The more appealingly brash Brian (Stephen Lunsford) is a hot, obnoxious jock, and Danny (Devon Werkheiser) is, well, like Ringo Starr, just happy to be there. (He’s the first to die, natch.) They start spying on Ely after seeing shadows in his window that suggest he is either a) mysteriously hooking up with someone or b) playing around with his dead wife’s corpse. Big trouble ensues, right here in Smithville city!

Very loosely inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Telltale Heart, but owing more to Psycho, the basic problem here is that, as we know from the outset that Ely is wholly wackadoodle, there’s very little suspense, with the entire thing hinging on the imperilment of these youths, whose effacement from the Earth really doesn’t seem like any kind of large loss. Martin Guigui’s uncertain direction—veering between risible Guignol effects and Hallmark-card sentiment when dealing with teen “sensititivity”—does nothing to improve upon Bruce Wilkinson’s extremely clunky script.

It is left to Quaid to deliver whatever viewer interest might be mined in this sorry field, and he certainly works overtime. He’s forever sneaking up on people, a device which soon becomes laughable, and, perhaps taking a cue from Jack Nicholson madmen as in The Shining, he uses his trademark chipmunk grin for menace, along with a slightly fey querulousness perhaps cadged from Anthony Perkins. You don’t know whether to laugh or cringe at times, or just feel downright sorry for the actor, if this is the kind of material he is now forced to take. Even more disconcerting is the eerie resemblance of his bride’s corpse to his ex-wife Meg Ryan. Pure coincidence or sneaky inside joke?