In a small, sleepy, Texas town, the local mortician, Ely (Dennis Quaid), harbors a dark secret hidden in his funeral home. Still morning the death of his wife two years prior, Ely has become socially inept garnering himself a suspicious reputation with local high school students. When four students – Travis (Tony Oller), Abby (Aimee Teegarden), Brian (Stephen Lunsford) and Danny (Devon Werkheiser) – begin snooping around Ely’s funeral parlor thinking the home is haunted by the spirit of Ely’s dead wife, they discover that Ely is far more “mad” than they had ever feared.
Beneath the Darkness is all about Dennis Quaid channeling his inner Nicolas Cage. It’s his over-the-top and entertaining performance that drives and defines the movie. The rest – the plot, the protagonists, the effects – is all window dressing; it’s filler, shoehorned in between each of Quaid’s delightfully deranged and unhinged scenes. To that effect, Beneath the Darkness plays very much like a late 80’s, early 90’s, pre-Scream-era serial-killer/slasher film. It’s a cross between Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960) and Terry O’Quinn in Stepfather (1987). The direction is solid and the cast does what it can with the characters provided, but the film struggles with any suspense or tension even when it hints at some supernatural undercurrents. In the end, little else matters other than watching Dennis Quaid chew up the scenery and having a blast with his outrageous character. If only the rest of the cast would have been in on the same joke Quaid apparently is privy to, the movie would be more balanced and far more successful.
The script tries desperately to toggle between its teens in peril plot and spotlighting its mad mortician. When it concentrates on the high school cast, it meanders too much with unconvincing roles, relationships and conflicts, complete with a stereotypical best friend who gets offed first and boring love triangle. It’s all a bag of after-school special humdrum in dire need of some midnight feature quirkiness. Even the reasoning behind their “investigating” Ely’s home in the guise of “it’s haunted” is contrived and forced. There’s even an obligatory and totally unnecessary (or, at least, poorly conceived) subplot for the lead that masquerades as character development and internal conflict. It’s all pointless, a means to get the kids into the path of the maniacally insane Dennis Quaid./
The film also has trouble establishing any tension or danger. What it strives to present as surprising simply isn’t and it is far too obvious that Ely is just around the corner even though they (the story and the characters) try to lead the audience into believing he isn’t home. That type of bait and switch has been done far too many times before and far better. To it’s credit, the film sticks to its guns and never looses track of its own internal logic, for what it is. The film establishes the formula it is to follow and it follows it methodically. If nothing else, this keeps the movie solid and watchable. It never truly falters from its designed course, making it easy to follow and digest. Even when it attempts to throw in a twist, it isn’t a big mind bender allowing the film to find it conclusion with confidence.
The protagonists are made up of a group of rising young actors, most notably Aimee Teegarden from Friday Night Lights. Once again, she is the love interest of a troubled high school misfit in a small Texas town where the highlight of every-one’s life is the weekly football game. Tony Oller, from TeenNick’s Gigantic tackles the lead role of Travis. He is fine when surrounded by the other “teens” in the film, but is swallowed up when ever he shares a scene with Quaid. Unfortunately, these Teegarden and Oller do not share much onscreen chemistry which undermines their relationship. Even when Abby’s current boyfriend, Brian, is a jerk, he’s far more compatible than Oller’s Travis ever come close to which makes their closing shots awkward. The do get the best dialog of the cast (outside of Quaid’s Ely), especially when they charmingly thank each other for “coming back to save” each other. Regrettably, however, each of their performances (Stephen Lunsford and Devon Werkheiser included) is one note, a huge contrast to that of Quaid.
What Beneath the Darkness does have is a gloriously hammy performance from Dennis Quaid as Ely, the mad mortician. Of all the cast, he is the only one that seems to understand the material. When ever Quaid is on screen, the film livens up. The character unfortunately ends up a bit on the silly side, a little too funny for its own good; but, Ely remains fascinating and delightfully demented despite a few tonal missteps. He also has the best lines in the film. In the past, if this were a straight up B-movie, the role would have been played by Clint Howard or Jeffrey Combs. It is curious that Quaid is pushing his career in this direction, whatever the reason, it is an entertaining turn for the seasoned actor. Quaid’s final scene is reminiscent of the closing shots in Psycho; it is far less subtle, but just as memorable. With that shot, the film ends on a high note.
A decidedly uneven film, Beneath the Darkness has enough going for each to warrant a viewing on cable or VOD. Dennis Quaid steps away from type to play a deranged murderer lost in his own fantasy world. It’s a fun exercise to watch. The story supporting that role however is a bit contrived and slight. It methodically follows a the established formula set for this type of film, so much so, much of the film is rendered tame by comparison. There are some highlights in the film with Ely’s tendency to place his victims in shallow graves and when Ely’s previous murderous accomplishment are literally dug up for display. Aside from Quaid’s histronics, Beneath the Darkness is lite horror fare that never challenges or rises above standard horror plot devices. While the result may seem painfully familiar, director Martin Guigui delivers a solid film that is true to what it is.
3 out of 5
Beneath the Darkness (2011)