Failure to mine | East Villager & Lower East Sider

Failure to mine

Uneasy reunion: Joey Kern and Kelly Noonan, as a miner and his eco-lawyer ex, fight unseen forces.   © Sye Williams Photography

Uneasy reunion: Joey Kern and Kelly Noonan, as a miner and his eco-lawyer ex, fight unseen forces. © Sye Williams Photography

BY SEAN EGAN  |  The main feeling one takes away from watching “Beneath,” the new release from IFC Midnight, is one of mild disappointment rather than fear. Initially, it seems to have all the right elements for a potent psychological horror movie — solid premise, talented cast, handsome visuals — though this potential gets wasted as the film goes on. Ultimately, “Beneath” ends up being decidedly less interesting than the film it seems to be setting up in its early stages — making its shift to by-the-book horror in its back half all the more disheartening.

The story begins auspiciously enough, with eager environmental lawyer Samantha Marsh (Kelley Noonan) returning to her hometown after years in the city, in order to celebrate her father George’s (Jeff Fahey) retirement. He’s a veteran coal miner, who’s developed health issues later in life, preventing him from continuing to work. After some barbs traded over drinks enters battle-of-the-sexes territory (debating whether women can mine), Sam decides to accompany her father underground for his last day of work.

‘Beneath’ doesn’t dig beyond the surface of its rich premise

All goes well, until the mine collapses — trapping Sam, George, and a whole crew of men in the mines. With help days away, and clean air running out, things start to get real tense, real quick…and then the bodies start to pile up.

FILM  |  BENEATH
Written by Patrick Doody & Chris Valenziano
Directed by Ben Ketai
An IFC Midnight Release
Runtime: 89 minutes
At the IFC Center
323 Ave. of the Americas
Btw. W. Third & Fourth Sts.
Info: 212-924-7771 or ifccenter.com
Available On Demand through Sept. 25

Trapping this group of people together in such a stressful situation and putting them at each other’s throats is a set-up ripe with interesting narrative possibilities. The film seems to be preparing to explore the ways in which the mind deteriorates in desperate situations, letting the worst aspects of its nature come out. This would dovetail nicely with a taught, violent horror/thriller, or even a whodunit slasher.

It also seems to be toying with some other interesting themes and questions in the beginning, such as considering the damage wrought by mining to real people and the environment (by putting the grizzled, blue collar miners and their town in contrast with the more cosmopolitan, environmentalist Sam). There’s also squandered opportunity to examine the industry’s gender politics — and, by extension, these kinds of conservative communities.

With everything lined up for some smart, heady scares, what goes wrong, exactly? It certainly isn’t the cast and characters. “Beneath” actually has pretty solid, well-developed characters in the lead roles (significantly more than is usually called for in a gorefest), and actors with the chops to make viewers genuinely care about and believe in them. The heart of the film, the relationship between a father and daughter entrenched in totally different worlds, feels emotionally and narratively fresh.

The film mines (pun, for the record, unintended) this relationship for some of its most unexpectedly resonant moments — such as when George, with the toxic mine fumes going to his head, lashes out at his daughter for not comprehending the sacrifices he made for her growing up, and how much his job means to him despite its perils. Also good is Joey Kern as Randy, Sam’s ex-boyfriend and current trapped miner. Their relationship isn’t played for romance, but the two share a familiar, wistful chemistry — with Kern bringing a sense of kindness and level-headedness to a role that’d be thankless in other films.

“Beneath” also doesn’t falter in its technical aspects — for a genre film of its kind, things look very nice. It has some pretty nifty visuals that elevate it above its low-budget peers. The cinematography’s on point, helping the mining town feel acutely realized, and lived in — from the dim, neon glow of the neighborhood bar, to the gray dawn of another day on the job — while allowing the mines to be suitably dark and menacing. The production design is strong as well, particularly the sterile, blindingly white “luxury condo” the miners hide out in for safety, which stands in stark contrast to the cavernous mining tunnels.

Director Ben Ketai keeps things moving along with a (mostly) steady hand (the use of shaky cam becomes a tad excessive as things progress), while using his camera and the location’s darkness to play up the claustrophobia, and cleverly hide some of the film’s budgetary constraints.

The film’s main issue, then, is not trusting the story and the characters to push events forward. Instead, Ketai and his screenwriters rely on outside stimuli to drive the story somewhere else entirely. As “Beneath” nears its climax, the filmmakers shift the focus from man’s fallible mind, crumbling sanity, and violent nature in order to pile on half-baked supernatural scares.

These supernatural elements are never satisfyingly explained, and begin to suffocate the rest of the film by pushing everything else to the wayside. Most disappointing is the failure to fully explore the intriguing psychological aspects — it becomes less interested in the depths of madness people can sink to, than how irritable they can become when in mortal danger.

And, perhaps worst of all, once the film tips its hands in favor of the ethereal rather than the grounded, it ceases to be particularly suspenseful or scary. It starts to rely on rote horror movie beats and clichés that make the outcome of the film predictable, and thus, devoid of the tension it so effectively built up earlier. True, the spooky visuals allow for some effective jump chills, and the gore is nasty enough, but it lacks the kinds of scares that get inside your head and rattle around for days —  the kind that can only be achieved when grounded by disturbing insight into the characters, society, or mankind itself.

So while “Beneath” is never actually bad, it becomes an exercise in frustration the longer it runs on, as it becomes clear its leaving its promise behind to become more conventional fare. To have a movie come out the gate getting so much right, only to falter so thoroughly in its second half is always disappointing — and makes this a below average viewing experience.