BeneathA quirky sea monster splatter fest from director Larry Fessenden that’s not nearly as terrible as its early reception suggests, although it’s still far from Fessenden’s best work.

2013’s BENEATH follows Larry Fessenden’s previous horror efforts NO TELLING, HABIT, WENDIGO and THE LAST WINTER, all highly idiosyncratic films made by Fessenden’s indie outfit Glass Eye Pix. BENEATH was the first of those films that didn’t get a theatrical release, going straight to DVD, and the most poorly received of them all: it currently has a 3.9 rating on IMDB. I feel it deserves (slightly) better.

High school graduate Johnny and five buddies—two of them girls—take a trip to the aptly named Black Lake for a final pre-college blow out. While dragging a large boat through the woods the kids are warned by a creepy old guy that they’re better off staying on land. Of course they don’t listen, and head off in the boat.

After much aimless frolicking on and off the boat Johnny notices a large something in the water. He manages to get his friends out of the lake before the whatever-it-is chomps them, but they lose one of their oars. Attempting to grab it, one of the gals is bit by the critter—which resembles a giant catfish—and bleeds to death. This leaves the group with one oar, which they lose after one of them sticks it in the creature.

They attempt to escape by submerging the girl’s corpse in the water and paddling to shore. This doesn’t work. Nor does the gambit of throwing out their food supply in an effort at pacifying the monster.

From there things grow increasingly chaotic, with one of the remaining protagonists attempting to swim to shore and another thrown into the water by his “friends.” As the sun goes down these none-too-happy campers inevitably turn on each other, with none-too-happy results.

BENEATH was the first of Larry Fessenden’s horror movies he didn’t script himself. It lacks the real world concerns that fuel so many of Fessenden’s other movies, and is more clichéd and derivative than any of its forebears; JAWS and CABIN FEVER are directly referenced, as is Stephen King’s story “The Raft” (which of course was already adapted for film as part of CREEPSHOW 2). One gets the impression that Fessenden here was marking time between his “real” film work.

Nonetheless, the film has a real sense of style. Fessenden’s talent for gritty naturalism is well utilized, and sets BENEATH apart from most other modern monster movies. Unlike so many of them, the acting here is fairly strong overall, while the music is used judiciously and the digital camerawork is never distracting—well okay, mostly never distracting: Fessenden mixes standard quality digital visuals with the highly primitive footage shot by one of the protagonists, an effect that (aside from providing a rather forced indie moviemaker joke) doesn’t do much of anything for the proceedings.

One quintessentially Fessenden element here is the low budget monster (at least one of which turns up in nearly all his films). In true JAWS fashion Fessenden keeps the critter off-screen for as long as possible, but unfortunately has to show it eventually. The appearance of the giant catfish isn’t as ridiculous as it could have been (REPTILICUS it thankfully isn’t), but the thing is a bit overly reminiscent of Sigmund the Sea Monster.

Vital Statistics

Chiller Films/Glass Eye Pix

Director: Larry Fessenden
Producer: Larry Fessenden, Peter Phok
Screenplay: Tony Daniel, Brian D. Smith
Cinematography: Gordon Arkenberg
Editing: Larry Fessenden
Cast: Daniel Zovatto, Bonnie Dennison, Chris Conroy, Mark Margolis, Jonny Orsini, Griffin Mewman, Mackenzie Rosman