Nagging question of the day: What heinous sin could the otherwise gifted, versatile and generally underappreciated Dennis Quad have committed to deserve a submental punishment called Beneath the Darkness? This sorry rip-off of every horror flick that turns up on late-night cable programming is a major head-scratcher. Filmed in two Texas highway speed bumps called Smithville and Bastrop, and boasting 61 final thank-you credits and endorsements for everything from the Hula Hoops Diner & Soda Shop to the Wells Fargo Bank of Bastrop, it is, from the picture, very much a community effort. God knows no professional appears to have come within a 500-mile radius. Except, of course, Mr. Quaid, who has a lot of explaining to do.
He plays a cretinous madman named Ely Vaughn. Even in a home movie like this one, there is usually a pinch of suspense to keep you guessing. But there’s no waiting around here. We know Ely is a homicidal wacko headed for an inevitable padded cell from the opening scene, when he jogs up to a neighbor walking his dog on a deserted street late at night, forces him at gunpoint to dig his own grave, then bludgeons him with a shovel and buries him alive. It takes an hour and a half to find out why. Meanwhile, we cut to two years after the murder victim’s disappearance, when a group of high school pranksters are intrigued by the shadowy figures of a pair of ghostlike figures dancing behind the locked windows of the spooky local mortuary where Ely lives. Suspecting a haunted house scenario, the curious teens start snooping around like the doomed kids spying on their neighbors in every curiosity-killed-the-cat thriller from Fright Night to Salem’s Lot and Disturbia. Breaking into the house, one boy watches aghast as the enraged Ely lurches out of the shadows, throws another kid down the stairs and kicks his head in. Of course nobody believes the kid’s story. Ely is not only a former football hero, but a respected and revered pillar of the community in deep mourning over his dead wife. He’s also the town undertaker, with a thorough knowledge of a wide assortment of chemical preservatives, caskets and the kind of embalming fluid that can keep a loved one preserved for years. Slowly but surely the pieces fit and if you don’t giggle “Psycho!” under your breath before the second act, you’ve flunked Creepshow 101.
In an effort to emulate the irritating trends of today’s incoherent filmmakers, Martin Guigui, the director of this fuzzball fiasco, ping-pongs the movie back and forth, from present tense to flashbacks, ignoring the elements of narrative storytelling to reveal only fragments of the preposterous plot. You anticipate every scene before it happens and figure out every secret before it’s revealed. So many people crawl in and out of coffins that it’s hard to tell the living bodies from the maggot fuel. When Travis, the heroic sophomore (played by Tony Oller, the only other cast member besides the star with any real chemistry), opens one burial cask, hoping to find his missing girlfriend inside, Mr. Quaid says, “Travis? You’re a caution.” What an ordeal. The star does his best to bring some sardonic humor to this wake, but it’s painful to watch a seasoned actor searching for a convincing way to say a line like “Travis—you are in no position to be making demands. You’re a burglar! And this is Texas!”
BENEATH THE DARKNESS
Running Time 98 minutes
Written by Bruce Wilkinson
Directed by Martin Guigui
Starring Dennis Quaid, Tony Oller and Aimee Teegarden