Helmer Martin Guigui seems to be doing what he can to keep the pressure off in “Beneath the Darkness,” a malformed, would-be horror shocker with a deliriously deranged performance by Dennis Quaid, who unfortunately seems to be the only one onboard who thinks he’s in a comedy. The generic title itself is an indication of what’s to come; if “Beneath the Darkness” were a blood donor, it would pass out. Only the pulse of the hardcore genre fan will quicken; limited theatrical exposure will be brief.
Shot in the same tiny Texas town as “The Tree of Life” (Smithville), Guigui’s film, with a screenplay by the late Bruce Wilkinson, fairly hollers “spoof” as it plays off various thriller conventions. These include a cast of attractive but dysfunctional teenagers who conform to type (the babe, the geek, the hunk, the thoughtful but rebellious loner dude), all of whom think the local mortician, Ely Vaughn (Quaid), is creepy. But it’s no joke: The film opens with Ely forcing a neighbor to dig his own grave, in which Ely promptly buries him alive.
The reasons are revealed only after much adolescent anguish. The aforementioned loner, Travis (Tony Oller), recently lost his sister and isn’t close to getting over it (everybody in town seems to have suffered the recent loss of a family member). All he has is his friends — beautiful Abby (Aimee Teegarden), braggadocious Brian (Stephen Lunsford) and dorky Danny (Devon Werkheiser), who stray from the usual high-school prankery when they spot strange shadows moving across the windows of Ely’s home. To them, the shadows look like ghosts. To the viewer, they look more like a guy dancing with his wife’s corpse. Guess who turns out to be right?
The idea of making the local undertaker a crazed killer is too obvious not to be amusing; the mortician is supposed to be the guy mistaken for a killer. Equally humorous is the idea of making that undertaker the former star quarterback for the local high-school team — and then casting Quaid, who has enjoyed a mini-career playing washed-up athletes. But the rhythm and pace of “Beneath the Darkness” are such that the viewer rarely gets engaged enough that the comic relief actually relieves anything.
It’s a strange town they all dwell in: Ely, who has a gift for sneaking up on the teenagers without their ever hearing him, encounters them in his home and murders one right in front of another; as he explains at one point, it’s Texas, where you can shoot burglars with impunity. But in this case, he commits the crime and denies it, and the way police subsequently treat his accuser seems to offer an unusually blatant justification of teen alienation, even if it never makes that particular point. As with much of what happens in “Beneath the Darkness,” the aud is left to draw its own conclusions about intent and inadvertence.
Production values aren’t much of an issue in a film that wears its low budget so baldly; during a high school football sequence, the movie, without shame or embarrassment, only fields one team.