Steven Spielberg’s sage decision to show the mechanical shark as little as possible in “Jaws” springs to mind with each successive glimpse of an incredibly fake-looking man-eating catfish in Larry Fessenden’s “Beneath.” Sporting the plasticine texture of an inflatable raft and a beady yellow eye that flits back and forth as if controlled by a joystick, this aquatic predator actually starts to seem kind of cuddly after a while, or at least more sympathetic than any of the half-dozen recent high-school grads who unwisely cross its path during some post-graduation merriment. That sly toying with audience sympathies is, alas, all that’s notable about this otherwise poverty-row quickie produced for the Chiller cable network, receiving a token theatrical/VOD release en route to broadcast.

Certainly one of the most significant horror directors of the post-Carpenter/Craven/Romero generation, Fessenden has always shown a knack for making the most of minimal resources and bringing unexpected mythic and philosophical musings to such genre staples as the Frankenstein (“No Telling”), vampire (“Habit”) and werewolf (“Wendigo”) narratives. But even those considerable gifts only go so far toward elevating “Beneath,” which is also his first film since 1985’s “Experienced Movers” to be made from someone else’s original screenplay (in this case, by co-writers Tony Daniel and Brian D. Smith).

Consciously referencing everything from “Friday the 13th” (one character’s surname is Voorhees) to “Shark Night 3D,” “Beneath” offers up a central-casting cross-section of disparate high-school types who only seem to hang out together in the movies: Matt (Chris Conroy), the golden-boy jock whose prospects have looked a little less golden since graduating a year earlier; his less athletic but infinitely smarter younger brother, Simon (Jonny Orsini); and Matt’s blonde bombshell girlfriend, Kitty (Bonnie Dennison), a rotating object of desire for practically every other character in the film, including her gal-pal Deb (Mackenzie Rosman) and brooding, long-haired loner Johnny (Daniel Zovatto), whose family lake house is the group’s intended destination. Also along for the ride is shrill, hyperactive film nerd Zeke (Griffin Newman), who insists on recording everything on his digital video camera, even (or especially) once the bloodletting begins. And what would such a movie be without at least one creepy old man (Mark Margolis) to offer unheeded warnings of imminent danger?

Getting to Johnny’s lake house involves rowing across the seemingly placid Black Lake, whose resident beastie Johnny seems aware of from a previous childhood encounter, though he neglects to share this info with any of his ostensible friends. Given his druthers, Fessenden might have gone so far as to suggest that the sea creature doesn’t really exist at all, and is merely the physical manifestation of the characters’ thinly concealed jealousies and ulterior motives. But “Beneath” opts to play things relatively straight as an ill-advised swimming session leads to the pic’s first fatality, as well as the loss of both oars, stranding the boat in stagnant waters and the movie itself in “Lifeboat” territory.

The more desperate the situation becomes, the more it brings out the worst — or is it merely the truth? — in everyone. This makes for a considerably more engaging second half in which the characters’ base survival instincts take over, the strong ride roughshod on the weak, and everyone cooks up increasingly convoluted rationales for why he/she should be allowed to live … instead of becoming the next peace offering for the ever-lurking creature. In an amusing jab at the self-importance of film students everywhere, Zeke contends that he will surely make a greater impact on humanity than any of his fellow boat mates, by virtue of the movies he’s going to make.

Whatever tension the pic manages to build, however, is mostly undercut by the recurring appearance of the fish and by the generally overemphatic performances of the human cast, who resemble an Abercrombie/Hollister ad in motion and project about as much dramatic nuance. Of the lot, Orsini (recently seen on Broadway opposite Nathan Lane in “The Nance”) comes off best in the most emotionally complex role — a lifetime second-placer tired of dwelling in big bro’s shadow.

Cinematographer Gordon Arkenberg does a nimble job of filming on the water — never an easy task — though the pic had an overly bright, washed-out look on the Blu-ray copy screened for press.

Film Review: ‘Beneath’

Reviewed at Magno screening room, New York, July 10, 2013. Running time: 89 MIN.

  • Production: A Chiller Films release and presentation of a Glass Eye Pix production in association with OffHollywood Pictures. Produced by Larry Fessenden, Peter Phok. Executive producers, Thomas P. Vitale, Shane O’Brien, Justin Smith. 
  • Crew: Directed by Larry Fessenden. Screenplay, Tony Daniel, Brian D. Smith. Camera (color, HD), Gordon Arkenberg; editor, Fessenden; music, Will Bates; production designer, Tania Bijlani; art director, Shiloh Kidd; costume designer, Elisabeth Vastola; sound, Michael Kozak; sound designer, Graham Reznick; supervising sound editors, Reznick, Tom Efinger; re-recording mixers, Efinger, Jeff Seelye; visual effects supervisor, Neal Jones; creature effects, Fractured FX; special makeup effects, Brian Spears; stunt coordinator, Anthony Vincent; associate producer, Jennifer Wexler; assistant director, David Thienes; second unit director, Reznick; second unit camera, Richard Ulivella; casting, Lois Drabkin.
  • With: Daniel Zovatto, Bonnie Dennison, Chris Conroy, Jonny Orsini, Griffin Newman, Mackenzie Rosman, Mark Margolis.