“He’s weirder than shit,” says teenaged hero Travis (Tony Oller) about mortician/serial murderer Vaughn Ely (Dennis Quaid) toward the end of Beneath the Darkness, a sentiment that Martin Guigui’s clunky psychological thriller takes for granted. Too bad the film’s necrophiliac villain is “weird” in the most pedestrian, unconvincing ways, no matter how much a game Quaid tries to camp it up in the movie’s third act, which shifts unproductively into ironic comedy.
As a suspenser, Beneath the Darkness is pretty much nil, since we learn about Ely’s murderous proclivities in the opening scene, and the only narrative tension revolves around a group of teens in the film’s tiny Texas town sneaking into Ely’s house to investigate odd goings-on (they see the mortician dancing with a woman in the window, when his wife’s been dead for two years) and their efforts to convince the numbskull authorities that their word is better than that of the creepy dude who works with the dead and lives in a dilapidated plantation-style house on the edge of town. As a psychological thriller, it’s even less effective, because the two subjects of mental portraiture are presented in terms either underthought or overdetermined.
While Ely’s madness seems to be the result of his wife’s premature demise (at least until a late-film twist tweaks this assumption), he mostly just seems like an over-the-top loon, not tied to any convincing set of psychological particulars. Travis, who feels guilt over his own sister’s premature death, finds that sense of culpability compounded by what he deems his failure to prevent a friend’s murder at the hands of Ely. In fact, the film never lets up about the concept of guilt, introducing the theme in leaden fashion via an early classroom scene in which a high school class discusses the classic Poe story “The Tell-Tale Heart” and only Travis is able to satisfactory pinpoint the crux of the work in the narrator’s troubled conscience.
Overly expository dialogue abounds throughout Guigui’s movie, as do questionable filmmaking choices (a nausea-inducing series of arcing tracking shots around a table, for example, woefully fails to coherently situate the characters) and plenty of stupidly unconvincing actions taken on the part of the film’s characters. Quaid seems determined to take his underwritten character as a juicy opportunity for larger-than-life thesping, but his gleeful, if misplaced, enthusiasm and still viable on-screen presence don’t extend to the rest of the film’s largely teenage cast, to the leaden, cliché-riddled screenplay, or to the unimaginative and too often indifferent direction.