Beneath is the kind of mildly diverting, not-half-bad horror programmer that you might have once watched on AMC or USA in the middle of the night. The plot, simplicity itself, involves a group of coal miners who get trapped 600 feet below the ground after a collapse and scramble to survive the 72 hours it will take for a response from a rescue team. George Marsh (Jeff Fahey) is the grizzled, retiring leader of the crew, and his daughter, Samantha (Kelly Noonan), is an environmental attorney who’s returned to her hometown to see her old man’s last day on the job, mostly for sentimental reasons pertaining to his fading health. As their occupational contrasts imply, they nurse respective grudges about the path the other has taken: George sees Samantha as a climber and an ingrate, while Samantha insists that her driving concern was to improve working conditions for people like George and his men. Standing to literalize these resentments are the potentially illusory demons unleashed by the cave-in, and that waste no time possessing George’s men and driving them to commit acts of fatal self-sabotage.
The opening scenes familiarly show us a celebration party that’s destined to grow retrospectively ironic in the light of tragedy. George and his crew are at a local tavern, and Samantha, a beautiful, formally educated, socially polished woman, can’t help but stand apart as the local who made good. Refreshingly, director Ben Ketai doesn’t make sport of the social tensions that exist between Samantha and the miners, who generally treat her with a qualified respect that she earns and reciprocates with her legitimate curiosity about their life. Samantha’s an outsider, but she understands the comfort of the camaraderie and the worker rituals, and it’s clear that we’re intended to read her career pursuits partially as a weird kind of homage to her father. Homage tinged with rebellion, of course.
The other miners are sketched quickly and perfunctorily. You’re only likely to remember Mundy (Brent Briscoe) for his comic relief and Masek (Eric Etebari) for his towering and implicitly threatening lumberjack physicality (the remaining crew members are little more than readymade victims-to-be-named-in-the-credits). The first act primes you to assume, then, that George and Samantha’s domestic arc will be the through line on which Ketai will hang his scares, but their story disappointingly recedes into the backdrop as soon they get underground, and doesn’t resurface until the end, leaving the film with an emotional void at its center. Beneath is impersonal and populated with wisps of characters who spend most of the running time wandering around in the dark yelling at one another. It’s a campfire story with no blood-and-guts intimacy.
That was a problem with the similarly plotted The Descent too, but director Neill Marshall compensated for the film’s nonexistent characterization with viscerally claustrophobic shocks that encouraged you to embrace the characters as audience surrogates. Ketai, however, doesn’t evince that kind of command of atmosphere. The mine has all the verisimilitude of a background set at a theme-park attraction, and he pivotally fails to convince you of the setting’s depth underground: It appears that the characters could come up for a smoke break and a Mountain Dew at any given time. But the director nevertheless manages a few respectable jolts, particularly a moment in which Samantha gets caught up in a rapidly deflating oxygen tent, or when she appears to see one of the men as they’re possessed by an unknown entity. It’s ultimately Fahey who keeps the film thrumming along though, as he informs it with a quiet heartbreak that suggests a sadder, more resonant thriller. Beneath is fun, but it’s haunted by ghosts of greater possibilities.