Beneath the Dark opens with lovers Paul and Adrienne (Josh Stewart and Jamie-Lynn Sigler) barely averting an accident on the kind of middle-of-nowhere road that horror filmmakers love. Catching their breath, the couple checks into the Creepiest Motel of All Time, which is run by Frank (Chris Browning), a—what else?—socially inept weirdo with something to hide. Pretty soon, Paul and Adrienne are up to it in mysterious apparitions and messages, while Frank, in a clear flashback, tries to manage his troubled relationship with his wife Sandy (Angela Featherstone). If you’ve seen a few of these movies, you know the flashback structure is clearly a signal that All Is Not What It Seems.
Bad motel-set horror flicks can be trashy/goofy fun, and more-or-less recent films like Identity and Vacancy have taken advantage of this fact. Those films toyed with the overtly artificial campfire mood that we expect, and they were well-directed by people who understood the genre and didn’t take it too seriously—though they didn’t condescend to it either. But Beneath the Dark is meant to be taken as a relationship drama until its predictable Twilight Zone finish, and so writer-director Chad Feehan clobbers you with the loneliness and significance of it all. The film is bathed in dime-store darkness and pretentiously glaring white light that’s meant to simultaneously telegraph both the characters’ misery and the film’s integrity. The atmosphere, which we enjoy most in these films, is insufficient and suffocating.
Feehan withholds crucial information in an effort to maintain an illusion that anything is going on, an old genre trick. After an hour of moments that are mostly beside the point, Beneath the Dark eventually reveals itself to be—spoiler!—yet another purgatory fantasy. The picture would be offensive if it weren’t so hopelessly indebted to movies before it; as it depicts a society of what are essentially angels (or servants of you-know-who, if that’s more comfortable) who basically blackmail the naughty newly dead into helping them with their duties rehabilitating other misbehaving dead people. That’s a promising idea…for satire, but Feehan takes the ridiculous (and mildly fascist) religious implications of the scenario seriously. One exits Beneath the Dark appreciating Clarence’s relative benevolence.