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Beneath | Review

We Now Begin Our Descent: Ketai’s Debut a Minor Effort

Ben Ketai Beneath PosterArriving decently dressed but in poor taste is writer/producer Ben Ketai’s directorial debut, Beneath, sharing its bland title with Larry Fessenden’s most recent indie horror film. This genre exploitation effort, which may eventually make a great double bill with Patricia Riggen’s forthcoming reenactment of the plight of the 33 Chilean miners from the 2010 Copiapo mining accident, often feels like a cheap knockoff of Neil Marshall’s The Descent, though Ketai’s adherence to the poker faced formula of And Then There Were None should satisfy those appreciative of commitment to ambience, no matter how generic the end product.

Samantha (Kelly Noonan) is an environmental lawyer who returns to her home town to celebrate her father George’s (Jeff Fahey) last day on the job due to declining health. Recording the celebratory efforts by interviewing several co-workers, including Mundy (Brent Briscoe), the crew’s comic relief, conversation at the local pub reveals a bit of tension between blue collar dad and his high falutin daughter. His colleagues, however, are enamored with the blonde beauty, particularly Randy (Joey Kern). As sort of a faux dare, Samantha agrees to get her hands dirty and go down into the mine with them in the morning. Almost immediately after doing so, an unanticipated collapse finds the crew stuck in a cave in 600 feet under the surface. They’ll have to wait 72 hours before a rescue team can get to them. Thankfully, there’s a safety protocol that finds them in a secure room designed for such occasions….until they start to hear eerie screams, leading the crew back out into the compromised mine. Soon, they’re fighting each other, madness descending as oxygen quickly begins to dissipate.

Ex-soap star cum novelty presence Jeff Fahey gets top billing, but he’s stuck playing a character as unremarkable as the rest. In fact, when the dilemma begins, they all sort of coalesce into a pudding of victimhood. Perhaps something could be read into the narrative, catastrophe catalyzed by the presence of a female in a male dominated environment, a world turned topsy turvy when gender norms are challenged. But that would be a bit of a reach, and an unintentional reading at that.

Ketai, with screenwriters Patrick Doody and Chris Valenziano, seem to be playing with more basic human fears, focusing more on casting extreme doubt on what our protagonist, Samantha, is really seeing and experiencing. This gimmick gets stale real quick, however spooky it is when she’s told to “say goodbye to the daylight” upon beginning her descent. What’s really distracting is how all these (mostly) really good looking people have spent so many years working in a mine yet are still one cotton swab away from a photo shoot. This is particularly true of Ms. Noonan and the wan romantic love interest played by Joey Kern, who seem sorely out of place, inspiring eye rolls with each exchange. Of course, the added spook factor is how this is “inspired by a true story.”

Extreme liberties were taken with this inspiration, and perhaps the creators of Beneath would have been better served to just leave that useless bit out of it. Maybe this is what going mad trapped beneath the earth looks like…but this plays like a Plain Jane genre exercise fleshed out with a handful of misplaced, handsome humans. And while even though the film never quite makes us feel they’re actually stuck so far below the surface, we should probably just be lucky this isn’t a found footage film.

★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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