Her father due to retire from his lifelong work as a coalminer, Samantha Marsh (Kelly Noonan) has returned from the big city to the town where she grew up, but beneath the celebration there is friction. His daughter now working in environmental law, George (former Lawnmower Man Jeff Fahey) sees her as partially responsible for the regulations which have forced him out of work because of his failing health, while she sees herself protecting not only him but all his co-workers.
A night on the town with the boys leads to a challenge to the woman who they as spoiled, her education paid for by the very industry she now targets, and Samantha accepts, agreeing that the following morning she will descend with the other workers into the pit where her father has toiled for thirty five years on behalf of Brackett Energy.
Using heavy equipment to break up a coal face, one of the teams breaks through the thin wall of rock into an unknown chamber beyond; the resulting instability triggers a massive cave-in, sealing the exits, trapping the miners down below. With an estimated seventy two hours until a rescue operation can reach them, the wounded gather and apply first aid to their wounds, retreating to the emergency chamber to wait it out, hoping their air supply will be sufficient.
Directed by Ben Ketai (Chosen, Devil’s Trade) from a script by Patrick Doody and Chris Valenziano, the film goes to great lengths to establish the process of coal mining, the physical grind, the ubiquitous danger for those who, like Samantha, are unprepared, the oppressive psychological weight of the darkness beneath a groaning mountain of rock and the determination and pride of the men who spend their days out of the light.
Unlike too many modern horrors, Beneath doesn’t leap to computer generated beasties leaping out of the shadows in the first ten minutes, instead building a genuine tension out of a situation which is all too real for thousands of people the world over in the same way as Neil Marshall’s Descent though beyond the underground setting the similarities are superficial; while it recreates some of the scenarios of that 2002 caving horror, it wisely plays them out in very different ways.
With lingering long shots in near darkness, the viewer searches the encroaching shadows as much as the characters do, fearfully scanning for movement, for the presence of something which has no place being there, the tension heightened by grisly unexplained deaths and an echo from history, the story of nineteen miners lost in a similar cave-in which occurred in 1927, their bodies never recovered.
Noonan is excellent as weak link Samantha, inexperienced both with the work and with the pressure, physical and psychological, but this is not to say that she is depicted as being a weak woman unable to cope in a man’s world. Nevertheless, it is she who first begins to see things, to believe that there may be something else in the tunnels with them, and it is she who is most strongly affected by the escalating subterranean situation.
Having effectively established the characters and their situation, the film then enters an oblique holding pattern, unsure where to step next; is it a monsters in the dark film, a ghost story, a possession by human or demonic force?
That the answer is ambiguous is not a problem; life seldom provides clear answers to those about to die, so why should cinema? That the film itself doesn’t seem to be sure what direction it is heading in is more frustrating, and ultimately the destination is less satisfying than the journey, the final “stinger” shot entirely unnecessary and cheapening what has gone before.
Claiming to be based on true events (it’s not), Ketai has done good work with a cast which also includes Parks and Recreation’s Brent Briscoe and Witchblade’s Eric Etebari as two of the more experienced miners, and with a more developed script would certainly have delivered the stronger debut feature he deserved.