Monday, September 1, 2008

SOMETHING BENEATH (2007) d. David Winning

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

It isn’t long after the first time you play in the mud, that goop can be seen as both attractive and repellant. A mud puddle born in your backyard and filled with rain from a cloudy summertime sky is as pleasant an opportunity to create childhood mayhem as there is. However, the first time you pour milk out of an old jug and on to your cereal in a series of grayish and slimy curds with a smell strong enough to make you gag, you realize that not all glop is a boon. As we get older, greasy and dark viscous fluids are no longer a password to fun, but they take on a rather frightening affect as cleanliness = godliness becomes our mantra, unless you are a performance artist. SOMETHING BENEATH, starring Kevin Sorbo, taps into our adult fear of sticky ooze from an unknown source, married to our deeper fear of ominous underground tunnels to become a TV Movie that is worth watching if you like your horror mixed with other genres and with a little bit of blended tone.

SOMETHING BENEATH is the story of Cedar Gate Conference Center, a building project with a checkered past and the scene of the Clean Planet Conference. Hosted by Pastor Douglas Middleton (Kevin Sorbo), the conference is an eclectic gathering of environmental experts, the ecologically concerned and celebrities, none of which know there is a problem brewing under the soil and inside the foundation of Cedar Gate. As people begin turning up dead under extremely bizarre circumstances, Reverend Middleton teams up with Conference Center Manager Khali Spence (Natalie Brown) and her rent-a-cop Jack Deadmarsh (Peter MacNeill) to fight the menace. It is only when they meet up with the reclusive Dr. Connelly (Brendan Beiser) that they discover the truth of what they are fighting and can find a strategy to stop the killings.

There are several reasons why SOMETHING BENEATH is worth a view. Most surprisingly, this a film with a cast that is not only primarily adults, but even the youngest of the cast have some acting experience, and the rest of the cast is either tried and true or quite veteran. In a world where the roles of a film are usually rife with children, this was an unexpected treat. While not the cast of ROMAN HOLIDAY, the cast of SOMETHING BENEATH is able to act, deliver their lines with some energy and sincere enthusiasm, but best of all they are able to create chemistry. There is palpable tension between some characters, affection and concern between others and a sense of shared purpose by the end. Unlike many of the low-budget, TV Movies of today that are cast with rookies and nobodies and the result is some very uneven or downright bad acting, SOMETHING BENEATH treats you to reasonably good performances. Kevin Sorbo has the look and the skills to be a thoroughly convincing crusading pastor out to help anyone and everyone. The lovely Natalie Brown portrays the determined and resourceful yet vulnerable and overwhelmed Khali and does so with a surfeit of style and sex-appeal. Grizzled veterans Peter MacNeill (Jack Deadmarsh) and Blake Taylor, who plays Reggie the Maintenance Director, add legitimacy and stolid strength to the story, for no one wants their cop and their custodial care to be in the hands of 20-somethings. Lastly, Brittany Scobi who plays Mikaela and Brendan Beiser play their wacky and off-base characters perfectly, adding an entirely different dimension to SOMETHING BENEATH that keeps the viewer on their toes.

The story and the use of the characters in SOMETHING BENEATH is the other strength of this movie. What starts out as a somewhat gory horror-film and then adds a layer of eco-terror to the plot, soon becomes a tale that has been tightly twisted with elements of science fiction. The goo that is causing so much trouble at the Conference Center has the capacity to create hallucinogenic effects and induce psychotic behavior in its victims. Sound familiar? It certainly should, for when you hear the audio effect added to the visual sequence of having the sludge smeared on any segment of unprotected skin, it is right out of Star Trek: The Original Series Season 1 episode The Naked Time. While some might accuse writers Mark Mullin, Ehtlie Ann Vare and David Winning of thievery, I like to think of it as a very kind nod to a great idea that helps to make SOMETHING BENEATH a cut above the “something’s in the pipes” kind of film that we’ve seen all too often. The deleterious effects of “slop contact” is made even more interesting when it becomes obvious that the slop is part of a living, thinking creature that is fighting for its own existence, which is once again reminiscent of several old Star Trek scripts. All of these ideas tie well into the subtle and not-so-subtle sub-themes of ecological sensitivity and the many forms of faith. Towards the end of the film, there were some science fiction-inspired “leaps of faith” or places where “suspending your disbelief” will be required. Those who don’t like science fiction will probably refer to those stretches as “gaps in logic”, but this isn’t high cinema. It is a story whose roots go back to the days of TV when most viewers had to let their minds wander a bit into realms of fantasy (and the fanciful) where logic took wing and flew into the sun leaving silliness fully in control of the tale. So be it. It forces you to go with the flow and enjoy the story for what it’s worth. Just look deeper into Natalie Brown’s fathomless eyes. That did it for me.

Beyond the thoughtfully woven plot, there is the use of the characters to create a very diverse sense of tone that could have wrecked this film but eventually helps to make it a little more fun. On one side, you have the deadly sober characters of Khali, Jack Deadmarsh, Reggie, Mr. Kent and Mr. Symes played totally straight by the actors who took those roles. On the other hand, there are the zany and somewhat bizarre characters of Dr. Connelly, Mikaela Strovsky, Eugene Herman and Hank, played totally over the top by their actors. Right in the middle is Kevin Sorbo’s character of Pastor Middleton, who must navigate these dissimilar waters and does so very effectively. What comes out of this very interesting mix are larger stretches of the film where the tone is serious shading to somber and even sinister, but dappled with moments of humor that even approaches madcap proportions. Had the mix been any different, the end result could have been a disastrously messy motion picture, but a nearly perfect balance was achieved, creating a contrast in tones that makes the entertainment varied.

SOMETHING BENEATH is not without its faults, but fortunately they are fairly small and can be passed off or overlooked if you are so inclined. Since the budget clearly went to the stars, there isn’t much left to the visual effects. Not only is the CGI very poor quality, but the settings are fairly pedestrian as well. While SOMETHING BENEATH was well shot and evidenced little or no photographic detritus aka shakey-cam or poorly lit of badly edited scenes, what was filmed wasn’t incredibly dynamic at times. The underground scenes were as well constructed as possible, but they just weren’t explosively eye-catching, even when the needless gouts of flame erupted around the cast at improbable intervals. Shot in Canada during one of its wintry months, the outdoor scenery wasn’t terribly compelling either. Nothing looked bad, it just wasn’t the most inspired choice of exterior sets. Even the interior sets were a little drab at times. For a conference center that was supposed to be a Mecca for the rich and famous, it seemed a little more like an Econo-Lodge. Like any TV Movie, SOMETHING BENEATH was probably shot on the cheap, and there is never enough cash to really spread around, and in this case the sets were one of the places that the budget was kept too thin.

As has been the case with too many of the RHI-TV DVDs released by Genius Products, there are no bonus features on this disc. Whether this is the fault of Paquin Films and/or Hallmark Entertainment, who originally produced the film, or RHI-Entertainment who aired it and probably fronted some of the cash, this must stop. A montage of auto-play trailers at the start of the DVD does not qualify as “extras”. When you’ve got a film with a pedigree like SOMETHING BENEATH, a few cast and/or crew interviews about the project is a moral imperative. All of the principal cast members have been in some interesting films of TV Shows past and present and their thoughts on their roles, the script and the production of what turned out to be an enjoyable film would be welcomed. I don’t know nearly enough about Natalie Brown and would certainly like to hear more, but there is nothing to be had. If low budget film companies like PopCinema can sling a few tidbits into most of their offerings, there is no reason why SOMETHING BENEATH couldn’t have had a few extras!

As a reviewer of DVDs of all kinds, I often have to step, wade and sometimes swim through filth unimaginable, but this time the slop that I had to brave was part of the entertainment. Instead of feeling soiled, I got to watch others sink into sticky ooze or have it drip over the faces under all kinds of conditions. It was refreshing to exchange places for once and be able to sit back and enjoy a film that had its number of strengths be greater than its number of weaknesses. I reveled in seeing adults in the primary roles of the film who knew how to do their jobs and when I hit the stop button on my remote, I felt like I had spent the time fairly well. SOMETHING BENEATH will not revolutionize the horror/sci-fi canon, nor will it win any awards, but it was 90 minutes of entertainment, which is more than I can say for a lot of films I’ve endured.

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