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under_the_bed

If there’s one fear that’s pretty universal among kids, I’d be more than willing to wager that it’s the old “monster under the bed.” For generations of youngsters, bedtime consists of a series of arcane processes – not touching the floor, staying under the covers, keeping the light on – solely designed to prevent one from becoming a late-night snack. As children grow older and get their first experiences with the “real” world, however, the omnipresent threat of monsters under the bed diminishes, replaced by the all-too real knowledge that plenty of flesh-and-blood monsters are around to worry about without stressing over the imaginary ones. For a time, however, monsters under the bed are as real as it gets for kids (just watch the mortifying Little Monsters (1989) for evidence of that) and, undoubtedly, perfect fodder for a horror film.

This, of course, leads us to director Steven C. Miller’s Under the Bed (2012), the follow-up to his excellent remake of the Santa-themed slasher Silent Night (2012). Working from a script by Eric Stolze (who also wrote the upcoming werewolf flick Late Phases (2014)), Miller turns in a glossy, rather bombastic, effort that has a similar visual style to films like Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013), yet ends up being a much more violent, graphic affair. If anything, Under the Bed’s rather formidable violence is one of the film’s big issues, as it sets up a decidedly schizophrenic tone: at times, the film feels like it’s pitched at young adults, yet features a scene where someone’s head is slowly ripped into several pieces. Suffice to say, Mr. Rogers would not approve.

Under the Bed kicks off as Neal (Jonny Weston) returns home for the first time in years, coming back to his younger brother, Paulie (Gattlin Griffith) and father, Terry (Peter Holden, looking for all the world like a surly Zach Galifianakis). It would appear that Neal has spent time in some sort of care facility, apparently due to the traumatic death of his mother in a house-fire. The relationship between Terry and Neal seems to strained, indicating that the father may hold his son more accountable for his mother’s death than he lets on. When Neal returns, however, he seems to be more on edge than ever: he’s afraid that the evil he fled years ago is still there…and he would be absolutely correct.

Turns out that Neal had a run-in with an actual monster years ago, a beast which now appears to be stalking his little brother. Terry won’t listen to this foolishness, however: he’s convinced that Neal had a nervous breakdown and is now back to “infect” his other son with the same foolishness. Only Neal and Paulie know the truth, however: something hungry, evil and vicious lives under the bed in Paulie’s room. As Neal and Paulie inch ever closer to confronting this source of ultimate evil, this monster that was also responsible for their mother’s death, they find a kindred spirit (of sorts) in neighbor Cara (Kelcie Stranahan), whose little brothers think Neal and Paulie are just about the creepiest things in the neighborhood. Aid also comes from an unlikely source when the boys’ new step-mom, Angela (Musetta Vander), comes to believe them and throws her support into the ring. Will all of this be enough to destroy childhood fears made flesh or will the brothers and their allies become just more midnight snacks for the creature?

For the most part, Under the Bed is a perfectly decent, middle-of-the-road “kids versus monsters” story, albeit one told with the utter seriousness of a biblical epic. Truth be told, the bombastic, over-the-top tone of the film, reinforced by everything from the overly shouty performances (Jonny Weston, in particular, can effortlessly play to the back rafters) to the brash, loud musical score, tends to wear one down after a while: for the life of me, I found myself wishing that everyone, monster included, which just chill out and have a quiet sit-down by the time the film was rushing towards its manic climax. There’s just too much of everything here: too much shouting, too many loud musical stingers, too much “acting” when something more subtle would suffice. Under the Bed isn’t a bad film, by any stretch, but it is an extremely tedious one, which might actually be a worse sin.

Which, ultimately, is a bit of a bummer, since there’s plenty to like here. The overall storyline, about the demonic presence under the bed, is a solid one, if hammered home with way too heavy a hand and the creature/gore effects are expertly executed. In particular, the scenes where Neal goes into the “under the bed world” to save Paulie are pretty fabulous: I really wish we got to spend more time in that apocalyptic world, with ash floating through the air like snow, but the most we get are a couple fast, rather confusingly edited bits that are the equivalent of a famous actor making a quick cameo. I was also dutifully impressed by the filmmakers’ ability to kill off kids and main characters at the drop of a hat: usually, both group tend to be fairly sacred cows in films like this but there’s the refreshing notion that no one is safe, which tends to up the stakes considerably.

If anything, Under the Bed reminds me of a combination of the disappointing, Guillermo del Toro produced Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010) and the minor ’80s classic, The Gate (1987), both of which focused on demonic beasties harassing spunky kids. The film borrows its slick visual sense and tone from the former, while it gets some of its violence and story structure from the latter. This also means, of course, that the film seems to have precious little identity of its own, a matter further complicated by the aforementioned extreme violence: often times, the film is completely appropriate to younger audiences, similar to The Gate. At times, however, the violence zooms straight into Grand Guignol territory (that head-ripping bit is a real corker and this comes from a guy who’s pretty much the definition of jaded.

Ultimately, Under the Bed isn’t a bad film but it’s much less than what it could have been, especially when one considers just how great Silent Night was: the “backward” progression seems a bit worrisome, especially for a director with a relatively small body of work. With a lot more restraint and a clearer goal, Under the Bed might have been a minor classic, just like The Gate. As it stands, however, the film should appeal to monster lovers and curious horror-philes but probably won’t have much of a bigger resonance past that. Which, again, is a shame, since it came so close to being a contender.

 

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