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It’s hard to go wrong when you have a location that’s as fundamentally creepy as a deep, dark mine with a tragic past, which makes Ben Ketai’s Beneath (2013) all that more disappointing. Despite an incredibly solid backstory and a great location, the film ultimately sinks thanks to some generic characterization and truly confusing plot elements. There’s the notion that a much better film is trapped in here, fighting to get out…a film that, alas, never quite manages to see the light of day.

We begin with a now de rigueur bit where we’re thrown into the chaos of the present only to travel back, via flashback, to what got us to that point of no return. In this case, we begin the film proper with Sam (Kelly Noonan), an environmental lawyer, going to see her coal miner father, George (an unrecognizable Jeff Fahey), at his “office.” George is retiring after spending over thirty years below the ground and Sam decides to join her father and his mates on his last day in the mine, partially as a show of solidarity but mostly to prove she isn’t “soft.”

The miners are the sort of mixed bunch that’s pretty standard for this sort of exercise, highlighted by Randy (Joey Kern), who seems to be an old flame of Sam’s, Masek (Erik Etebari), Mundy (Brent Briscoe), Torres (Curt Caceres), Van Horn (David Shackelford) and Grubbs (Mark L. Young).  While they’re down in the depths of the mine, two members of the crew end up breaking through into a previously unknown chamber, which has the effect of triggering a cave-in. After the dust and rubble clear, the group is left with no choice but to retreat to the safe confines of the emergency room, a sterile, white beacon of hope in the darkness.

As is always the case, however, it’s not as simple as just sitting put and waiting for help to arrive. For one thing, the crew members who initially caused the cave-in are still missing, presumed lost in the disaster. The group can hear strange noises in the darkness, however, some of which sound suspiciously like human screams. They go out to explore, leaving Sam and one of the injured crew members behind: she ends up joining them (of course) and the group splits up to explore the area, looking for any sign of the missing miners or, at best, some sign of a way out. When they end up breaking through into a formerly closed-off area of the mine, however, an area that was the sight of a bygone mining disaster that stranded nineteen miners below the surface, George and his crew will come to know the full meaning of terror. For something lurks in the darkness with them…something that may not be entirely human but is most certainly entirely malevolent.

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way right off the bat: Beneath has a truly killer location and the mining angle is not only fascinating but well-realized and truly creepy. The emergency room is a great visual, especially when juxtaposed with the absolute darkness of the surroundings and there’s a genuine sense of isolation and claustrophobia that permeates nearly every shot. The ensemble cast is interesting, even if the characters are all as lightly sketched as possible, and Noonan does a fine job as Sam: there’s nothing about her character that stands out (aside from her rather noteworthy ability to leave an injured comrade behind when necessary) but she makes a more than capable hero. Fahey, despite being the marquee name on the bill, turns in a largely anonymous performance as George: it actually took me quite a while to realize that was him and there was nothing about the performance that really stood out in my mind: it was workmanlike, no better or worse.

The biggest issue with Beneath ends up being the sheer familiarity of the proceedings: everything plays out in such a predictable fashion, particularly the completely played-out “twist” ending, that the film always feels too familiar. There’s very little individual identity, aside from the setting: this pretty much boils down to just another “possessed people” story, complete with every inherent cliché of that subgenre. Beneath does nothing new with the formula whatsoever and actually manages to muddy up the proceedings with an unnecessarily confusing second half that sees more red herrings and double-crosses than a spy novel. All of the promise of the initial idea (a formerly sealed-up mine) is completely lost in yet another film where actors with “scary faces” turn on their peers, lather, rinse, repeat. Perhaps this formula might still possess some ability to scare if this weren’t, roughly, the billionth time this trope had been trotted out. By this point, it’s so tired that it snores.

I really wanted to love Beneath, mostly because that location and mythology about the lost miners is so wonderful and evocative. Ultimately, however, the film that played in my head was much more interesting than the one that played on the screen: there was a mountain of potential here but too little of it actually made its way from visualization to reality. I still think there’s a really scary, supernatural film to be made about miners trapped in a cave-in: Beneath isn’t that film but it could have been, which is kind of a shame.