Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Mining for horror

Spoiler ahead....It takes a lot for me to get scared. While I have some aversion to the horror film genre generally part of the reason is I’ve seldom come across horror films that have scared me enough. Beneath, opening Friday at Cinema Detroit, the feature film debut for director Ben Ketai, is par for the course. It’s set up to horrify as usually is the case with such films. And there’s plenty of material to work with. Beneath is based on the 2013 collapse of the Brackett Coal Mine. It says it’s “inspired” by those events. Take “inspired” very liberally. I’m reading Stephen King’s On Writing, a sort of memoir, and King tells, even as a kid, he’d make up fantastical stories based on something just a little awry in everydaily life. The same could be said here. Nothing wrong with that as far as it goes. Indeed the film itself is technically well made, the acting is pretty good, and there’s very nimble camera work within the dark recesses of a mine floor. Sam Marsh (Kelly Noonan) is a coal miner’s daughter, back home from New York City where she’s an environmental lawyer. At first I was concerned this would be a political allegory – mining disaster just shows how bad Big Coal is. But anything political is neutered. “It is corporate greed,” Sam says. Her dad, George (Jeff Fahey), who’s just about to retire, responds that it’s this “young clean industry that paid for your law school.” Sam, sensing she’s being mocked, volunteers to go down into the mine for “a couple of hours.” Horror ensues when the mine’s face cutter breaks and overhead debris starts falling. The crew head to an oxygen chamber where they’ll wait out the 72 hours before rescuers arrive. But it’s not that simple. There are harrowing sounds in the cavernous tunnels. A bloody hand smashes against one of the chamber’s portholes. Another miner is pick axed to death, his entrails spread on the floor. There is something in the air or something supernatural that causes crew members’ faces to screw up with their eyes bulging white. They’re almost like zombies, and we’ve had enough zombie movies thank you very much. Sam, trepidations just going into the shaft, experiences sheer terror as she somehow has to come to grips with these otherworldly events. But as you might suspect she proves to be the centre of sanity and ultimately survives, though there’s a hole in the plot. How is this possible if there are no oxygen tanks left after the chamber is vandalized? The filmmakers capture the bleak light (from miners’ helmet lights and lamps) amidst the pressing blackness and claustrophobia, which adds to the frenzy. The problem is the film just isn’t scary enough. Some frightening sounds and two or three out-of-nowhere close-up horrific faces get your adrenalin rolling. But there should have been more variations and they should have built into a greater crescendo of horror as Sam then ekes out the thinnest possibility of survival.