When film is a multibillion-dollar industry built around massive budgets and big studio players, it’s easy to forget that film was a passion and an art form before it became any of those other things. Cinema, as it turns out, can come from anywhere and BENEATH exemplifies that. It’s a refreshing break from the usual and urges this critic to get back in touch with a different definition of “movie magic.”
BENEATH is the feature debut of director JJ Perez and a scrappily ambitious film. The film was shot on location in Inner Space Caverns in Georgetown, TX. The cave has previously been made inaccessible to filmmakers, like Robert Rodriguez, for fear that production would harm the cave’s natural growth and stability. BENEATH will be the first-ever film shot in this space.
Using a Best Buy camera, a single light powered by a camping generator, and a cast of cavern tour guides (the only crew the owners of the cave would allow for shooting), Perez has done the impossible with no experience of his own to fall back on. BENEATH has enjoyed a great deal of success on the smaller genre and horror fest circuit and has been screened at such events as the FANtastic Horror Film Fest, the Reel Horror Fest, the Hardcore Horror Fest, and Hollywood Blood Horror Festival. The film has collected an impressive pedigree of acting awards and the Best Director win for Perez during its time at these festivals.
In BENEATH, a group of cavern tour guides learn about an occult murder that took place inside the cave. That Halloween night, the group sneaks into the caverns to see if the legends are true and awaken a horror unlike any other. The film is loosely inspired by true rumors that Inner Space Caverns was used as a meeting place for the Freemasons (there are even set pieces seen in the film that exist within the cave and are believed to have come from these secret meetings.) BENEATH stars Enzo Monfre, Brooke McKinney, Neal Sansing, Michael Morris, Meghan Forbes, Jesse Yandow, and Bradford Riley.
Wise men say that happiness is “reality minus expectations” and, true enough, I was unsure what to expect from BENEATH. However, what I never in a million years expected was that a film shot on a Best Buy camera produced such beautifully constructed shots. This speaks to Perez’s instincts as a filmmaker and puts a sign on his back that reads “Star on the Rise.” Shooting in a cavern robs Perez of the ability to play with angles and lighting and denies him the freedoms that one may enjoy on a set. The darkness of the cave and the inability to bring power back to this farthest reaches make every shot that much more impressive. The structure of the picture is beautiful and you appreciate it all the more when you learn what Perez was working with.
Beyond a solid foundation of good craftsmanship, Perez is able to use the limitations of his shoot to create genuine suspense. At one point in BENEATH, one of our doomed tour guides must use the flash of her camera to light her way… only to reveal the monster drawing closer and closer. It worked. It worked damn well.
Some obvious influences of BENEATH appear to be the Slender: The Eight Pages, a horror game that achieved viral status in the early 2010s. This is reflected in the design of the monster and some of the story “mechanics.” Perez also sites Adam Green’s Hatchet as a general influence in his filmmaking. From the perspective of this viewer, BENEATH is what happens when a person falls in love with film and allows themselves to be carried away by the raw elements that appeal to all of us. No pretension in sight.
What BENEATH lacks in polish, it makes up for in heart, but that lack of polish does occasionally impact the overall film. A symptom of working with a cast of non-actors is that you lose some depth and nuance that comes with an expert craft. That being said there were standout performances scattered throughout the film that were able to shine especially bright.
The writing and story of BENEATH could be called a tad elementary. It follows a predictable cadence, it hits the expected notes and does not dabble in sophistication. All stereotypes are present and accounted for. This is not necessarily a bad thing. BENEATH feels like a first stab, sure, but it’s also incredibly self-aware. The writing pokes fun at the process, at the world that the cast is familiar with, and at the efforts of the director, himself. The crazy thing is that for all of the flaws… it works. A viewer would have absolutely no trouble buying into this story and having a ton of fun doing it.
BENEATH is a more than competent debut for a director that we should all be watching closely. It is rough around the edges, scrappy, and incredibly charming but ambitious and triumphant in the same note. Catch this one on the festival circuit!