For an actor, some roles are a challenge, some are Oscar bait, some have personal meaning, and a few are mostly just a paycheck.
One can only assume the role of a deranged mortician in this lackluster teen horror film falls into the latter category for star Dennis Quaid. Or maybe the attraction was simply that “Beneath the Darkness” was shot within spitting distance of Austin, which he calls home these days.
Ely Vaughn, Quaid’s loopy undertaker -- he dances nightly with the embalmed corpse of his dead wife– -- is the major adult character in “Beneath the Darkness.” A former star high-school athlete, he is a pillar of the community in his small Texas town.
“Beneath,” however, lets viewers know right from the get-go that Ely is both bonkers and a murderer. In the film’s opening scene, the recently widowed Ely pulls a gun on a neighbor out walking his dog, forces the guy to dig his own grave and then buries him alive.
Flash forward to two years later when the movie’s teen hero (Tony Oller) and several pals turn into high-school Sherlocks and start investigating rumors that the mortician's house is haunted. After Ely murders one of them in front of Oller, the teenager and his girlfriend (Aimee Teegarden, a long way artistically, if not geographically, from her role on TV's "Friday Night Lights") try to expose Ely -- of course, the adults all disbelieve their story -- before he can do away with them, too.
None of this, as directed by Martin Guigui (“Cattle Call”) and written by the late Bruce Wilkinson (a Texas attorney, this was his first script), is especially scary, suspenseful or bloody. References to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Shakepeare’s “Macbeth” -- both about the corrosive effects of guilt -- seem like heavy-handed attempts to inject profundity where there is none.
Given that the teen characters, both as written and performed, fail to register as particularly distinctive or witty, you’d have to be in their age group to actually care about their outcome.
Quaid, an actor capable of insightful performances (“Wyatt Earp” and “Far From Heaven”), at least shows restraint here, reigning in the psycho theatrics until the final scenes. He even manages to wring out a faint laugh or two, as when Ely drawls, just before fatally stomping on a teen victim’s neck after pushing the doomed kid down a staircase, “Stairs can be very dangerous. Most accidents happen in the home.”
Here’s betting, though, that when some years from now the lights are lowered and the highlight reel unspools at a career tribute to Quaid, there will be nary a scene from “Beneath the Darkness” popping up on the screen.