By KEVIN HOOVER
Starring Mena Suvari, Ema Horvath, Trey Tucker
Directed by Braden R. Duemmler
Written by Braden R. Duemmler
Underneath the surface of WHAT LIES BELOW is a film that has many qualities becoming of any horror movie worth its salt: an isolated cabin in the woods, a vulnerable teenage protagonist, and a big bad who purveys a sense of cringe-worthiness. However, superficial characters and underdeveloped plot elements will leave viewers awash with a humdrum story that is confusing, vapid, and ultimately unsatisfying.
The debut full-length feature from director Braden R. Duemmler, WHAT LIES BELOW opens with 16-year old Liberty Wells’ (Ema Horvath) last day at a summer camp for the archaeologically inclined, a venture that her mother Michelle (Mena Suvari) believes her daughter has aged out of. The ensuing car ride home works to establish Michelle as the “cool” parent, attempting to bond over talk of boys and driver’s permits, but it serves better as an introduction to one of the film’s major atrocities: personas devoid of any meaningful qualities. Suvari is the worst offender of the trio of the film’s stars, as the doting mom act feels more like a façade for someone forced to play the role through circumstance than that of a genuinely caring parent. Her character’s crude discussions of sex and unwillingness to subdue sounds of carnal delight only further the notion that this is a woman unconcerned with what her daughter is subjected to, a major part of which is Michelle’s new beau, John Smith (Trey Tucker). Initially, Liberty is smitten with John. While his good looks and frequent willingness to bare his muscular physique serve to rouse her primal desires, it’s his ecological work with sea creatures and affinity for science that inspires her as much as his physical qualities excite her. Right around the same time Michelle enlightens her daughter that she is also engaged and planning to marry the man, Libby’s affections begin to sour.
From the outset, it’s obvious that John’s intentions with Michelle are anything but noble, and his involvement with aquatics is eventually divulged as more than just a career. The character operates in explicit shades of black and white that alternate in awkward fits and starts. At moments, he’s an affectionate stepfather-in-waiting to young Liberty. In others, he’s engaging in perversity such as licking the menstrual blood of a teen girl from his fingers, creating a slow build as things are increasingly not as they seem. When he’s at his creepiest, Tucker imbues the film with a sense of discomfort and uneasiness: one of the few things WHAT LIES BELOW manages to pull off well.
The movie plods along, tapping into narrative veins that are denied the chance to fully bleed out their essence; a shame, considering there are enough intriguing morsels that, had they been explored, would have added layers of personality to the cast and depth to the shallow storyline. A glaring example is a personal demon that Michelle briefly touches upon during a conversation with Liberty – one that, if simply fleshed out in more detail, could have explained away much of her frequently questionable behavior. Libby is fairly unremarkable as a heroine and Horvath succumbs to the same characterization issues as her co-stars, making it hard to care what happens to her. Eerie lighting effects add visual flair by casting crimson accents against dark forest backdrops and creative instances of foreshadowing manifest in ways that feel unique later on, but fancy window dressing can’t redeem a subpar effort. Even those who only passively watch will have long figured out most of the major twists before they’re realized, and the muddled ending itself is compromised of material that feels like a poor man’s Lovecraft peppered with elements that play out exactly the way you’d expect they would.
WHAT LIES BELOW feels like a missed opportunity to deliver something different in today’s horrorscape. By the time the end credits roll, viewers will have been subjected to 80+ minutes of the formulaic and the inane, driven along by a story and cast that are too dull to get behind. A little more depth would’ve worked wonders, but unfortunately, this is one film best left lost at sea.
WHAT LIES BELOW is available now on-demand and digital.