Dennis Quaid is fun to watch as a psychotic, but he leaves the screenplay behind.
Now for something completely different from Dennis Quaid: A genuine B horror film. Quaid plays former high school football star, leading citizen and undertaker Ely Vaughn in the small and peaceful town of Smithville, Texas. The town is peaceful because few of the adults dance. Those who do, dance with dead people.
Never mind, that is getting ahead of the story. As it turns out, Smithville is a real town of about 5,000 population, 45 miles East of Austin. Much of this year’s rumored Oscar sweeper “Tree of Life” was shot there. In fact, “Tree of Life” probably is the only film ever made in Smithville that is slower than “Beneath the Darkness.” Combining the two might result in one, whole film.
As the film opens, Ely is joining one of his pals for a jog. Inexplicably, the jog turns out badly for his pal, who ends up inside a coffin being gleefully buried by the yammering, frothing Ely. This film is going to be some fun.
Later that week, teens Travis, Abby, Brian and Danny (Tony Oller, Aimee Teegarden, Stephen Lunsford and Devon Werkheiser) discover something odd about Ely’s romantic evenings at home. They were not aware he had found a new love in the year or two following his wife’s premature death.
Breaking into Ely’s house to get further information, one of the kids is caught in Ely’s trap, becoming yet another accidental and untimely death on the Vaughn premises.
As Ely says, “Most accidents happen in the home.” We are glad they do, because what follows will be an uproarious festival of evildoing. As the murder and mayhem proceeds apace, the teens try to convince police Sergeant Nickerson (Brett Cullen) that there is definitely something wrong in the mortician’s household.
Quaid, attempting to channel Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,” whines, “These kids, they are always telling stories about the undertaker. What do you expect, I work with dead people.” That so true, Ely, and you do it so well. Even Lawrence Welk could not do a decent two-step with a two-year-old corpse.
In the end, Ely gets sloppy, the word gets out and after a few live person burials, and the fun is over.
Screenwriter Bruce Wilkinson, a Texas lawyer and businessman, apparently passed away during the shooting of this film, so he will never write a sequel, which, with all due respect, is just as well. Director Martin Guigui will go back to his current project, the prequel / sequel “Raging Bull II,” the logical follow-up to his 2006 casting agency swinger “Cattle Call.”
In fairness, this is a film that could have succeeded if the villain had been believable and the violence visceral. Dennis Quaid fans who see him popping up in the first few scenes as a homicidal maniac simply cannot believe their eyes.
After watching him for four decades without him ever playing a bad guy, they will spend the rest of the film in denial that a villain played by Quaid could ever really be another Hannibal Lector.
There is too much of a disjuncture there. It as if the earth transformed into mars overnight. Once the viewer gets over that, Quaid is a thrill to watch, but in a funny way, not a scary way.
Perhaps this film will succeed as a comedy, where it failed as a horror film. After all, that is the formula for a true cult success, a horror film that is bad enough to be good. In one sense, Dennis is too good. He is too believable as the small town guy who would not hurt a fly. It is too hard for the audience to believe he does that fancy foot thing on the stairs when the teenager has that nasty fall.
Then, again, that is exactly what Officers Wainright and Alvarez thought. Wainwright thought that idea of killing the grass by placing the heavy canvas tarp on it sounded pretty good. If that kind of humor appeals to you, there is a plethora of chuckles in store for you in “Darkness.”
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Directed by: Martin Guigui
Written by: Bruce Wilkinson
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Tony Oller and Aimee Teegarden
Release Date: January 6, 2012
MPAA: Rated R for some violence and language
Running Time: 96 Minutes