PLOT: Four small-town high schoolers find themselves in the crosshairs of the local mortician after discovering his ugly secret.
REVIEW: The most pressing mystery in BENEATH THE DARKNESS is this: what does director Martin Guigui have on Dennis Quaid? Surely there's something blackmail-worthy in the actor's closet that the director has discovered; there's just no other reason for Quaid to be in a movie of such feeble quality.
Alarm bells sound off in the film's timid opening minutes, as Quaid, playing mental mortician Vaughn Ely, kidnaps and buries a dorky acquaintance. The sequence is executed with zero bite; nary a moment even contains the faintest hint of danger, and its ho-hum presentation portends a movie that will be as suspenseful as an after-school special.
We quickly learn that Ely's brutal murder is a success, as we fast-forward two years and focus on average teen Travis (Tony Oller) and his friends: pretty Abby (Aimee Teegarden), jerky Brian (Stephen Lunsford) and goofy Danny (Devon Werkheiser). There's nothing particular interesting about this quartet, so the screenplay throws them immediately into a derivative plot involving Quaid's ostensibly normal mortician and the weird business he's up to in his house; initially spurred by the idea that Ely's home is haunted, the inquisitive teens ultimately learn that Ely is still chatting - and perhaps doing much more - with his dead wife, who he keeps creepily displayed in a bedroom. Ely doesn't appreciate his strange business being known, and he exacts swift vengeance upon the group. What follows is what someone being charitable would call a "chess game" between Ely and our protagonists as they cat-and-mouse with each other, but I'm just going to call it a series of boring non-incidents leading up to an anti-climactic and utterly lame conclusion.
BENEATH THE DARKNESS would probably like to fancy itself as living in the subgenre of teen-oriented, pseudo-Hitchcockian fare that movies like DISTURBIA belong to, but it falls well short of achieving that; a lack of thrills and involving, likable characters will have that effect, as will a story that doesn't even try to rise above a middling Hardy Boys mystery. The Ely character isn't explored beyond being the typical psycho who the rest of the town thinks is Mr. Nice Guy; problem with that is his insanity is startlingly transparent. Everyone in this town is an idiot, and the only people who know Ely's secret are frustratingly ill-equipped in the brains department to do much with the knowledge.
The movie would be instantly written off if it were not for the presence of Dennis Quaid, who goes way over-the-top in a mostly goofy turn that might be amusing if it didn't seem so cartoonishly desperate; Quaid obviously knows he's in a stinker, so he does his damndest to infuse his scenes with some sort of crazed energy. (As admirable as it is unproductive.) That's more than can be said for the rest of the performances, which range from forgettable to barely adequate. None of the kids, good-natured as they are, can distinguish themselves, although nothing substantial is handed to them to work with. (A weird choice made by director Guigui is to cast his three young male characters with similar-looking actors, resulting in a serious bout of "which one is which?" confusion in the early going.) You can't blame the cast for not coming across more memorably, and in Quaid's case, you can't blame him for evidently losing his mind in the midst of a laughable, fruitless project.