A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
As a horror spoof, "Beneath" is and isn't what it looks like. If you've ever seen "Jaws," or "Friday the 13th," you are already familiar with the film's plot. A group of dimwitted horny teenagers celebrate the end of high school with a canoe trip, but are attacked by a giant man-eating catfish. "Beneath" is similar to "Piranha 3D" in that its creators encourage viewers to roll their eyes at the movie's distressingly callow meat puppet protagonists. But "Beneath" fitfully succeeds where "Piranha 3D" failed. As shrill as it often is, the film's situational peril makes otherwise unlikable characters sympathetic, or maybe just sympathetic enough.
Director Larry Fessenden ("The Last Winter," "Wendigo") and screenwriters Tony Daniel and Brian D. Smith want you to simultaneously empathize with pubescent horndogs who think with their crotches, and chafe at the thought of spending more time trapped with them. The protagonists are more often insufferable than not, but "Beneath" is still a weirdly personal and thoughtful generic exercise.
At first, it's hard to tell how intentionally satirical "Beneath" is. The protagonists are introduced to us gracelessly by Zeke (Griffin Newman), a geeky aspiring filmmaker who thinks he's going to be the next great auteur. Zeke is and isn't a running joke. He cattily introduces us to all of his frenemies, including Matt (Chris Conroy), a jock who didn't make it as a football star, and Kitty (Bonnie Dennison), a flirtatious human accessory who has slept with almost everyone on the ship, including best friend Deborah (Mackenzie Rosman).
Zeke is a caricature of the self-involved, camera-wielding ciphers who film everything in contemporary horror films. He's the least likable character because he treats his friends like film subjects ("Thanks a lot, Matt. That's a really great scene."). He's the clearest indication that "Beneath" is not a straightforward, C-grade Spielberg rip-off. But once the film's monster catfish shows up, it's apparent that the film's creators aren't just messing with viewers. Fessenden and his two screenwriters take time make fun of the cookie-cutter nature of contemporary, SyFy Channel-ready horror films. But they're also working inside that well-worn template.