With eyes wide and mouth agape, Dennis Quaid has a tendency throughout Beneath the Darkness to resemble a wall-mounted rubber fish, one which would occasionally come to life to spout corny lines whenever snooping teens come within his periphery. It’s a persistently goofy performance worthy of late-era Anthony Perkins, but he’s the sole sign of life in this otherwise dull and derivative thriller.
Quaid plays Vaughn Ely, mortician in the small town of Smithville, TX and all-around creepy-nice guy. Only nosy high schoolers Travis (Tony Oller), Abby (Aimee Teegarden), Danny (Devon Werkheiser) and Brian (Stephen Lunsford) suspect that something’s up when they see the widower dancing in silhouette with a mystery woman. Sure enough, the man is keeping company with corpses, and he doesn’t take kindly to the wolf-crying quartet.
The screenplay by the late Bruce Wilkinson unsubtly weaves references to “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Macbeth” into a story that already evokes, knowingly or not, the superior likes of Psycho, Rear Window, The Vanishing, Mr. Brooks and little-seen Aussie thriller Acolytes. It might be less for naught if director Martin Guigui brought an ounce of flair or tension to the flat script and clearly skimpy budget. Our mopey lead Oller is prone to needless, nutty flashbacks to the childhood trauma of his sister’s death, and only he and Teegarden manage to deliver their stale dialogue above the level of community theater.
Well, that’s counting out Quaid. Armed with an electronic cigarette, an endless array of sweater vests and more manic energy than anyone else around (which is not the same as menace), his Ely is the type of villain who quips that he’s got tickets to the gun show before actually pulling a handgun on his first victim. But he’s a local hero, a former football star who keeps inquiring cops too occupied with tales of the glory days for them to notice the teen trapped in a coffin just beneath their feet. One officer even goes so far as to rustle the tarp covering the spot for several seconds – suspense!
The veteran actor serves as an oasis of overzealous line readings in a sea of Scooby-Doo-level shenanigans, and only his last scene, the film’s final moments, tip the tone in favor of his campy antics. If Darkness had bothered to go whole-hog and focus on a lunatic lurking among the unsuspecting community instead of a Breakfast Club trying to out him in predictable fashion, this might have become a more entertaining footnote in the careers of all involved. As of now, it’s a bore sprinkled with hints of hilarity, soon to be buried like so many of its characters.