Beneath the Darkness - Dennis Quaid and Timothy Fall
Ely Vaughn (Dennis Quaid) is the kind of nasty mortician who makes unfortunates like Jack (Timothy Fall) dig their own graves © 2011 Image Entertainment

Dennis Quaid has more fun as a mad mortician than any of the nosy teenage stiffs do in this otherwise lifeless low-budget thriller.

In a performance that comes off like an extended George W Bush impersonation, Quaid plays Texas undertaker Ely Vaughn as a crazy-eyed good ol’ boy with enough smarts to know when to play dumb. On a dark country lane one night, neighbor Jack offers Ely condolences on the recent loss of his wife.

Ely reacts rather ungraciously by pulling out a handgun. He then walks Jack to a nearby cemetery and makes him dig his own grave, telling Jack he knows the reason why. As for what happens next, let’s just say the two of them don’t end up laughing about the experience and sharing a beer.

Unfortunately, front-loading the movie with a killer scene like that one ensures audiences will get bored sitting through a lot of smalltown-teens stuff waiting for the next incident of entertaining unpleasantness. But when we jump to two years later, the movie switches focus to a foursome of high-schoolers with various who-cares academic and interpersonal problems.

Ghost-hunting high schoolers Danny (Devon Werkheiser), Brian (Stephen Lunsford) and Abby (Aimee Teegarden) get a look at Ely Vaughn's rather well-preserved wife © 2011 Image Entertainment

Things threaten to get interesting when Travis (Tony Oller), the most moody and mature of the bunch, tells cheerleader Abby (Aimee Teegarden of TV’s Friday Night Lights) about the time he saw spirits taking his dying sister’s soul.

That turns out to be nothing but a tease, because nothing more is done with that element of the story.

The misty black creatures we see in an effectively eerie flashback never reappear to torment anyone, save the day or prove that Travis didn’t make them up.

Along with friends Danny the runt (Devon Werkheiser) and Brian the jock (Stephen Lunsford), Travis and Abby spy on Ely’s house one night and see dancing silhouettes in an upstairs window. Instead of assuming the figures are those of Ely and (a) a woman, (b) a mannequin or (c) a corpse, the teens for some reason leap to the conclusion that both dancers must be ghosts. Scooby-Doo cartoons had more logical plots than this.

The teens investigate, Ely retaliates and things escalate. Unfortunately, Ely and the teens seem to think they are in two very different movies. Ely’s camp-fest would have been the better one to pursue, if the filmmakers had decided to go totally tongue-in-cheek.

Where the teens are flat, angsty and generally humorless, Ely gets off one-liners like “most accidents happen in the home” before snapping one of their necks. Later, looking at an extremely decomposed body, Ely recoils and theatrically remarks, “I’m a mortician, and that makes ME gag!”

Ely also is given a simple but memorable visual trademark: He’s nearly always smoking an electric cigarette that has an ominously glowing blue tip. Next year’s perfect Halloween accessory!

A climactic graveyard scene seems headed toward a gruesome plot twist that doesn’t materialize, making the almost feel-good ending seem like a cop out. Ely does manage to get the last word before the credits roll, however, in a bizarre addressing-the-audience moment that breaks format with the rest of the film.

Quaid has so much nuttily nasty fun with his first-ever bad-guy role that he almost makes up for the movie’s shortcomings. Almost.

[Rating: 2 stars]

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer. More by James Dawson