Friday, February 15, 2013

BEAST BENEATH (2011) movie review

Beast Beneath
d. Higgins, Julian (USA)

Also known as The Curse of Griffith Park (the title that comes up during the closing credits) and The Wrath (which actually boasts its own 2007 IMDb credit), this long-shelved creature feature purports to be “based on the terrifying true tale” of the ghost of Don Antonio Feliz, the original owner of the Los Angeles property eventually purchased by Col. Griffith J. Griffith in 1882.

But in Hollywood, as we all know, “based on” takes on a very liberal definition – here, father/son writing team of Bertie and Julian Higgins would have us believe that Feliz’s ghost also manifests itself as a big sorta wolfie thing with big claws and great gnashing teeth living in Bronson Canyon (in the old BatCave, no less). To further inflate the whopper, we’re introduced to Feliz’s great grand-niece Angelina (Kristina Morales) who possesses an old family heirloom music box – wouldn’t you know it, inside said tune cube is a map written in ancient Spanish dialect directing the reader to a hidden treasure, yep, in the BatCave.

Angelina and her gringo boyfriend Derek (Daniel Bonjour) are now on the hunt, inadvertently tipping off a duplicitous linguistics professor (Kurt Sinclair) when they visit him for translation assistance. The race is on to see who will find the buried booty and who will end up as beast nibblings. Oh, did I mention that the entire affair is handled as a wraparound campfire ghost tale from a father to his son?

The old fashioned goofiness of the yarn is actually one of its stronger suits; to be honest, things start off relatively promising with a fully realized and beautifully shot flashback sequence showing Don Antonio on his deathbed as his family is fleeced out of their inheritance by a crooked solicitor (Luis Fernandez-Gil).

When the will is challenged in court, a crookeder judge upholds the flim-flam artist’s ruling. Shamed and helpless, the remaining Feliz child, Soledad (Gloria Casteneda), curses the court and its inhabitants. Soon the judge keels over, the solicitor shoots his partner, and is subsequently attacked by a large scruffy hellhound. You don’t mess with the Feliz clan, folks.

It’s in the modern sequences, which constitute the majority of the feature, that Beast slowly and inexorably runs out of juice. The story might have withstood its creakiness had the performances been a little stronger, but from the get-go it’s clearly amateur hour with the primary offender being none other than our producer/co-writer Higgins the Elder.

As “Homeless George,” Bertie jumps and giggles and prances and mugs and rolls his eyes until you want to reach into the screen and throttle him into submission. The other performances all simmer at the endurable level, especially for the low budget constraints, but one wishes Julian would have kept a tighter rein on the old man. (Watching the campfire scene between real-life father/son Mike and Philip Agresta, I had to wonder if the strained conviviality of the two generations of Higgins were being accurately portrayed. “Sure, dad, whatever you want to do…”)

This all could have been a moot point had Larry Bones’ special effects not been so underwhelming. His latex wound work definitely passes muster, even if it rarely distinguishes itself, but our monster dog costume leaves much to be desired. To be honest, I can’t properly attribute the beast to Bones since his credit only reads “Special Effects by…,” but until he steps forward to clear his name he’s going to have to live with it. Monster movies often live or die by their titular terrors – suffice to say that the less we see of this particular hairy scary, the better.

The drippy hydra-headed denouements don’t help much either – at one point I slapped my forehead so hard I saw stars. (Two words: Wacky Nuns. Here’s two more: Pirate Cruise.) One has to wonder if it was Julian or Bertie Higgins who came up with this, or Ron Kurtz, Larry Madill and/or Kevin Brooks, who are credited with "Additional scenes by..."

Even so, if you’re feeling less than discriminating and are in the mood to watch a modern day ghost tale with a lycanthropic spin, plus a dollop of Southern Californian history on the side, this just might serve the turn.

BEAST BENEATH is now available for purchase on Amazon or at eOne Films

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