The Macabre Brothers share an affinity for bargain-bin horror films. It’s actually more like an addiction – hardly a month goes by without one of us wasting $5 on some dubious DVD title. Such impulse buys may not deserve a full review, but like porn, they’re worth a quick and shameful glance. In Basement Ramblings, we answer your most meaningful question: Is this month’s piece of crap worth the price of a Big Mac?
The premise: As tempting as it is to quote Beneath the Mississippi’s black-and-white intro verbatim – it says everything and nothing about the film, a miraculous yet somehow fitting feat – I’ll parse through this oddity of no-budget cinema from scratch. A young documentary filmmaker (Ariadne Shaffer) returns to her hometown in Podunk, Mississippi to investigate news stories about mysterious disappearances in the surrounding swamps. She hardly believes they’re unrelated: In the mid-1920’s, just as bootlegging hit its Prohibition-era peak, the local vice king discovered his teenage son having an affair with one of his prostitutes. Shortly after the father/gangster put an end to this underaged boning, the prostitute committed suicide and a flood decimated the town, leaving no survivors or *dun dun* bodies. Nevermind the very loose connections at play – the documentarian believes in the legend of a malevolent, apparently magical whore, and that’s all this film needs. Like The Blair Witch Project on a boat, she assembles a rag-tag team to explore the eerie swamp just as its supernatural powers hit a boiling point.
Where I found it: At Walmart in a 15 pack of B-movies for the low, low price of $5, proving that even aspiring filmmakers get screwed by Walmart. Expect the remaining 14 films to dominate this column for a minute, by which I mean months.
Why it caught my eye: Two trusted sources recommended it based solely on the name, and I really can’t blame them – Beneath the Mississippi sounds more promising than Final Spawn. Other than that, not much.
What works: I wanted to like this film. I really, really did, and not just because I have a soft spot for indie horror. Sure, the overarching story is kind of dumb, but at least it takes the Southern-fried setting of a turd like Creature and presents it in a naturalistic way. The opening scene borders on blandly ignorant – “Hey, look at these toothless rednecks getting drunk!” – but the rest of the film is very low-key, making legitimate comparisons to The Blair Witch Project hard to avoid. There’s a team of fragile strangers, the mysterious allure of wilderness, foreboding legends, paranoia, isolation, yelling. Beneath the Mississippi thankfully forgoes the shaky-cam, but nearly all the other pieces are in place, and they occasionally inspire the same sense of slow-burning dread found in Blair Witch.
It’s clear director Lonnie Schuyler (“known” for his role as Alan Ross on Melrose Place) and co-writer Jon Hazell take their film very seriously. It occasionally works in their favor, like a genuinely disturbing sequence in which one crewmember force-feeds another when she refuses to eat. It’s the sort of horror indie directors can do so well – the basics of day-to-day life made frightening by circumstance – and the film thankfully never relies on jump scares or cheap thrills. The threat of ghosts or alligators or whatever is always present, but in its best moments, the crewmembers and their fragile psyches are the real source of anxiety.
What sucks: For all the promising elements, Beneath the Mississippi is never entertaining. Never. Who knows what could be done in different hands, but all the failed scares relate back to a maddeningly inept script. There’s very little continuity from scene to scene, and in a slow-burning horror film, pacing is invaluable. When the hunger-strike crewmember encounters a ghost or some shit (it’s never clear), the individual frames are incredibly haunting, but the scene as a whole is too choppy and disoriented to disturb. There’s a decent story lurking somewhere beneath the murky surface of this film, one about returning to a place both repulsive and magnetic (home, perhaps?). But much like whatever the hell haunts the documentary crew, it’s too vague and half-baked to resonate.
Beyond the narrative, Mississippi is noticeably an amateur film. Schuyler’s knack for framing scenes is impressive, but he bathes every shot in a heinous sepia tint, like some Instagram-obsessed hipster. The sound editing and mastering is also hit-or-miss – apparently there’s such a thing as overusing bird chirps for filler – and the acting itself doesn’t quite sell as naturalistic. More often than not, the actors seem either bored or aggravated by all the horrors they kinda-sorta see. Not a good omen.
Verdict: I wouldn’t recommend it per se, but it’s a decent workshop film for student filmmakers. There’s a difference between enlightened filmmaking and technical skill – Beneath the Mississippi is a so-so example of the latter.
Incidentally, this film breaks my streak of basement ramblings films that happen to feature c-list celebs. I’ve now officially entered the bleak abode of true miraculous shit — the films that were just good enough to make it by, but more than bad enough to never go anywhere else
Comments from my roommate: Think this is a serial killer thing or a ghost thing? Answer: probably neither – maybe it’ll be dumb like creature. Roommate: I’m going with serial killer. Answer: You didn’t hear what i said, huh? Roommate: Nope. Start the movie.
Begins with shady black and white opening, tells history of a business man and some other context
Somebodies wife died. Wah wah
Oh, so to make up for the wife dying, prohibition hits and booze mixed with prostitutes is the answer
So the premise is, prostitue falls in love with dudes son, son runs away, prositute hangs herself, flood rolls through town and no bodies are found
Roommate can’t handle how this film is shot – i disagree, it’s very indie feeling. close cameras with a very dedicated aesthetic
Pacing is a bit off — it’s not quite choppy, but so far, it’s been hard to understand some of the stylistic choices. Maybe I’ll have to get used to a directing style
Music is pretty good — very haunting without being overbearing, simple melodies repeated over and over like Freddy or Jason soundtracks
Also, I may be a little stoned rigght now — whoops
Odd observation, but i can’t read a damn thing the credits say. Sorry for the people who never got credit
The sound mixing is pretty awful…but i still stand by the cinamatography. I think this shit is well shot, and the director takes his time arranging frames and letting static shots establish setting. Well done.
One gripe against the filming: It’s very dark, even in outside twilight shots. Theres a difference between a meaningful silhouette and a badly-light shot. And I know my TV is calibrated right cuz my damn video games are crisp
****I think these filmmakers may have had a case of overexpposure. When you create something, you spend so much time with it — working and editing and rearranging and questioning — that the final product doesn’t shine. it needs a fresh set of eyes. The pacing, construction and general feel of this film is of one person’s unhindered vision. There were no checks and balances to ensure watchability. Who knows — maybe it will reveal layers in time, but it doesn’t feel that way.
– title card about 10 minutes in after a bizarre scene at a southern bar — maybe it was our main character’s past hangout, but i couldn’t tell
– sounds like a filmmaker has returned to her southern hometown to investigate a few weird disappearances around her hometown. She hired a couple
– It’s almost creature from the black lagoon style…the boat is what set it off: flat deck boat, netting over the back half, small crew, i’m sure some tourists are camping out with cameras somewhere in there
Funny how a scene-setting bit with the microphone exists, seeing as how the sound is the worst part of this film.
*****I think I’m going to need a bit of patience. I’m not sure what i was expecting, but it wasn’t ghosts or creatures or anything else. To be honest, this film has me a bit uneasy — it’s very slow and slice-of-life at the moment, and the shooting style with bare bones characterization brings to mind Blair Witch Project or Trollhunter. i had to give all those a minute to rest, so maybe the same should apply here.
It should be noted my roommate has fallen asleep. Maybe the pacing is tooooo slow
See new article saying “Ghosts of the Mississippi” – foreboding
I love how portions of the southern swamps and bayous look like straight Jurassic landscapes. I think you automatically get points for filming there, even with the rash of recent southern-based films and TV shows.
Very sparse and dialogue free – – lets the setting and action speak for itself, along with those sound effects. They’re getting better, but slowly
But OH SHIT we have a dead body in the swamp
*****Ok, the cinematography is fine, but the coloring is just heinous. it’s like someone shot the entire thing through an instagram filter
Two dudes (we still don’t know their names at 20 mins in) have brought an annihiliated boat into the main boat — some very ominous music is playing in the background, but for whatever reason, this film crew is being very blaise about potential evidence for their film
actually, in all honesty, the only reason i know they’re a film crew is cuz imdb told me so — the scene with the microphone and filming equipment might not have meant anything to me otherwise
Ok, for as awful as the coloring is, few things are creepier than seeing desolate stretches of the Mississippi river as a white, shimmeringsheet
It also has a very Heart of Darkness feel — maybe it’s the setting, but I also think it’s the day-to-day life of a river boat. These guys have to drag it through portion too shallow for the propeller
heh…name of boat model is aqua patio. These fools are so poor they had to rent a vacationer boat
Well dammit, i was praising the soundtrack before it devolved into a bunch of ominous tones like the dude from Forgetting Sarah Marshall
******And here we have it: another b film that just reminds me of all the better films I could be watching, even if they’re marginally funny Judd Apatow films. oy
Anyway, homeboy (still no name) lost his wallet in the water. Why he’s concerned, aside from photos of his wife — whom we also don’t know — I’ll never understand. Why we’re so concerned he deicded to dive underwater, I’ll definitely understand: the film needs drama. It needs someone to go in the bayou, like(yet another marginally superior show) that shit where they noodle for catfish
******Ok, maybe he isn’t searching for his wallet, but still — wouldn’t have known otherwise. We as an audience are never given any “order to this madness” right as the chick says it. There’s a difference between showing the tip of the iceberg and floating an ice cube on the surface: one shows how insubstantial it really is pretty quickly, even if it seems to be deeper at first
Roomate wakes up and says: So I hear there are bull sharks on that river. you gotta be careful, homeboy.
– maybe that’s what this film is about. fucking bull sharks
These two guys are always wandering off in a canoe to do….something, but i don’t know what. Walk through poop? Literally, he just said that, before tripping and falling in poop
Orrrrrr….he fell into a face? The cutting was timed to badly to even tell
And now we’re talking about The Conjuring. I hear good things, but honestly, the commercials have made me leary. maybe they tried to overplay the cheesy 70s horror aspect instead of letting it just be what it was, a legitimate 70s horror fest. Wish the theaters in the mountains even played that shit.
Scorecard: At about 30 minutes in, one crew member is convinced of ghosts, the other three don’t believe him, but the chick charge is having nightmares. Also, one lost wallet. Sounds like a night in Vegas
Funny thing is, when you pauyse these movie, each individual frame looks gorgeous. It’s just that the storytelling is so odd and slow we never get any sense of WHY it should be beautiful
WE get these occasional updates via handheld recorder from the narrator chick (shades of marlow or martin sheen in apocalypse now?) but they tell us little except for update what’s happening. Pretty useless
Kind of a cool cut between man playing harmonica and embers in a fire glowing hot — I always thought the two made perfect matches, but i’ve never seen them placed side by side
So, the night before this, someone started dancing like a possessed man, the narator freaked on him, then it cut to the next day. A ghost may have also come out of the water. Who knows — either way, it’s not very
hey, oh hey, we have a name — dude with the ponytail is Jack. Not like that ridiculously generic name will help, but still. at least someone has something
Finally we have an answer for all the beers someone was drinking. Dude flips out, tries telling people to fuck off, “i have one goddamn thing in this place to keep me sane” whatever
So a dude is walking around with an axe now, but i;m not sure why — for what reason is he doing it?
*****This movie really does take the worst aspects of indie horror and accentuate them to the most unbearable level: barebones plotting, obscured scares, funky setting, small cast, ominous but low key dangers, crazy people, isolation, what have you
On a side note, lots of people are chopping wood in this movie. Maybe we’re supposed to intuit that the hatchet will be later used?
Well, the first reveal of a legitimate ghost is not handled well. I enjoy films that use silence and pacing to develop a good scare, but something about this one was just off. As i said before the visual itself was pretty freakty if you pause it, but lead-up left a lot to be desired
Another name: David. again, generic as all hell
Maybe I’m ignorant, or the name of the film doesn’t make sense, but how stranded or lost or whatever can you really get on the mississippi river? unles, of course, i missed that they were somehow on a part where no one ever goes, which makes sense but was still never explicitly mentioned.
Roommate: what the fuck is up with all these birds?
– note: the filmmakers fill about 7-10 mins of the 2 hour running time with stock footage of birds, so it’s not as random as it sounds
– also, the majority of sound effects include birds in the background
Like right now: dudes come back from the land and i have no idea what they found. A boat? a body? a tarp?
****Quick way to look crazy: dive headfirst into the swamp with a knife in your teeth
– don’t know if it was david or jack — think it was jack — but still, crazy
– nevermind, it was matt, the one dude we hadn’t met yet
There is some real talent on display here, especially in lighting, cinematography and, despite the clusterfuck of a narrative, directing
– truth is, pacing has been a major factor, but i think that’s the fault of a bad script if i find out the director also wrote this bitch, i’ll have a difft opinion. in the meantime, nada
Last note: roommate left right as matt, the crazy knife-teeth guy reapperas to warm the dark haired chick that things are going downhill
******“Are your starting to take a certain familiarity with your surroundings?”
– I think the screenwriter wanted us to become afraid of the setting, almost see the character be driven insane by the space itself like the shining or the descent. trouble is, i have a hard time buying the slow-burning insanity of this place. Its a swamp and isolated and supposedly haunted and has dead bodies, but so much of this movie has been slice of life, that nothing is ever highlighted. it’s like someone made a documentary and forgot to give it a narrative. maybe that works for an experiment, but it doesn’t work for the horror genre in particular, when scares are at a premium and require build up. Even indie directors like Ty West or that fool from murder party understand all the off-kilter bullshit needs a grounding device.
Ok, here could be a wrinkle: maybe the narrator didn’t tell her film crew they were going somewhere haunted, which sounds pretty ludicrous since they’re supposedly locals. but then again, maybe they aren’t, but that sure as hell wasn’t made clear in the beginning.
Did david (ponytail?) and the narrator have something going on at some point? I don’t even understand the basic relationships, let alone the scares
********Homeboy is gonna kill his girlfriend/ love interest/ maybe just a friend who’s a girl by forcing food into her mouth
– ok, that’s kind of a fun, scary moment, watching someone have food shoved in their mouth
I think this movie may also suffer from having too large of a cast. Take blair witch: seeing three people slowly lose it makes a bit of sense, like the fewer the dominoes, the more likely they are all to fall. In this film, you have more dominoes, so the sheer odds one person won’t lose their mind is greater. who knows though
**********One funny thing I just noticed, and one thing that almost makes me feel like a hypocrite, is i’ve been trying to confine this film to single genre (slasher, ghost, creature, whatever). At least it has the heightened ambition to go for abstract scares and never name what’s the threat. A nice change from a film with a much better overall feel (boogeyman), but similar narrative failings
Theres a lot of flashy cuts and quite shit happening, but none of it makes sense. The editing is kind of shit too….about time to look up the director, since he had final say over the whole damn hang
Ah hell — the director Lonnie Schuyler cowrote the script, so he had some idea of how incomprehensible it was. then again, maybe he had BLIND UNDERGRAD SYNDROME, which is the term i’m giving my thoughts from earlier on people who don’t have enough artistic talent or outside input to truly make something shine
anyway, some shit is going down and i have no idea why….we’ve got a dead crewmwmber who comes back to life, a narrator who keeps obssessing over news clippings, a man who screams helicopter sounds (cuz we still need to show how close they are to civilization) and what have you. Still, nothing about this has been remotely disturbing or thought provoking. mostly confusing.
So, one of the dudes dumped gas on the narrator chick and lit a match. Shes going to fry, but not reall — he decided not to burn her after all, and now she’s having visions of her friends rising up from the water, even though she didn’t know yet any of them were dead. lots of greaky shit, and iu’m sure she’s connected to it all somehow through ancestry, but the bottom. line it is don’t give a shit
This is what happens when self serious shows its boring underside
For a secind there, it seemed like the narrator chick had alwas been dead, was a victim of the original flooding — i think that’s true, but the suggestions are so slight as to be incomprehensible
Final shot indicative of whole movie: girl slowly rows boat away with a sepia filter, followed by awful, obnoxious quick cuts of meaningless newspaper clippings, plus shots of a dead serious face. point is, this film spent a lot of sweet ass time being stylistic and bizarre, without ever actually doing anyting. Rowing a boat is cool and all, but if you want to go somewhere, strap on a motor (figurative or otherwise)