March 6, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Max Pachman
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror flick “Beneath Us” has a cast of white and Latino characters, with the whites representing the upper-class and the Latinos mostly representing the poor and working-class.
Culture Clash: White supremacists who hate undocumented Latino immigrants turn into their rage into something deadly.
Culture Audience: “Beneath Us” follows a lot of horror tropes about serial killers on a murderous rampage, but the movie will primarily appeal to viewers who like horror flicks to have an underlying social message.
If movies are a reflection of what’s going in society, then there must be a reason why there’s been a recent surge in movies about people being hunted down and killed just because they’re a certain race or represent a certain class of people. “Beneath Us,” the Brazilian film “Bacurau” and “The Hunt” all arrive in U.S. cinemas in the same month (March 2020). And all three of these movies have plots about white serial killers feeling they need to “eliminate” certain people whom they consider to be “undesirable” to society.
For the horror movie “Beneath Us” (directed by Max Pachman, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Mark Mavrothalasitis), the entire premise of the movie was already revealed in the trailer, so there’s no need to tiptoe and be coy about what this movie’s plot is. The only real spoiler information is revealing who survives in the story and who doesn’t.
Unlike writer/director Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning 2017 horror film “Get Out,” there’s absolutely no subtlety or mystery in “Beneath Us” about who the villains are and why they’re killing people. As seen in the “Beneath Us” trailer, there’s already been a body count before the story began, and the movie is just going to show more people getting killed.
So who are the targets of this murderous mayhem? The beginning of the film shows two Latino men trapped in a filthy underground bunker and trying desperately to get out. Most of the movie then shows how they got into this dire predicament. The title of the movie obviously has a double meaning: The captives are buried alive beneath their captors, and their captors think that their kidnapped prey are “beneath us” in America’s social hierarchy.
In the beginning of “Beneath Us,” viewers see that a young man named Memo (played by Josue Aguirre) is an undocumented immigrant who has recently crossed the border from Mexico into an unnamed U.S. city. He’s come to live with his older brother Alejandro (played by Rigo Sanchez), who also came into the U.S. illegally. Alejandro has been barely scraping by financially, by doing odds jobs that can pay in cash, such as construction and handyman work.
Alejandro has been living in the U.S. for about five or six years. He’s been sending money home to his wife and son in Mexico. Alejandro is also trying to save up enough money to pay for a hefty bribe to bring his wife and son over the border through an illegal underground network. It’s a network that exploits desperate immigrants by charging prices way beyond what most immigrants can afford, in order to smuggle them into the United States.
Upon arriving in the United States, Memo is constantly lectured by Alejandro about how they have to work hard to achieve the American Dream. Memo might have thought that living in the U.S. would be an exciting adventure for him. But he gets a rude awakening, because he and his brother have to spend long days and nights loitering outside certain places with other undocumented immigrants, in the hopes that people will hire them for odd jobs and contractor work.
Alejandro is part of a small group of other undocumented workers who work together on these jobs when they can. Memo joins this group, which includes cocky alpha male Hector (played by Roberto “Sanz” Sanchez) and his meek sidekick Tonio (played by Thomas Chavira). One day, while the four men are hanging out at a parking lot near a home-supply store, they get the attention of Liz Rhodes (played by Lynn Collins), who seems to be in the market for remodeling.
Liz has all the signs of being able to more than afford their services, so Hector approaches her and tells her that she can hire the four of them for a lot less than whatever she’s paying the contractor she originally hired. She looks at them briefly and says yes right away. She then immediately invites them over to her large home and drives the four men there herself. The home is in a somewhat isolated area, with a large field separating the house from the nearest neighbors. (Of course the house is somewhat isolated. This is a horror movie.)
From the beginning, Memo senses that something isn’t right about this woman. For starters, she said yes too quickly. She didn’t seem concerned about getting work references. And she had no qualms about bringing four male strangers into her home without knowing anything about them.
And perhaps out of desperation, the guys didn’t even ask for details about what kind of remodeling they would be doing. Hector just promised her that whatever she needed, they could get it done. Shortly after arriving at the home, Memo finds a building nail that’s encrusted with hair on it.
Meanwhile, Hector has his eye on Liz for a possible fling with this new boss, and he drops some not-so-subtle hints to Liz that he’s open to getting “fringe benefits” while on the job. Hector and Tonio also play Peeping Tom when they spy on Liz from afar in her bedroom window, as she’s toweling off after a shower. Hector’s hope for a sexual encounter with Liz is dashed when her husband, Ben Rhodes (played by James Tupper), arrives home and she kisses him lovingly in the driveway. Ben and Liz have no kids, but they have a German Shepherd that acts as a watchdog.
Hector wonders aloud to his co-workers, “What kind of man lets his woman pick up strangers? We could be psychos.” Memo replies, “How do we know they’re going to pay us?” It won’t be long before the four unlucky men find out who the psychos are.
Through Liz’s conversation with a real-estate agent over the phone and later when he comes to visit, viewers find out that Liz and Ben Rhodes have become rich by flipping houses (remodeling homes to sell them for much higher prices) and have about 10 properties that they’ve flipped so far.
Liz (who’s the dominant partner in the marriage) has the four laborers working non-stop all day and through the night. When they collapse from exhaustion and fall asleep on the property, she wakes them up by turning a water hose on them. Her pleasant demeanor from earlier in the day is completely gone, and she shouts at them that they won’t get paid unless they finish the work.
This is where the Dumb Decisions People Make in Horror Movies start to kick in for “Beneath Us.” Memo tells the other guys that they should all just cut their losses and leave, because he thinks they’re being set up and won’t get paid. But he’s outvoted by the other guys, who think that they’ve already come this far, and all they have to do is finish the work to get the money.
It never occurs to these supposedly experienced laborers that anyone unethical enough to treat them like slaves and make them work non-stop is someone who has no intention of paying. Perhaps the movie wants us to believe that because they’re undocumented immigrants, they’ve left their common sense behind when they crossed the border.
The next day, Tonio accidentally injures one of his hands while using a construction tool. Instead of letting him get medical attention, Liz tells the men that she can’t let them leave because they’ll all get in trouble because of the workers’ illegal immigration status. She tells them that calling an ambulance or taking Tonio to a clinic would require paperwork and identification, and the men admit that they don’t have any of the proper documentation.
And even if they wanted to leave, they couldn’t, as the men soon discover that there’s a high electrical fence surrounding the property that’s ready to electrocute them if they try to climb it. And then Liz and Ben show the men their guns and let them know that they won’t hesitate to use these weapons on them. Liz in particular takes pleasure in demeaning the men and hurling racist insults at them. At any rate, things turn very ugly and bloody very quickly.
As the thoroughly wicked and unhinged Liz Rhodes, Collins sometimes veers into a campy performance. At times, she literally cackles and howls like a witch. You almost expect her pull out a broom and witch’s hat while toting that gun around. Ben mostly takes orders from Liz, but he’s equally maniacal in his racist and violent agenda. This movie’s showdown of good versus evil is mostly predictable, but there are several moments of tension-filled suspense. It’s clear from the movie’s message that no matter what happens to these characters, the insidiousness of racism isn’t going away anytime soon.
New Mainstream Entertainment released “Beneath Us” in select U.S. cinemas on March 6, 2020.