It's no secret that tone and treatment can provide radically different takes on a genre. It is somewhat surprising to see that happen in the span of a single movie though. Director Steven C. Miller's Under the Bed is a creature feature all the way through. Due to a sudden shift fairly late in the game, it just ends up feeling like two different creature features. The first 70 minutes are relatively tame with strained familial relationships taking prominence over the slowly building feelings of menace and disquiet. Then, without warning the final 15 minutes explode with gore, tension and fantasy. It's an odd mix that requires patience on the part of horror fans.
The film starts with an awkward conversation between Neal (Jonny Weston) and his dad (Peter Holden). Neal's returning home after an extended stay at his aunt's place which was prompted by his part in an unfortunate accident that claimed his mother's life. His dad wants him back home but can't really overlook how the family has been torn apart. As you can imagine, there is plenty of blame and guilt on both sides of this equation. At least Neal has a good reason to come back home; his younger brother Paulie (Gattlin Griffith). Sure he'll have to contend with his new step-mom (Musetta Vander) but all things considered, she seems pretty nice (at least nicer than his own dad).
Oh, and one more thing. There's a creature living under Neal's bed that wants to kill him (way to bury the lead, huh?). This explains Neal's reluctance to step foot inside his own house. The creepy music swells, the walls close around him and you can sense that he is right back in the spot that he was trying so hard to escape from. Paulie doesn't have it any easier since dad (in all of his infinite wisdom) stuck him in Neal's room after big bro got sent away. This means he's sleeping on Neal's old bed. Correction: he's lying awake at night in stark terror (because that damn creature wants to kill him too) on Neal's old bed. With both brothers united against a common enemy, nothing (not unfeeling, ignorant parents; not night after night of insomnia) can stand in their way…right?
Here's the thing about Under the Bed. Despite the whiplash inducing tonal shift of the climax, there are a number of positive elements that give this film some redeeming value. The performances from our two leads, Jonny Weston and Gattlin Griffith, are believable and genuine. I bought them as brothers (riding their bikes down the street, just adorable in a totally 80s way) while also noting their individual strengths. Weston has a frazzled Corey Haim thing going on that works for him while Griffith is plucky without being annoyingly precocious (like so many child actors are). They complement each other in a way that keeps the lengthy buildup from ever feeling boring. The other major factor going in this film's favor is the reckless energy that permeates the climax (more on that in a second).
I know I said the buildup wasn't boring but it also hits some rough patches with getting to where Eric Stolze's screenplay wants to go. Rules are established around the creature (apparently it hates light) but they are ignored when a scare has to be set up (how did it get to the garage to scare Neal's step-mom and why is this never referred to again?). Theories about its methods are also posed (from invading nightmares a la Freddy Krueger to tracking dead cell deposits on bed sheets) only to be left hanging. It's as if Miller and Stolze want to craft a mythology for their creature but don't want to paint themselves into a corner in case the film's tiny budget can't support it. This probably explains why our lone look at the creature's world under Neal's bed is so fleeting.
Beyond the plot-based nitpicks I mentioned, my biggest concern is that the film just feels disjointed. The climax is fast-paced gory fun but it doesn't really fit with the measured, atmospheric setup that got us there. Either the low-key cerebral approach could have been followed through to the end or some of the crazier fantasy elements could have been introduced earlier. As it stands, Miller wants to have his immaculate cake and eat it as messily as possible. It's a worthwhile thought but the execution doesn't quite hold up.
The widescreen image is presented with anamorphic enhancement. Flesh tones were even and backgrounds exhibited sufficient fine detail. Deep shadows made Neal's house look mundane yet ominous at the same time. A few dimly lit shots showed excessive grain and banding but didn't really detract from the film overall. The practical effects employed for the creature and gore scenes were executed seamlessly and with great attention to detail. This is certainly impressive for a lower budget flick.
The audio is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround and 2.0 Stereo mixes without any subtitles. I chose to view the film with the surround mix and found it to be perfectly capable at conveying the dread-filled atmosphere that Miller was going for. Every creak and rustle in Neal's room comes through with alarming clarity. The squishy gore effects of the climax are also presented with wince inducing intensity. The rear surrounds aren't pushed too heavily but they certainly fill out the soundstage when needed. My only concern is that the dialogue was occasionally mixed a bit low. It was still audible but just barely.
The only extra is a Trailer.
Under the Bed certainly feels ambitious for a low budget horror flick. Unfortunately director Steven Miller and writer Eric Stolze have a tough time selecting a singular tone for their story which ends up hurting it in the end. The buildup is atmospheric and relies on two capable performances from its young leads but the climax goes in a much more amped up (and gory) direction that while fun on its own just doesn't fit with the whole. Horror fans will find enough here to at least make it a worthwhile watch. Overall, I would suggest that folks Rent It.