Beneath Us All

Beneath Us All (2023)

It is not every film set on the wooded outskirts of present-day Oakland, Maine that opens somewhere in the Scandinavia of 912 AD, yet Harley Wallen’s Beneath Us All, scripted by Brett Miller, finds obscure connections between these different places and times. After the bloody murder of a child, Vikings hunt down, injure and encase the still-living vampiric Frey (Yan Birch), and then convey the closed coffin by longboat as far away from their own home as is possible, burying it across the Atlantic in Vinland – where the predatory creature that it contains will eventually, over a millennium later, be unearthed and unleashed to kill again.

The discoverer of the coffin is Julie (Angelina Danielle Cama), and if she is about to set in motion its occupant’s monstrous metamorphosis, she is also on the cusp of her own personal transformation. Nearly 18, Julie is drifting into adulthood with little idea of who she wants to be or where she wants to go. A natural nurturer, she keeps an eye out for her younger fellow foster siblings Stephen (Malachi Myles), Sarah (Hanna Wallen) and Erica (Emilia Wallen) – and so she is both echoed and foreshadowed by the adolescent Viking woman in the film’s prologue who is also in charge of a younger brother.

When Julie finds an injured bird in the field, she brings it home and puts it in a cardboard box, hoping to nurse it back to health – but her foster father Todd (Sean Whalen) kills the bird with a spade, exclaiming in a rage: “You bring this into my house, this germ-infested animal!…  I don’t care about this bird. I care about this house.” Yet for all Todd’s cruelty in dealing with the ailing bird, the sequel will prove him right. For Julie will chance upon another abandoned creature (with whom she cannot help but identify), and in ignoring her foster father’s warnings and once again bringing it home with her, she will expose herself and her whole family to the disinterred and fast recovering Frey, with deadly consequences.

Todd and his wife Janelle (Maria Olsen) cut ambiguous figures. They are themselves collectors and carers of the abandoned, having fostered some fifty children over the last 15 years, but they have also had past run-ins with the law – Janelle has a ‘drug paraphernalia charge’ on her record, while Todd was once incarcerated for aggravated assault, and still has gambling problems. Together they run their household with what might at best be described as tough love, at worst an iron fist – and while Todd does not sexually abuse his wards, he does occasionally lash out in anger and hit them. Julie hates him – and Rebecca (Kaiti Wallen), the social worker newly assigned to the Gibbs family, also has immediate misgivings about Todd and Janelle’s fitness as foster parents, and worries about neglected Julie’s future.

So Beneath Us All is certainly a creature feature, complete with gore and a body count – but it is also, as its universalising title implies, an allegory of the base capacity, hidden in everyone, for destructive behaviour and breaking bad. In a transitional stage, Julie is awakening not just the monster in the coffin, but the beast within, as she, along with Todd and Janelle in their different ways, must grapple with inner urges and appetites in order to cling onto a vestige of humanity. These struggles, whether experienced by old Vikings or modern Americans, turn out to be timeless, as we all either bury or face our demons. 

strap: In Harley Wallen’s creature feature, a fostered teen, on her confused path to adulthood, opens a buried box and breaks bad

© Anton Bitel