What Lies Beneath
review by Elias Savada, 28 July 2000

That glorious gold on producer-director Robert (Forrest Gump) Zemeckis’ Oscar has turned to gloss-plated lead with What Lies Beneath, a turgid, never-say-die, and -- despite its pretentious homage to Hitchcock and King  -- occasionally scary vehicle. Thrilling and subtle it ain’t. What little tension the film held in it’s first hour turns to fog-and-mirror supernatural shenanigans and visual effects sleight of haunted house hand-held camera work that will make you genuinely squeal and your popcorn fly -- and not much else. When the final end comes (not the first, second, or third ending -- there may have been more, I lost count) a VERY long hour later, you’re left with an empty feeling of time and money not well spent, of suspense tossed to that wind scuttling the leaves. If you suffered through last year’s similarly spooky and equally crappy The Haunting, the result this go-round is just as barren.

Clark Gregg’s debut screenplay could have benefited from a chop-sock rewrite, lopping off a good thirty minutes filled with too many doors creaking open and a McGuffin stew of neighborly plot devices shamelessly going nowhere. Hitchcock had a knack for doing this right (Heck, he may be dead but he’s still the Master of Suspense. Thank God for film, video, and dvd’s!), and few have been able to follow in the shadow of his footsteps. As for diversionary tactics, Jake Kasdan did a better job back in early 1998 with his little remembered gem Zero Effect. What Lies Beneath easily misses by a fathom or two.

Megastars Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer are there for widescreen crowd appeal (and their fans showered them with more than thirty million dollars’ worth on opening weekend). Unfortunately both suffer anew after his recent romantic disasters (Random Hearts, Six Days/Seven Nights) and her underwhelming efforts (The Story of Us, The Deep End of the Ocean). Damn it, bring back Indiana Jones and give this man some real character! Zemeckis drags both actors through a glacially-paced story of deception and revenge, figuring the longer you have your talent on screen the more the audience gets to ogle at them. Not quite.

As Dr. Norman and Mrs. Claire Spencer, they live a surface New England postcard existence in a House and Garden lakeside fixer-upper, devoted and virile, but hiding some emotional baggage in their trunks (not too shabby there!). For beginners, she’s a nervous, over-protective mom recovering from a traumatic, year-old car accident and a tragedy that killed her first husband and doomed her budding career as a skilled cellist to a storage case in the basement. Whew. He’s an overworked university professor on the verge of a monumental genetics discovery, whose professional calling keeps him away at all hours. Oh brother. When their teenage daughter heads off to college, they become temporary empty-nesters, until she discovers a nasty ghost haunting their bath tub, knocking over picture frames, and performing other-world antics (but not playing Heart and Soul on her cello). Claire gets razzled and frantic, funks into a near nervous breakdown, and still has time to snoop on a perhaps murderous neighbor (James Remar in a role lost if you blink).

The rest of the supporting cast barely registers despite the film’s length. Diana Scarwid is Claire’s best friend’s Jody, a somewhat wacky divorcée who relishes in her ability to get a fashionable car from her ex. They play (Ouija) board games and read witchcraft for dummies before the script makes her disappear. Fourth-billed Joe Morton has two or three scenes as a shrink.

Norman (as in Norman Bates) isn’t all that normal himself and he gets to show his other side in the last horrifying hour. The film switches gears abruptly after Claire’s detective work (assisted by a microfilm reader, the internet, and some ghost writing from Madison Elizabeth Frank; i.e., the girl in the tub). There’s one startling sexy, possessive moment when Claire transforms into a sultry siren welcoming the man of the house with some baser instinct, leaving all the men in the audience hot and bothered. Pfeiffer has better moments and shows broader range than Ford, but neither gets good mileage out of this derivative ghost story stuff. Further harm was done when Dreamworks moronically mis-marketed the picture with a trailer that unveils a shocking (but not entirely unexpected) plot twist that was better left for the audience to discover.

Standard fright fare, and hardly inspiring. You’ll jump but you’ll catch no net with What Lies Beneath. Air ball.

Directed by:
Robert Zemeckis

Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Diana Scarwid, Joe Morton, James Remar, Miranda Otto, and Amber Valletta

Written by:
Clark Gregg

From a Story by:
Sarah Kernochan
Clark Gregg. 







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