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What Lies Beneath

Friday July 21, 2000

     Claire Spencer (Michelle Pfeiffer) looks to have an enviable life. Consider the stunning Vermont lakeside house, the sympathetic friend, the spacious SUV, the swell daughter who's just off to college. And the husband, don't forget about the husband.
     Norman Spencer (Harrison Ford), a brainy geneticist who heads his own university research lab, is also a ruggedly handsome type who still looks like he belongs in his Rolling Stones T-shirt. Norman and Claire make each other laugh, not to mention sharing an active romantic life. Think it's just a little too good to be true? You must have peeked at the title.
     For this new film by director Robert Zemeckis is not called "On the Surface" or "Appearance Is Reality" or even "What You See Is What You Get." No, this is "What Lies Beneath," and once its more-twists-than-a-Philadelphia-pretzel plot and "Scream"-for-adults scare moments finish unfolding, an awful lot will be called into question.
     In general outline, the film's Clark Gregg script (based on a story by Sarah Kernochan and Gregg) follows the classic Hollywood dynamic of presenting characters who seem better off than the audience but turn out to be in considerably more dire straits. Under the surface a lot more is going on--maybe even too much.
     For "What Lies Beneath" is several different films, some even contradictory, all trying to coexist, like the Israelis and the Palestinians--or "Scream" and "Poltergeist"--in the same physical space. It's not easy.
     On one hand, "Beneath" is a neo-Hitchcock suspense thriller with a Bernard Herrmann-esque score by Alan Silvestri accentuating a brisk succession of bump-in-the-dark moments. But while Hitchcock in general scorned the supernatural, this film shoehorns the ingredients of an old-fashioned dark-and-stormy-night ghost story into its plot dynamic.
     "Beneath's" cultural politics are equally divided. On one side you have the traditional movie exploitation of a defenseless-looking woman (well-played, as per usual, by Pfeiffer), pale and fragile in her nightgown or in a bathtub, very much in peril. But the film simultaneously takes a protofeminist stance, implying that no horror is greater than what men do to women and mocking those who underestimate a woman's strength or try to dismiss genuine concerns as a warped bid for attention or a product of the empty-nest syndrome.
     The only thing holding all this together, and it is no small task, is Zemeckis' directing skills. An Oscar winner for "Forrest Gump," Zemeckis has apparently long had a yen to do a tale of suspense, and his impressive filmmaking and storytelling gifts make this one efficient, at least from moment to moment. Working with his regular team, including cinematographer Don Burgess and editor Arthur Schmidt, Zemeckis has gotten the placement of those squeal-inducing surprises (the Audrey Hepburn-starring "Wait Until Dark" is more of a model than Hitchcock) down to such a precise science that the film feels genetically engineered. But though Zemeckis gets a lot out of this scenario, "What Lies Beneath" is not completely persuasive.
     Initially, the only blemish on Claire's life, aside from the departure of daughter Caitlin (Katharine Towne), are Mary and Warren Feur (Miranda Otto and James Remar), new neighbors who have a weakness for abusive arguments in the driveway. One day, having a little cry on her own, Claire hears a sobbing Mary and has a brief conversation with what is from all appearances a quite terrified woman. Who promptly disappears.
     Though the evidence seems flimsy to Norman, way preoccupied with putting the final touches on a genetic breakthrough that will put humanity deeply in his debt, Claire is soon convinced that Mary is the victim of foul play and that husband Warren is the foul player. She enlists Jody (Diana Scarwid), the flaky pal every movie heroine needs, to help her, even buying a Ouija board at the local Wal-Mart to assist with her investigations.
     If nothing else, the state of things in Claire's own house would make a person suspicious. There are radios that turn themselves on, doors that won't stay closed, pictures that fall again and again, places a suspicious dog simply won't go and a bathroom that gets as foggy as 221B Baker St. With neither Sherlock Holmes nor Bill Murray's Ghostbusters available to investigate, Claire must get to the bottom of this on her own.
     Spooky with a polished kind of creepiness added in, "What Lies Beneath" nevertheless feels more planned than passionate, scary at points but unconvincing overall. With questionable character motivations and a heavy dependence on happenstance and coincidence, "What Lies Beneath" pushes the envelope of plausibility too much, until we are second-guessing the film even while we're watching it. The best scary movies, like roller coasters, exhilarate as well as terrify; this one, its evident skill notwithstanding, tends more toward exhaustion.


What Lies Beneath, 2000. PG-13 for terror/violence, sensuality and brief language. DreamWorks Pictures and 20th Century Fox present an Imagemovers production, released by DreamWorks Pictures. Director Robert Zemeckis. Producers Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke. Executive producers Joan Bradshaw, Mark Johnson. Screenplay Clark Gregg. Story by Sarah Kernochan and Clark Gregg. Cinematographer Don Burgess. Editor Arthur Schmidt. Costumes Susie DeSanto. Music Alan Silvestri. Production design Rick Carter, Jim Teegarden. Art directors Tony Fanning, Stefan Dechant, Elizabeth Lapp. Set decorator Karen O'Hara. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. Harrison Ford as Norman Spencer. Michelle Pfeiffer as Claire Spencer. Diana Scarwid as Jody. Joe Morton as Dr. Drayton. James Remar as Warren Feur. Miranda Otto as Mary Feur.

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