What Lies Beneath (2000)

D: Robert Zemeckis
S: Michelle Pfeiffer, Harrison Ford

Atmospheric but distended ghost story credited to writers Sarah Kernochan and Clark Gregg, directed for the screen by Robert Zemeckis (Contact, Used Cars). Good performances and some reasonably effective scenes of sustained suspense keep it going, but there is nothing here you haven't seen before, though it may have been a while. It is the tale of a middle aged woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) whose feelings of loss on the departure of her only daughter for college are intensified by a sense that her house is haunted. Her husband is a successful academic scientist (Harrison Ford) who may or may not have a secret in his past. Either way darkness lurks beneath their seemingly ordinary life, and also beneath the waters of the lake beside their house. As she investigates the mystery and fears for her sanity, a dark tale of injustice and spiritual unrest unfolds in which the worlds of the living and the dead are brought into contact with chilling results.

Throughout the two hour plus running time of this film, one frequently gets the sense that Zemeckis has been watching The Shining. Not only is the story familiar from horror comics and B movies (and poems and stories before them), but the long, slow shots of the antiseptic (mostly white) environment of the couple's Vermont home feels a lot like an attempt to replicate the tone and visual style of Kubrick's only attempt at the genre. Unfortunately despite his talents, the level of craft on display here is nowhere near that of The Shining and though arguably the story is more efficiently and effectively told, little here is likely to linger in the memory.

Thematically the film concerns itself with concepts of loss. It involves lost memories (Pfeiffer, having been in a car crash one year before, has forgotten the events which led to the accident and gradually uncovers them as the narrative progresses), loss of family (Pfeiffer cries for her daughter, Ford is mentally haunted by the reputation of his famous father), loss of career (Ford is on the brink of publishing a major paper and finds his wife's newfound mania a most unwelcome threat to his security), loss of control (psychological and physical, as viewers will see), loss of love (or potential loss: the couple's relationship deteriorates as the troubles intensify), and of course loss of life (it is a ghost story after all). The ghost (a young woman with an uncanny resemblance to Pfeiffer herself) appears mostly as reflections in water or mirrors, a literally ethereal presence which is felt because of its absence from everyday reality. In the way of these things, it is seeking justice for itself in the realm of the living, a place which is lost to it as so many things appear lost to the characters themselves. It is a powerful theme and Zemeckis and the writers have been careful to work it through more or less consistently.

The natural corollary to a preoccupation with loss is that something must also be gained in order for there to be change and development in the characters. Sure enough as the story goes on it comes to focus increasingly on Pfeiffer's quest to solve the riddle of the spectre and regain some measure of control over herself (people have been treating her 'delicately' since the accident). Ironically, the attempt to do so only makes her seem more powerless and vulnerable, resulting in an extended climax which moves into screamfest high gear which frequently threatens to topple the whole film into a Friday the 13th type farce. It manages to hold together, but only because of a startling twist which has nothing to do with the plot but which leaves you reeling for so long that the movie is more or less over by the time you've recovered. What precisely Pfeiffer has gained by the end is questionable all the same (apart from survival), though the ghost, as always, gets its way and punishes the guilty.

As a campfire yarn, What Lies Beneath is solid enough. It tells its story well as far as mechanics are concerned and doesn't rely too heavily on expositional dialogue in doing so. It features many scenes of tension or suspense in which the unexplained and the uncanny take centre stage and there is at least one good jolt before the end. There are some terrific moments of fear and terror in there, including a very well handled bath drowning scene which precedes rather more conventional psycho-on-the-loose action which with the film concludes. The production design and symbolic imagery are effective, mostly concentrating on pale whites and shimmering waters which always suggest a hidden spiritual darkness behind and beneath them. Michelle Pfeiffer is well cast in the lead. Her thin frame and physically maturing face are perfect for the role and she does a good job of handling the intricacies of her ever increasing emotional, psychological, and physical jeopardy. Her character is not quite as clueless as the genre often demands of women. Her awareness of the psychological factors affecting her perception of this world beyond or beneath her own adds some drama to the affair and Pfeiffer plays the role with maturity and intelligence. Ford is also effective as the husband with problems of his own to contend with, though he doesn't move all that far outside his usual range (after his brief stint as an aging comic-romantic hero in Six Days, Seven Nights).

It is on the deeper level which the film invites you to contemplate even in its title that it is most disappointing. Despite the attempts to replicate the Kubrickian sense of ironic distance, it really is just a campfire yarn in the final analysis. There is no great richness to the film's study of relationships or society. There are vague mutterings about ambition, academia, and wealth. The film is also visibly concerned with portraying the dynamics of a mature adult relationship and the fears which come with change and loss. Yet none of this is either surprising or especially interesting. A couple of narrative red herrings are worth a grin or two, but add nothing in the end that the central story thread has not already brought into question. It is not unsuccessful with what themes it takes on, but it doesn't really draw the audience into the events on a personal level or purge the soul with pity and terror like it should to work as a cautionary tale.

Viewers will find themselves more consistently involved with the routine rhythms of the shock and suspense scenes than with what any of it is really trying to achieve on a sub-textual level. For some people this is only right and proper, and the film will probably work best for those with low expectations. Yet at some 129 minutes and taking such a very long time to get where it eventually goes, one gets the sense that Zemeckis is trying, like Kubrick, to bring something extra to a relatively standard generic tale. With Contact, he succeeded, but What Lies Beneath is eventually a less worthwhile movie than either The Sixth Sense or Stir of Echoes at least insofar as its portentousness promises something that it never actually delivers whereas the economy of these other films gave more space for the viewer to read in what was quite delicately suggested. It is better than the ill-fated remake of The Haunting and a marked improvement over the self-denigrating semi-parodic slasher films which have dominated recent genre cinema (Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty). It is worth seeing if you think it might be, but what lies beneath What Lies Beneath is not really as much as you might expect or seems to have been intended.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.