NOTE: People have said they appreciate a warning when a movie ought to be seen without any foreknowledge — when a review might somehow take away from the experience. I don’t recommend What Lies Beneath very highly, but if you want to see it, don’t read this or any other reviews until afterwards.
You’re sitting quietly, concentrating, when — EEEEEK!! — you suddenly hear a loud, terrifying shriek, right in your ears.
Pretty scary, right? Well, maybe it wouldn’t give you nightmares or chill your soul, but I it would make you jump. That’s what Robert Zemeckis settles for in What Lies Beneath.
Glossy Hollywood Horror
Did You Notice?
What Lies Beneath is a glossy Hollywood horror film. It features a beautiful, rich, successful couple whose resort-town lives are shaken by the presence of a ghost.
The story centers around Claire Spencer (Michelle Pfeiffer), a musician turned mother and housewife. Her daughter has just gone off to college and now Claire has empty nest syndrome. Claire starts seeing a ghost in her bathroom mirror, in the reflection of the water in the tub, and in the steam of the hot water from the shower. Her husband Norman (Harrison Ford) does not see the ghost, and he takes Claire’s sightings as a personal insult, as though Claire is subconsciously calling into question his value as a husband.
2/3 Ghost Story
The first two-thirds of the movie is a ghost story. Like other good haunted movies, What Lies Beneath starts slowly and skeptically. Claire sees a ghost, but you’re not sure whether she saw it or whether she just thinks she saw it. As the story progresses, the tension and frights grow more intense, the chance that it’s all in the mind diminishes.
The plot is also is structured like a mystery, with pieces of the puzzle revealed at key moments. Some pieces indicate the identity of the ghost, while others explain why the ghost is in this particular house.
When the mystery is solved, the film shifts gears. The last third of the movie is still a horror film, but of a different type. First it was a ghost story, but now it’s both a Poe-esque tale of terror and a psychotic slasher flick. You might call it an eclectic horror film. Then again, you might also call it thematically inconsistent.
The change in intensity at the end makes for a stronger finish, but it also draws attention to the movie’s flaws. For example, you realize it took 90 minutes to unravel the ho-hum mystery of the ghost, and that all you have to look forward to is the conclusion. You realize there is some overarching symmetry to the plot, but that it is nowhere near as elegant as The Sixth Sense. Finally, you realize that the integrity of the characters has been sacrificed for the sake of the plot.
What Lies Beneath could have been a good movie. Sarah Kernochan & Clark Gregg wrote a good screenplay for an effective horror film, but they were unlucky in that it was produced with such a big budget and directed by such a slick filmmaker. I can think of several better approaches to the screenplay.
For example, a sparse, poetic Japanese production could have highlighted the story’s symmetry and fatalism. A German expressionist could have set the film in a more vivid, chaotic, and oppressive atmosphere.
Finally, a more edgy, independent American production could have made the film truly scary. It could have exposed the dark soul of man, reflected in the supernatural. It could have made the frights something you’d have bad dreams about, something that would chill your soul, without relying on sudden loud noises (in perfect Dolby Digital) to make you jump.