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What Lies Beneath

Review by Jason Morrison

The tag line for What Lies Beneath is: "He was the perfect husband until his one mistake followed them home." Having said that, I've already ruined the movie for you.

Please don't be mad at me. I'm only a reviewer, repeating what's been printed on thousands of movie posters and said in thousands of previews. One of the tricks to reviewing movies is revealing enough to discuss the film without giving it all away. Thankfully, studios are quickly making my job easy. Though they complain about web sites leaking information about movies before they open, the previews and taglines for films are becoming nothing but suspense killers. I mean, imagine if the tagline for Star Wars was "This summer, Luke will find out: Who's your daddy!" Heaven help us if they had done that for The Crying Game.

So though I could describe What Lies Beneath as a creepy, Hitchcock-inspired thriller, I won't bother. I could have started the review telling how Claire Spencer (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her husband Norman (Harrison Ford) drop their daughter off for her first year of college and plan to take advantage of the newfound free time (wink wink), but soon Claire finds herself feeling alone in the empty old house. I could have talked about her going through old scrap books, looking at pictures of her family and her reaction when she comes across a reminder of the car crash she was in a year ago. Or about how, with her husband working long hours on a genetic research project that could make or break his career, she begins to notice strange things- whispers in the breeze, neighbors fighting and disappearing, pictures falling off tables.

I could have talked about the gradual build of foreboding that Claire goes through. Norman is supportive but demanding. How did the bathtub get filled, if she didn't do it? Why does the door open just as she gets to it? A psychiatrist brings up her Valium use. She becomes convinced their neighbor has killed his wife. Why has the same photo fallen off the shelf again?

Director Robert Zemeckis and writers Sarah Kernochan and Clark Gregg clearly put a lot of thought into the progress of the plot. Claire's experiences are so fleeting and easily explained away- she does so herself on several occasions- that they could be read in a number of different directions. Is her mind playing tricks on her, or is there a ghost in the house? Is it the neighbor, or a girl missing for a year now whose story comes strangely back to light? Is she hallucinating from post-traumatic stress, or is she remembering things she did not want to? Until near the end, when the film degenerates into a straightforward, though well done chase/escape, everything is kept just ambiguous to keep the plot moving along.

Not to say it wasn't a bit predictable. Besides the tagline, which throws out the whole neighbor subplot completely, there are more than a few spots of too-heavy foreshadowing. At one point in Norman's lab two students discuss a chemical that paralyzes a rat, leaving it conscious but immobile.

"Does this work on all mammals?" Gee, I wonder if it's going to be used on a person in some dramatic twist at the end?

Alfred Hitchcock fans will no doubt point out that What Lies Beneath takes liberally from more than a few of his films, and Zemeckis has tried to give it a Hitchcock feel as well, which works just fine. Though it can be slow, and the tension relies too much on gotcha tricks, there is a little of the everyday-but-dreadful flavor that made Rear Window and Psycho classics. No need for excessive gore, in other words, but too many doors creaking open by themselves only to revealů a cute doggie. Cheap scares like that are a cop out.

Pfeiffer, who gets 95 percent of the screen time, is a bit stiff but otherwise very good, leading the viewer down the road to insanity/the occult/the truth/whatever. She certainly reacts well to the scares, cheap and otherwise. And most importantly, she seems genuinely able to be cracking up. This is important. Too many films have characters that just "go crazy" or whatever. Pfeiffer is trying hard not to be crazy, but seems to realize how close she is.

Ford makes an interesting bad guy, and if not for about four sentences and one plot twist near the end, he pulls it off well. That last bit is not his fault, either- it's just bad writing, and example of a character just "going crazy" or whatever as I mentioned above. All the other actresses and actors in the film are only there for ten seconds so I won't bother talking about them.

What Lies Beneath is really good at what it's trying to do, but it's been undermined. Between revealing most of the answer to the mystery before even letting you into the theater, relying too much on Hitchcock plot points everyone has seen before, and making a few things a little bit too obvious, they've taken a lot of the intellectual punch out. Still, it's very creepy and refreshingly spartan with the special effects. Don't go alone.


(Out of five)

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