When their daughter leaves home for college, an affluent Vermont couple begins to transition into their new life, alone in a massive house on a lake. Troubled by loud arguments between her neighbors, Claire – once an accomplished concert cellist – becomes consumed with fear. Left home alone for most of the day while her gifted genetic scientist of a husband, Norman, is away in his lab, Claire finds herself becoming obsessed with the couple next door. Until, one particularly stormy night, she sees something she mistakes for a body being loaded into the back of a car. In her heart, she knows she can’t leave it alone. But will Claire be ready for what she uncovers the closer she gets to the truth?
Misdirection, ghosts, domestic violence, abandonment, fidelity, ambition, marital trust – heady issues explored in Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 supernatural horror film starring Michelle Pfeiffer as Claire Spencer, Harrison Ford as Dr. Norman Spencer, James Remar as neighbor Warren Feur, Miranda Otto as his wife Mary Feur, Diana Scarwid as Claires friend Jody, and Wendy Crewson as Claire’s college friend, Elena.
What Lies Beneath is the Michelle Pfeiffer show. Don’t buy the ticket to ride the ride unless you have even a modicum of interest in her. By 2000 which saw the release of What Lies Beneath, one of Pfeiffer’s most commercially successful films, the actress was coming off a busy year of what had amounted in (more or less) tepid films (The Deep End of the Ocean, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Story of Us).
The casting of Claire – a once accomplished artist, now a devoted mother and wife – was crucial for the success of What Lies Beneath. Pfeiffer spends most of the film alone, dominating the scenes in near silence as she makes one fearful discovery after another, her grip on reality slowly unraveling. Of course, Zemeckis has said that Pfeiffer was his only choice for the role, and while she is undoubtedly beautiful, with What Lies Beneath, she proves capable of holding her own in a horror film – at once giving us a character that is empathetic (key for a horror film) and utterly convincing.
It’s difficult to come at the film without discussing the narrative that unfolds about marriage and trust. Much of the film’s plot is anchored in identity found and lost within the ties of marriage. It’s one of the reasons I find What Lies Beneath such an interesting entry into the genre. Okay, okay. I’ll admit it, it’s sometimes fun to watch a horror film that’s not completely populated with clueless teenagers getting slaughtered. And while I typically struggle with supernatural plots involving ghosts (or any mention of them), there is so much else going on in What Lies Beneath, I gladly put it aside to enjoy the film’s suspenseful, (and intentionally) Hitchcockian vibe.
The screenplay (written by Sarah Kernochan and Clark Gregg) just throws everything it can at it’s main character with a sort of relentless, sadistic cruelty. A move, an empty nest, infidelity, violence, near fatal car accidents, a possession … by the time Claire reaches the film’s climax, it’s a wonder she retains any sense of self or reality.
Thanks to Kernochan and Gregg, long before that, before anything has really “happened” in the film, we know so much about the main character by watching her try to fill the hours with the daily grind of her new life – a life left a bit emptier in the wake of her daughter’s departure for school. This proves essential for reeling us in, for making us commit. As Claire faces her fate, I know you’ll be holding your breath along with her.
And while many of the techniques employed by Zemeckis creates the feeling of a vacuum, it is necessary for constructing the atmosphere in which the character of Claire must finally face the truth about her life. So, that feeling of discomfort you feel – it’s intentional, it’s crafted, and it’s … well, okay. Performances by Harrison Ford, Diana Scarwid, and James Remar give the film an attractive, undeniable polish that, when garnered with a PG-13 rating, helped the film rake in serious cash at the box office with a purported $291M worldwide in receipts.
I’m not saying that the film is original, or unique. Zemeckis has said he intentionally set out to craft a Hitchcockian thriller (check out the interview below) and I feel What Lies Beneath comes close. It’s oft slow plot does mire down after the first 20 minutes or so and while the film has a genuine sort of creepiness factor to it, only those who find themselves irrevocably committed to seeing Claire’s character through to the end will remain enchanted.
Say what you will about “adult” horror, What Lies Beneath is a fun, if not slow, little ghost story that served it’s purpose. It isn’t, nor was it ever intended to be, Zemeckis’ “masterpiece”. After all, What Lies Beneath was filmed during the 14 month hiatus of the filming of Castaway - necessary for Tom Hanks’ remarkable weight loss. What Lies Beneath allowed his crew to continue working so the studio would support Castaway‘s hiatus.
It’s worth a watch if you haven’t seen it (or you haven’t seen it in a while) for no other reason than the film’s final moments in which Zemeckis constructs the climax to What Lies Beneath. It’s true the ending is a bit misaligned with the rest of the film’s pacing and sensibilities, but maybe that’s why I enjoy it. As Claire struggles against the effects of the halothane, all sound fades away and we are left alone with the sound of the running water. This scene is near perfect – regardless of the film that surrounds it. Pfeiffer, who admits to being fearful of water, exudes horror film heroine in these moments. You can watch the scene below, and – Try not to hold your breath.