There’s nothing like a taut Hitchcockian thriller to spice up a hot summer night. While Robert Zemeckis definitely knows how to ratchet up the tension in his suspense-filled thriller What Lies Beneath, the script ultimately fails him.
Zemeckis uses a lot of the genre’s time-honored tricks to keep you hooked until the end, which unfortunately veers into overkill. But don’t let that last 10 minutes deter you from what is otherwise a first-rate ghost story.
Michelle Pfeiffer is Claire, a woman who has opted to play housewife and mother instead of cello. She’s married to Norman, a promising geneticist (Harrison Ford) living in the shadow of his famous geneticist father. On the surface, at least, they have a perfect life. They enjoy an affectionate, passionate and playful marriage. They’ve moved into his father’s stately home on a sprawling picture-perfect lakefront estate in Vermont, with immaculately manicured and landscaped grounds.
But all is not well in this idyllic homestead. Claire’s daughter from her first marriage has just left home for college, and Claire misses her terribly. There are references to Claire’s accident 18 months earlier, the effects of which still concern Norman. He’s so busy with his research, however, that he leaves Claire home alone much of the time with little else to do but spy on the mysterious new neighbors who have moved in next door.
Then, strange, unexplainable things start happening in Claire’s own seemingly perfect house. Doors open and close. Pictures crash to the floor. The stereo goes on and off. Claire hears whispering voices. Although they spook her, they are all occurrences she can chalk up to tricks of her imagination. She’s reluctant even to tell Norman, who dismisses the strange happenings as a ploy for his attention, post-traumatic stress disorder from the accident, or the maternal yearnings that come with an empty nest. When Claire sees a hollow-eyed young woman in their home, however, she is convinced a supernatural presence is in their house. She becomes obsessed with finding out who this apparition is, and what it wants with her and Norman.
Zemeckis makes his first foray into the genre of suspense thriller with What Lies Beneath, and his skills as a storyteller serve him well. He doesn’t rely on effects, but rather on pure suspense. Letting the story unfold through Claire’s point of view, he takes us with her each step of the way as she solves this mystery. Originally, she is convinced her neighbor’s wife is in danger after hearing the woman’s terrified sobs. When she takes over a welcome basket, she finds a sandal with blood on the porch. Not surprisingly, her imagination runs wild, though her friends and husband think she’s overreacting. She, too, begins to doubt her own perceptions.
More than the strange neighbors next door, it is the ominous presence in her own house that truly rattles her—the haunting face of the young woman reflected in the bath water and the lake.
When a framed newspaper photo of Claire and Norman crashes to the ground, she finds an article about a missing college student on the other side. The ghost, she suspects, is that of the young student in the article. But why is the girl haunting their house? Is it all in Claire’s fertile imagination? Norman dismisses her suspicions as delusional, fearing his beautiful wife has gone mad. As her obsession with the girl intensifies and her own behavior becomes increasingly strange, her marriage will be sorely tested. Claire’s morbid curiosity leads to a dogged pursuit of the truth that puts her, her husband and that perfect existence of theirs at risk.
Zemeckis knows he doesn’t need gore and knife-wielding maniacs to scare you, which comes as a relief in this era of slasher-as-thriller. He need only take a sensible, perfectly normal woman experiencing supernatural events and let your imagination run as wild as hers. It’s quite an effective technique, as are the complicated camera moves and long takes that allow tension to mount. The camera angles make you fear something is always just around the corner—a trick you fall for again and again. The phone rings and you jump. The door opens and you jump. The stereo suddenly blasts and you jump.
Like all good mysteries, What Lies Beneath slowly releases bits of information about Claire, her marriage and the missing girl, until the pieces fall into place. Pfeiffer is compelling as the vulnerable heroine who is terrified and worried for her own sanity, but who also has a strength that makes her determined to know what happened, regardless of the risks. This is really Pfeiffer’s movie, with Harrison Ford providing a strong supporting character and a solid masculine presence as her baffled husband.
But the script won’t let the film end without a lot of unnecessary twisting. The ending needed restraint; instead, subtlety takes a huge leap out the haunted house window. It’s unfortunate, because up until those last few scenes, this could have been one hell of a ghost story.
What Lies Beneath (PG-13) HHH Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford.