What Lies Beneath directed by Robert Zemeckis
Robert Zemeckis, by dint of such phenomenally popular films as Romancing the Stone, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the Back to the Future trilogy, Death Becomes Her, Forrest Gump and Contact, was already a highly successful Hollywood director when, along with producers Steve Starkey and Jack Rapke, he formed the ImageMovers production company in 1998. As the company’s first project, Zemeckis chose screenwriter Clark Gregg’s What Lies Beneath, a modern-day ghost story that, the director told his crew, he wished to bring to the screen as Alfred Hitchcock might have done, IF the Master of Suspense had had access to modern FX technology and computer graphics. (Never mind that none of Hitchcock’s 54 films dealt with ghosts or the supernatural per se.) Filmed largely in the Lake Champlain region of Vermont, near Addison, during a hiatus from shooting Cast Away, the resultant picture, released in July 2000, was still another significant feather in Zemeckis’ already crowded hat, and, like those other films named, features impressive yet subtly integrated FX to complement a highly intriguing story. As both a horror film and an exercise in suspense, What Lies Beneath must be deemed a complete success.
In the picture, we meet an attractive, middle-aged couple, Norman and Claire Spencer, and indeed, as portrayed by Hollywood icons Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, the Spencers might be one of the handsomest couples in the history of the horror film! Living as they do in a beautiful home overlooking a Vermont lake, the professional couple (Norman is a renowned geneticist; Claire, a retired cellist), although their only daughter has just left for college, would seem to have an enviable marriage. But before very long, weird occurrences begin in the newly “empty nest.” Strange noises and whisperings, a broken picture frame, spectral reflections in the surface of the lake and (in perhaps the film’s single scariest scene) bathtub water, all serve to convince Claire that the ghost of a young woman is haunting her abode … possibly the ghost of her new next-door neighbor, who Claire believes has been killed by her husband. But, as it turns out, the truth is considerably more complex, and the unraveling of this truth will go very far in unraveling the Spencers’ marriage, too…
So, DOES What Lies Beneath strike the viewer as a Hitchcockian exercise, abetted by 21st century computer wizardry? I would have to say yes. There are any number of scenes that are undeniably scary or suspenseful, the most agonizing of which is the wonderful scene in which Claire lies paralyzed in a bathtub that is slowly being filled with water. Some of Alan Silvestri’s score is reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s classic music for Psycho, while Claire’s use of binoculars to spy on her neighbors at night cannot help but call to mind Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. Pfeiffer and Ford work well together and do have some screen chemistry; they make a credible couple, although Norman, as it turns out, might be one of the least sympathetic characters that Ford has ever essayed.
For this viewer, however, the bulk of this picture’s success must lie squarely with Pfeiffer, who appears in virtually every single scene and is simply terrific in all of them. Watching her in this film, in which she easily displays far more dramatic heft than her costar, and also reveals what an effective “scream queen” she can be, the viewer will most likely regret how few other horror vehicles Ms. Pfeiffer has appeared in. And really, besides 1994’s Wolf, I can think of no others, unless we stretch the point a bit and include 1987’s The Witches of Eastwick and the horror comedy Dark Shadows. One of the finest combinations of sensational looks and undeniable acting chops to this day (and Michelle is 58 as I write these words), she is quite simply one of the best we’ve got, and makes Claire Spencer and What Lies Beneath a character and a film to savor.
The venerable Leonard Maltin Movie Guide, apparently, does not concur in this assessment, concluding its lukewarm comments with the statement that the story “doesn’t make sense.” But the film DID make perfect sense to me … as long, that is, as one is willing to believe in spooks. And by the end of Zemeckis’ highly effective film, most viewers, I have a feeling, will be uttering that famous line of the Cowardly Lion: “I DO believe in spooks, I DO believe in spooks, I do, I do, I do, I do, I DO believe in spooks…”