What Lies Beneath (2000)


A review by Jeffrey Overstreet.
Director - Robert Zemeckis; writer – Clark Gregg, based on a story by Sarah Kernochan and Clark Gregg; director of photography - Don Burgess; editor - Arthur Schmidt; music – Alan Silvestri; production designers - Rick Carter and Jim Teegarden; producers – Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis and Jack Rapke. STARRING: Michelle Pfeiffer (Claire Spencer), Harrison Ford (Norman Spencer), Diana Scarwid (Jody), Joe Morton (Dr. Drayton), James Remar (Warren Feur), Miranda Otto (Mary Feur), Wendy Crewson (Elena), Ray Baker (Dr. Stan Powell), Amber Valletta (Madison Elizabeth Frank) and Katherine Towne (Caitlin Spencer). DreamWorks. Running time: 130 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Ghost stories on the big screen are experiencing a resurgence in popularity. They come because audiences responded with such enthusiasm to both a brilliant little thriller called The Sixth Sense and a stomach-turning, mean-spirited blockbuster called The Blair Witch Project. 

At their best, ghost stories appeal to our sense of mystery. They remind us that, as Shakespeare’s great ghost story insisted, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.” And, as with that same story, they often focus their stories on the delivery of justice, a resolution that puts anxious spirits to rest. At their worst, ghost stories seek only to make us lose faith, and appeal to our appetites for the malevolent and destructive.

The Sixth Sense delivered some solid scares, but they were in service of a story worth telling. Blair Witch was designed to disorient, disturb, and sicken us.

And now we have What Lies Beneath.

To its credit, it is more interested in storytelling than screams. But alas, good storytelling intentions do not ensure that the story will make any sense.

Don’t do as I did, and let yourself be drawn in by the names Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford. They’ve been part of some of the big screens most beloved stories, but here they’re stranded in a nonsensical script, playing out scary scenes that others have been done before (and more effectively). Director Robert Zemeckis (Contact, Forrest Gump) demonstrates that he’s better at delivering whimsical entertainment like Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Michelle Pfeiffer plays the wife of a geneticist who lives happily in a big beautiful mansion on the coast. She’s just sent her daughter off to school, and now she has plenty of time at home, alone. The new neighbors next door provide plenty of entertainment for her, fighting loudly on the lawn and making noisy love at night. But when the woman next door disappears, things start getting creepy. Doors start opening when she reaches for them. Photographs get knocked over. And the bathtub develops a curious habit of its own.

Her husband (Ford) is a scientist and thus, of course, has no interest in hearing her theories of paranormal events in the house. So she’s on her own. Slowly, though, the clues left by the ghost in the house imply a problem much closer to home than she wants to admit.

Yes, there are a few good jolts to the system as the ghost makes its presence known. They aren’t original jolts, but they’re effective. As an amusement park spookhouse, this one earns a couple of screams. But if you stop to think about it, nothing makes any sense. The genius of The Sixth Sense was that, in retrospect, all of the pieces fit together into a fascinating whole. Here, well, there’s just a bunch of puzzle-piece ideas from other movies (like The Shining) that don’t fit together.

Problem number one: The ghost.

What good is a ghost story in which a ghost only serves to confuse the story? First, the ghost can only whisper. Then, it can knock over pictures. Then it can write messages (but, of course, only cryptically. It seems determined to make things difficult.) Then, it can possess people. And finally, frustrated by these ineffective methods, it can suddenly raise the corpse from the dead and manipulate it like a zombie!

If it can walk around and hunt for the villain by itself, why does it need to write cryptic messages?

Problem number two: Preposterous coincidences.

In her one visit to a scientific laboratory, we learn about a drug that is explained in such detail that we are convinced we will encounter it in some nasty fashion by the end.

And the first three-quarters of the film involve us in a plot that is actually a subplot, an elaborate red herring. Any good mystery has red herrings, but this is just unfair. Without this subplot (which, it turns out, has absolutely nothing to do with the real mystery) there would be very little story here at all. I haven’t seen a cheat like this since Malice.

And the most laughable coincidence comes right at the end: the heroine literally falls into the scene of the original crime, seemingly at random, far from home, by accidentally driving off of the road! What luck!

There are plenty of other problems. Roger Ebert loves to point out how movie villains always feel compelled to incapacitate the hero and then explain to them in great detail just how and why they did what they did. It is indeed a ludicrous device, and here it’s almost comical in its implausibility. Not only that, but once again the villain must seem to be dead, get up again, then get killed once and for all, and still get up again. There’s no suspense left in a device as over-used as this. I half-expected to find out the villain had Energizer batteries inside…that just keep going and going and going.

Is there anything worthwhile in this film? Pfeiffer’s performance is admirable, although her desperation and fear might have come from that feeling of being trapped in a bad script. And the sound effects were sufficiently spooky, making the audience unsure whether they are hearing whispers or the wind.

Even the “be sure your sins will find you out” conclusion seems ineffective by the end of this over-long, over-hyped thriller. How can  projects with such talented actors and such wonderful special effects go so wrong?

Here’s hoping that Robert Zemeckis will create something more meaningful out of next film: Cast Away, with Tom Hanks. But this? Hamlet might remark that there’s something is rotten in the state of Hollywood… and it’s more likely related to haste, money, and mediocrity than any kind of curse.

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