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1 item from 2000

Film review: 'What Lies Beneath'

17 July 2000 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

Director Robert Zemeckis pulls out all of the stops in his edge-of-your-seat thriller "What Lies Beneath". He deploys every scare tactic -- any plot twist, music cue, creepy sound, dark shadow, special effect and camera movement imaginable -- to keep audiences in a state of elevated tension. His success, however, must be weighed against the physical and mental exhaustion such relentless manipulation brings about in a viewer.

Many will giggle and scream their way through the 130-minute creep-athon. Others may weary of the shameless milking of suspense gimmicks nearly as old as cinema itself. By making continual references to Hitchcock and other masters of terror, Zemeckis by implication shuns any claim to originality here; "What Lies Beneath" is simply an affectionate, tongue-in-cheek tribute to movie trickery.

Haunted-house movies generally play to younger audiences, but Zemeckis' older stars, Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford, should significantly broaden those demographics. Critics will likely be divided: One may see cunning artifice, while another will find only tired cliches. Audiences and critics alike, however, will be amazed at the filmmakers' willingness to, in the name of suspense, return over and over to an image or location, especially an upstairs bathroom that gets a greater workout than the shower in "Psycho" and the bathtub in "Diabolique" combined.

Zemeckis' approach to Clark Gregg's screenplay is to incorporate unmistakable elements from Hitchcock's films, most notably "Psycho", "Rear Window" and "Vertigo". Alan Silvestri's music underlines these borrowings with its expert imitation of a Bernard Herrmann score.

But what gets created is less an homage to Hitchcock than to early Brian De Palma. Only De Palma at least strove to reignite Hitchcock's magic by employing the master's theories on suspense within the structure of his stories. Zemeckis is content to quote Hitchcock without putting any of his ideas to work.

Pfeiffer and Ford play a happily married couple, living a seemingly placid if not idyllic life in a picturesque Vermont lakeside home. She's a retired musician, and he's a genetics researcher. When her daughter by a previous marriage (Katharine Towne) leaves for college, Ford says, "It's just us now".

Well, not exactly. It's just them plus the troubled spirit of a young woman. Strange noises and terrifying visions plague Pfeiffer to the point that she goes to shrink Joe Morton. She fears that these events have something to do with the new couple next door, a perpetually scowling professor (James Remar) and his frightened wife (Miranda Otto), who has suddenly disappeared.

But audiences know this "Rear Window" bit is a red herring because the movie's own ad campaign -- "He was the perfect husband, until his one mistake followed them home" -- tips you off that she is sleeping with the enemy.

As her visions, repressed memory and more back story gradually make clear, this unearthly visitor is connected to the disappearance of a young college student a year earlier, just about the time of Pfeiffer's mysterious auto accident.

The story and its escalating tension play out in a setting -- the lakeside home and its rustic surroundings -- beset by wind, rain, fog, telekinesis, eerie sounds and seemingly malevolent household objects. There is never a calm moment.

Nor is any moment wasted in the entire movie. Every idle conversation or scrap of information will eventually play its role. The danger here is that an audience will quickly catch on and start to spot plot twists before they


But the greater problem with such an intricate and artificial plot construction is that it leaves no room for its characters to live and breathe. Pfeiffer, the movie's central figure, is so buffeted by waves of cinematic effects and placed in such a reactive position that one struggles to understand what kind of a person she would be under normal circumstances.

And Ford's scientist makes little sense except as a fictional character marching to the orders of a manipulative screenwriter. Gregg (working from his and Sarah Kernochan's story) takes a stab at explaining his alarming behavior in the third act in terms of a long festering rivalry with his late father, a brilliant research scientist. But it's too lame to have any impact.

Cinematographer Don Burgess' smooth-as-silk camera plays peekaboo with mirrors and other objects in Rick Carter and Jim Teegarden's lovingly detailed set, turning a beautiful home into a house of horrors. Visual effects supervisor Robert Legato, second unit director Steve Starkey and underwater unit director Max Kleven do their damndest to give the audience the willies. And editor Arthur Schmidt makes certain there is no letup.


DreamWorks Pictures

and 20th Century Fox

An Imagemovers Production

Producers: Steve Starkey,

Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Screenwriter: Clark Gregg

Story by: Sarah Kernochan, Clark Gregg

Executive producers: Joan Bradshaw,

Mark Johnson

Director of photography: Don Burgess

Production designers: Rick Carter,

Jim Teegarden

Music: Alan Silvestri

Costume designer: Susie DeSanto

Editor: Arthur Schmidt



Norman Spencer: Harrison Ford

Claire Spencer: Michelle Pfeiffer

Jody: Diana Scarwid

Dr. Drayton: Joe Morton

Warren Feur: James Remar

Mary Feur: Miranda Otto

Madison Elizabeth Frank: Amber Valletta

Running time -- 130 minutes

MPAA rating: PG-13


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