Neil Young’s Film Lounge – What Lies Beneath

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

WHAT LIES BENEATH

6/10

US 2000
dir. Robert Zemeckis
scr. Clark Gregg (story Gregg, Sarah Kernochan)
cin. Don Burgess
stars Michelle Pfeiffer, Harrison Ford
129 minutes

Yes, 129 minutes. Somebody called Arthur Schmidt is billed as the editor on this movie, but can it be a coincidence he shares his initials with Allan Smithee, Hollywoods most famously non-existent director. What editing can possibly have been done What Lies Beneath? What can they have left out?

Theres a decent thriller lurking somewhere deep inside this mass of footage, but finding it doesn’t seem to have figured high on Zemeckiss list of priorities. Instead, he appears to think that, by stringing together a series of visual and thematic nods to Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo and Suspicion, then lathering a pseudo-Bernard Herrmann score over the results, he’s crafting some kind of Hitchcock hommage.

Its as if Ford and Pfeiffers presence on board panicked everybody into trying to produce worthily prestigious work, when what the material really demands is pulpy briskness. Slowing everything down to a sluggishly funereal pace just ends up telegraphing every single shock and twist a long way in advance, and the only real fun lies in trying to second guess the movies next piece of thievery, whether it be from Hitchcock, Gaslight or Les Diaboliques the last-named being hinted at as the prime model in both the films trailer and poster.

This thankfully turns out to be something of a red herring, though Ford is such an obvious heavy from the outset that few audiences will be much surprised when his character, Norman Spencer, turns out to be rather less than perfect husband he initially appears. A brilliant (i.e. unstable) geneticist, Norman is married to Claire (Pfeiffer), who has a teenage daughter from an earlier relationship despite the films length, much of this back story remains muddy. They all live in a vast, opulent house on an isolated lakeshore in rural Vermont.

The plot kicks off with the daughter handily going off to college, leaving Claire with a mild case of empty nest syndrome that rapidly darkens into more sinister territory: mild poltergeist shocks, weird noises, spooky apparitions in the bathtub. And it doesn’t help her jittery mood when her next door neighbour (an unrecognisably bearded, long-haired James Remar) appears to have done away with his wife (Miranda Otto, almost as underused as in The Thin Red Line). Or are the murder, and the haunting all in Claires mind? And how does it all tie in with the disappearance of a beautiful local student, exactly one year before?

From the first scene, Zemeckis constantly resorts to cheap boo scares, with diminishing results. He deploys some of the most cobwebbed tricks in the book even the angled bathroom mirror and the closing fridge door are dragged out of mothballs and pressed into service. In some quarters, this kind of relentless old-fashionedness has been somehow praised as a virtue, but the films predictability too often teeters on the edge of full-blown tedium. If it remains watchable by never quite crossing that fatal line, then its Pfeiffer who deserves most of the credit she brings unexpected (perhaps unwarranted) depth to the central but somewhat underwritten role of scared wife.

According to press notes, What Lies Beneath is based on an original idea by uncredited co-producer Stephen Spielberg – but having seen the film, Im no wiser as to what this idea can possibly be. Its a standard star vehicle, spicing up a lazily twisty domestic melodrama with mild supernatural high-jinks. But ideas? Original ideas? I think not.

by Neil Young

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