After watching "What Lies Beneath," a thriller that starts off
promisingly only to dissolve in a pool of b-movie clichés, one question
keeps leaping to mind: What were they thinking?
The question applies to all involved parties: writers Clark Gregg and
Sarah Kernochan, stars Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, director
Robert Zemeckis, and the marketing department at DreamWorks.
First up are the writers. It's easy to imagine Gregg and Kernochan
sitting in a room, kicking around ideas. Sadly, most of the ideas belong
to other people. "What Lies Beneath" begins with a healthy dose of "Rear
Window," sprinkles in a bit of "Sixth Sense," pours the results into the
shower scene from "Psycho," then ladles on heaps of "Fatal Attraction"
and even a little "Friday the 13th." What were they thinking?
Incidentally, when perusing the writers' list of cinematic "samples,"
please note that they start by stealing from exceptional films and end
up ripping off dreck. To no surprise, the movie follows the same
Claire Spencer (Pfeiffer) has too much time on her hands. With her
daughter off at college and husband, Norman (Ford), preoccupied with
work, she wanders the grounds of their Vermont home, looking for
something to fill the gap left by the absence of her loved ones. After
overhearing a fight between the neighbors, she finds herself spying on
the house, fearing that the husband may have done harm to his wife.
Then things begin to happen at Claire's own home. The front door opens
on its own just as she reaches for the handle. She hears a barely
audible voice from the shadows. Initials appear on a computer screen.
And then Claire glances into the tub and sees the reflection of a
woman's face. Terrified, she turns to Norman, who, of course, doesn't
That's as much as I can tell you without revealing key plot points.
Unfortunately, the brain trust at DreamWorks advertising department had
no problems in that area. Trailers for "What Lies Beneath" casually
spill roughly three-fourths of the storyline. While not as extreme as
some ad campaigns (such as the one for "Double Jeopardy," which provided
a Cliffs Notes version of the whole damn plot), it remains an annoying
example of marketing at its most idiotic. What were they thinking?
And what was Robert Zemeckis thinking? Why is the man who directed such
original fare as "Back to the Future" and "Forrest Gump" slumming with a
movie like this? To his credit, he handles the material with style, at
least for the first hour. I appreciated the way he eased into the ghost
business, ever so gently pulling the viewer into Claire's nightmare.
Equally impressive is his use of camera angles and lighting, which
transform Claire and Norman's picturesque home into something quite
But Zemeckis is so intent on drawing shrieks from his audience that he
doesn't know when to quit. As the film progresses, he tightens his
framing so much that anything that enters the screen startles the
viewer. Sure, the technique makes people scream, but it's an awfully
lazy way to get it done. Late in the film, some of the camera angles
become downright embarrassing, especially in a
menacing-hands-approaching-the-camera-lens shot that looks like an
outtake from an Ed Wood horror flick.
And then there's Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford. As always,
Pfeiffer is fascinating to watch. Those cat eyes and that angular face
are mesmerizing – the woman has a great skull. Her acting is fine here,
although I wonder why she didn't challenge the filmmakers over the
inconsistencies of her character. Alone, Claire takes the initiative,
even as her situation becomes increasingly dangerous, so why is she so
mousy around her husband? We learn that Claire gave up her cello for her
family. Why? Norman certainly didn't give up anything, so why did she
forfeit something so precious? And why, late in the film, did Pfeiffer
consent to behave like a camp counselor from "Friday the 13th? "
For Harrison Ford, "What Lies Beneath" marks the latest in a recent
series of odd career moves. As in "Random Hearts," Ford plays a dour,
brooding husband. Oh sure, he livens up in the second half of the film,
but I didn't buy the transformation for a second. Harrison, please, sign
up for another Indiana Jones or Jack Ryan movie as fast as you can and
don't ever take a role like this again.
Come to think of it, that would be my advice to everyone involved with
this movie. "What Lies Beneath" delivers more than its share of cheap
thrills, but the operative word here is "cheap." Movies like this should
be left for actors and directors on their way up, or on their way down,
not for talents as vital as Michelle Pfeiffer, Harrison Ford and Robert
What were they thinking?
Copyright © 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott