December 7, 2013

50 States, 50 Movies: What Lies Beneath (2000; Vermont)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Starring Harrison Ford ("Norman Spencer"), Michelle Pfeiffer ("Claire Spencer"), Diana Scarwid ("Jody"), and Joe Morton ("Dr. Drayton"). Rated PG-13.

Source: Region 1 DVD (DreamWorks/Universal)
Running time: 02:09:48
Country: USA

Norman and Claire Spencer are an upper-class couple living in a nice Vermont neighborhood. Their large home is surrounded by trees, and behind their home is a pier that stretches out over a gorgeous body of water. But as Claire unfortunately discovers, this body of water is one of the many things in her life that holds a dark secret that's been protected for far too long, and now's the time for the horrible truth to come to the surface.

The initial, false set-up of the plot resembles the type of story that would be told by filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock or Brian De Palma, in that it has to do with mysterious neighbors and deals with the inherent voyeurism that comes with the territory of watching people from afar. Personally it reminded me of THE BURBS more than anything, but I'm sure paying homage to Joe Dante wasn't the intention of director Robert Zemeckis (BACK TO THE FUTURE, FORREST GUMP). That being said, I'm not sure what the purpose of this part of the story was, especially when you consider how it's eventually squashed. I suppose it's an interesting misdirect and a way for us as viewers to get to know the characters (specifically Claire), but it ultimately just bloats the running time. Speaking of which, there's a quick info-dump very early on, as well as some expositional dialogue as a means of setting certain things up in a seemingly rushed manner, but I'm not sure how necessary that method of storytelling is when you consider that this is a two-hour movie that obviously has a lot of time to set things up. And therein lies (beneath) my only major gripe with the film: the writing. Fortunately, the uninspired script is in the hands of a super-talented director like Zemeckis, so at the very least we can expect an entertaining or well-crafted movie.

One of the things I noticed right away is that Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer have great chemistry as the Spencers. They really do make a nice on-screen couple. As the movie goes on, Ford is like the rock to the unstable Pfeiffer, who's quickly established as emotional, worrisome, and arguably on the verge of a breakdown because of certain circumstances that push her in that direction. Their initial dynamic plays a crucial part in how the story ultimately unfolds. Another thing I noticed is that, based on how cinematic and nicely-shot it is, WHAT LIES BENEATH had the potential very early on to be a decent atmospheric horror/mystery or, based on the sloppy writing I mentioned earlier, it could easily fall apart and become a waste of time. It ends up being the former for the most part, and this is thanks to the skill and vision that Zemeckis brings to the table, but it does ultimately go in a direction, story-wise, that's a bit over the top, silly, and borderline SCOOBY-DOO-ish.

As I said, WHAT LIES BENEATH is beautifully shot and full of great compositions and outstanding examples of framing and whatnot. I especially like the recurring use of mirrors in the film and how they enhance the overall style. And of course the pretentious theory regarding the mirrors is that the reflections are symbolic of "the other side", another presence, duality, etc., but mostly it just looks cool. When it was all said and done, for what it is, I couldn't find much wrong with WHAT LIES BENEATH aside from the writing and the fact that it's unnecessarily long. Both Ford and Pfeiffer are great, and it's nice to see a classy horror movie like this with middle-aged characters, big name actors, and a respectable director behind the camera. If this was made today, the Spencers would be in their late thirties and there'd at least be one kid thrown into the mix. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but personally just tired of the same old formula in modern horror movies. It's also nice to see what could be classified as a "ghost story" devoid of the typical, unimaginative cheap scares for the most part. That said, WHAT LIES BENEATH is a refreshing watch in the context of what's out there today and a stylish but dumb movie on its own merits.

Score: 6.5

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