At the risk of deviating slightly from the initial goal of this column, which is to shine a spotlight lesser known and underrated films which never got their due, for this week’s Cinapse Selects, I’ve decided to take a completely mainstream route. Unlike most of the films in this column, this week’s pick, the Robert Zemeckis ghost tale What Lies Beneath, is a film which outgrossed most competing titles at the box office when released in the summer of 2000, giving a much-needed hit to its two stars and becoming one of the top movies of the year. Since it’s the week of Halloween, when such films are in completely in fashion, I thought the time was perfect for a celebration of one of the director’s most entertaining offerings, which also happens to be not only a quintessential Alfred Hitchcock tribute, but one of the first horror classics of the 21st century.
For those who are discovering What Lies Beneath for the first time, the script, written by Clark “Agent Coulson” Gregg, deals with longtime married couple Norman and Claire Spencer (Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer), who have said goodbye to their college-bound daughter and are trying to adjust to life with just the two of them. While Norman, a professor at the local university, busies himself with his research, Claire, a former cellist, struggles with a way to fill her time until a couple moves in next door. Though she tries not to be nosy, Claire can’t help but hear the new neighbors arguing constantly and one day notices that the wife has disappeared. At the same time, a number of supernatural occurrences begin to take place around the house as a ghost proclaims to Claire, “You know.”
Any true cinephile could watch What Lies Beneath and instantly recognize it as one of the ultimate tributes to the work of Hitchcock. Besides starring two leads who surely would have been cast by the master of suspense had they been around during his era (in particular Pfeiffer, who is a modern-day equivalent of a Hitchcock blonde), the film recalls a number of the director’s classic titles. The act of Claire spying on her neighbor who she thinks killed his wife is straight out of Rear Window, while the menace she encounters in the bathtub channels the unnerving quality of Psycho. In terms of the more underlying themes, Rebecca is referenced with regard to the influence of the dead on the living, and Claire’s paranoia throughout the film, coupled with Norman’s refusal to believe her, is definitely in tune with Joan Fontaine’s in Suspicion.
While many may not agree, What Lies Beneath is a brilliant example of Zemeckis’s varied talents as a director. The filmmaker has made his name over the years thanks to a series of films, all of which have proven his ability as a versatile showman and a storyteller, including Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Back to the Future, Death Becomes Her, Forrest Gump, and Contact. The fact that the filmmaker completed What Lies Beneath on a break from shooting Castaway (while waiting for Tom Hanks to lose weight for that film) is alone indicative of his impressive talent. Besides his versatility, Zemeckis has always proven himself to be at the forefront in terms of visuals and special effects. Sure, much of what makes the film such a creeper is Claire wandering through her house with all its creaky doors and closets, but the effects Zemeckis used are what makes the film memorable. Moments, including virtually all of the scenes taking place in the bathroom, the heart-pounding finale taking place in a nearby river, and the film’s most iconic moment, the instance when Claire’s face literally morphs into that of the dead woman’s, are all instances which, although feel fresh and novel, bear the director’s unmistakable stamp.
What Lies Beneath certainly benefited from the casting of its two mega-watt A-list stars, both of whom were suffering from a series of flops at the time. While nowadays it’s commonplace to see a top movie star headlining a horror film, at the time, the idea was certainly a novel one, not to mention risky. It used to be the case that people only did horror films when their careers were on the decline. The casting of Ford and Pfeiffer in a film of this genre was a clever move as the pair’s presence certainly made audiences take notice. Beyond that, the two of them managed to deepen the work, giving the kind of character dimension and motivation usually reserved for dramas, greatly elevating the film.
Besides being remembered as an entertaining horror thriller, What Lies Beneath has been cited over and over for its spoiler-heavy trailer, which gives away far too many of the film’s secrets to the point where the film begins to be less fun to watch as a result. Today, What Lies Beneath is the rare title which entertains movie audiences through its shocks and scares, while also serving as a Hitchcock tribute from one of Hollywood’s most talented directors. Despite the marketing and the not-so-kind reviews, the film proved one of those instances where a star-driven summer blockbuster original script could exist and thrive, going so far as to become one of the new century’s first bona-fide classics.