I used to do a lot of sound work on films. They were documentaries, but the tricks of the trade don't change a whole lot from one genre to the other. There's an image on the screen and there's a sound to go with it.

Back in Alfred Hitchcock's day, the speakers in the theaters were pretty dismal, compared to today's stereophonic digital blare. But, still and all, in his most controversial film, which was the scariest thing a lot of folks had ever seen at the time, Psycho, the sound effects had a lot to do with making the shower stabbing scene so frightening. Those violins screeching to a crescendo as you saw the knife being lowered into a naked girl; that was some pretty avant-garde stuff back then. Of course, it's been used and overused by now.

Probably no better example would be what you experience when you have the misfortune to pay for a ticket to see What Lies Beneath. Every time this hackneyed cliche of a film makes you jump, take a second to think about what just happened. Was it that you were so caught up in the action? Was it because your empathy with the character was a dissolving adventure?

Nope; it was because the speakers were screaming to you, "This is scary!!! Jump, dammit!!"

As many movie reviewers have stated, if this hadn't been made by Robert Zemeckis and hadn't starred Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, this kind of would-be Hitchcock bullshit would have ruined some careers before they got out of the starting blocks.

Most people who know me will tell you (and I won't deny) that I'm a huge Robert Zemeckis fan. I'd say without hesitating that he's by far my favorite director. Sadly, I am not a big fan of horror movies. I don't like them much at all. Several months ago when I saw the trailer for What Lies Beneath, I ignored it, filed it in that category of movies I didn't plan on seeing...until I saw the name "Robert Zemeckis" in big white letters. Hmm. So of course, I had to see the movie, just to see whether Zemeckis, one of the best directors of all time, could make a horror flick that I actually liked.

This is most definitely a horror film. This is also, unfortunately, a horror film that will not be liked by people who don't like horror films. It's only logical that this would be the case, but I was hoping for better.

Regardless of how much of a horror film it is, What Lies Beneath is not a bad movie. It is only somewhat typical of the horror genre. For some reason, this movie reminded me most of Rosemary's Baby, despite the fact that this film's atmosphere is notably less dark and the story not very similar. Not a bad movie.

It's not an extremely good movie either.

The cliches this film exploits were nearly unbearable. While the rest of the audience was laughing at how much they jumped when something onscreen surprised them, I was laughing at how predictable the surprise had been. I'm not a very jumpy person. I twitched once during this entire movie. There was only one thing that actually surprised me...one thing that actually wasn't predictable. Aside from that one tiny movement near the end of the film, the only thing about this movie that had me jumping in my seat was the way the camera moved.

There's a reason Zemeckis is my favorite director: he treats the camera as if it is a character in the film. The camera is almost always moving, never stationary. Even when the movement is so slight that you can barely discern it, the camera is moving, panning ever so slowly, tracking something important in the scene, making ever-so-slight suggestions to your eyes that you don't even notice unless you're trying hard to.

There are several scenes in this movie that literally made me sit bolt upright in my seat and lift up my jaw with my hand (yes, my jaw actually dropped). Not because I was scared or surprised, but because these wonderful, seemingly impossible camera moves just suddenly happened out of nowhere, and I had to blink twice and shake my head to convince myself that I had really seen it. Zemeckis did this to me constantly in Forrest Gump and in Contact, and he doesn't disappoint in What Lies Beneath.

But enough rambling about the camera. The plot is the most important part of any movie, right? Ick. That's where this movie gets docked a lot of points. While the plot, in the end, certainly seems deep and meaningful and sensible, the way it was executed was somewhat muddled and, quite frankly, annoying. The movie starts off quick, pulls you into an intriguing (if unoriginal) mystery involving the secret life of the next door neighbors, and then suddenly drops that theme altogether in the middle of the movie and focuses on something else, which eventually turns out to be the movie's main point.

It seems almost as if the writer ran with one idea for a while, got tired of it, terminated it, and started on a new concept, then went back and sprinkled the earlier parts of the script with small bits of foreshadowing regarding the new concept. Messy, messy plot.

Acting, for once in a horror film, is superb in this movie. Michelle Pfeiffer, as always, steals the screen with her enchanting eyes and uncanny ability to thoroughly convince you that her character is entirely one hundred percent genuine. Even Harrison Ford, while still occasionally falling into the rut of being his old monotone self, manages to shine in parts of the movie (most specifically, the ending). But most of all, anyone watching this movie must understand that Zemeckis is a very precise director who expects quite a bit from his actors. Many of the scenes are extremely long shots with complex camera movements and even more complex actions and dialog...and since the camera never cuts away, the actors had to get it just right. And they do, consistently.

The bottom line: If you like horror films, this one is better than most. If you like beautiful cinematography and stunning camera moves, this film will have you wiping slobber off your shoes. Otherwise, wait for the video and a stormy night.

What Lies Beneath - 2000 (Horror/Mystery/Thriller according to IMDB, Suspense/Supernatural Drama/Jumpy Bits* according to me.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay by Clark Gregg, Story by Sarah Kernochan and Clark Gregg
Starring Michelle Pfeiffer as Claire Spencer, Harrison Ford as Dr Norman Spencer, and Robert Zemeckis' camera moves as themselves.

(Harrison is normally credited first on this movie, but I've switched the main two names around, because this is really Pfeiffer's movie.)

Plot:

Claire and Norman Spencer have the perfect marriage, a big house, and look amazingly like Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford. Claire starts experiencing ghostly voices and faces, and suspects that their house has become haunted - the woman next door has mysteriously disappeared, and her sinister husband isn't talking. Claire decides to get to the bottom of things, but begins to doubt her own sanity until things start to get physical... Basically it's a haunted house movie, done with style.

Why You Should Watch/Rent/Buy This:

I accept the criticisms of the music score telling you when to feel sad/frightened/etc, but this is true of most movies lately. However, I can tell you that it wasn't the music that made me jump in the infamous bathroom scene - I don't want to spoil it for you, but it's been a long time since I've heard an entire audience scream - yes, actually scream. I nearly hit the ceiling. There is also a long, mostly silent sequence just after this, which is full of suspense and atmosphere.

Another criticism usually aimed at this film is in fact one of its strengths. Very little happens for bloody aaaaaaages - but all the while hints are being dropped, the tension is mounting, and it all pays off in the final 20 minutes, which is one of the most ridiculously exciting, tense, scary last reels I've ever seen. The audience I saw it with with was all over the place, shouting, screaming, laughing, and generally going bananas. Fantastic. This end sequence also features a classic reversal, which takes everything you think you know about an entire career and uses it to make you shit yourself. I can't give it away, so if you haven't seen the film yet, you absolutely must, at once.

Robert Zemeckis can drive you mad - he makes films like this, and Back to the Future, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but also churns out shit like Cast Away and Forrest Gump. Classic John Waters quote: "I can't understand people who watch my movies until the end, and then complain - why don't they switch off halfway through? That's what I did with Forrest Gump! Who do *I* complain to about that movie? Who can *I* call about the barn raising scene in Witness?"

Is it a Hitchcock rip off? Yes and no. The makers were determined to do a thriller in the classic Hitch style, wanted to explore what sort of things he would have done if he had had access to today's effects resources. They didn't want the effects to be obvious, or in your face - they were only there to help the story or increase the suspense. A scene where Pfeiffer pulls the plug out of a bathtub full of water, for example, involved a mirror instead of water and a CGI plug and chain. This results in some amazing shots, which you accept as merely clever, until you think about them and realise they're physically impossible (like the truck sequences and the under-floor shot). Some of Hitch's trickier camera moves still mystify me in this way - in particular the pull out after the first murder in Frenzy, where the camera goes backwards down some stairs and across a street (5 years before the steadicam was invented), and the move in Psycho where it goes up the stairs and up above the wall to look straight down at the floor. Zemeckis keeps his camera on the move constantly, and flings it around the place with a flagrant disregard for the laws of physics. I'm sure Hitchcock would have approved.

Most Excellent Movie Trivia:

Filming was stopped for a year on the abysmal Cast Away, so that Tom Hanks could grow that disturbing beard and get (relatively) skinny. Most directors would welcome the time off, but Zemeckis actually made another film while he was waiting - What Lies Beneath was completed during this off time. Funnily enough, it's miles better than the film he took lots of time with...

The film gets darker as it goes along - as the tone gets more serious, the lighting gets gradually darker and more shadowy, and the weather changes from summer to autumn, eventually ending up in snow. The walls of the house were even repainted darker to match the growing unease and darkness.

The Witches of Eastwick also starred Pfeiffer, and both films involve spells using hair. She plays the cello in What Lies Beneath, and Susan Sarandon plays the same instrument in Eastwick. (Originally I stated that Pfeiffer played it in both films - thanks to FelonyMPulse for spotting the error and pointing it out to me - I thought the IMDB was wrong, but on closer examination, it is correct, I just originally read it wrong. Doh! Thanks to Vorbis for letting me know, also apologies for the misrepresentation - Vorbis wrote the excellent IMDB entry, and I need to read things more carefully...)

Faces - the face of the murdered woman appears many times, sometimes obviously (the bath scene as mentioned above), sometimes very subtly (the lake, the bath water, the mirror). In the red dress seduction scene, Pfeiffer's face very briefly morphs into that of the dead girl, including the eyes (I didn't spot this until the third or fourth viewing). Also, in the last scene, just before the fade out, you can see her face in the snow. There might be others, I haven't caught them yet.

The house set was designed so that any part of it could be dismantled and removed, to squeeze the camera anywhere they could. For a scene in the small bathroom where a character walks towards the bath, the bathroom was specially lengthened so that it would take a long time to walk the distance. Other dimensions were altered so as to increase the tension where necessary.

An E.T. toy can be seen on top of the cupboard when Pfeiffer is sorting out her screen daughter's clothes. Melissa Mathison, who wrote and produced E.T., was married to Harrison Ford (until he got his earring and started going out with young actresses, that is).

Hitchcock References/Coincidences: Rear Window - Claire watches her sinister neighbour, and suspects him of murdering his wife - James Stewart did the same. In both cases, nobody believed them, and it turned out that they were wrong. Psycho - both films feature the shower curtain being pulled off the rail. James Remar, who plays the sinister husband next door, played the patrolman in the loathsome remake of Psycho in 1998. Diana Scarwid, who plays Pfeiffer's best friend, played Maureen Coyle in Psycho 3.


*Jumpy bits - the parts of a film specifically designed to make you jump, wet yourself, and shout "booyah!" in a crowded cinema.

In response to wonko's point about the neighbours subplot: This is called a red herring. These exist to fool you into thinking that you know what is going to happen. The writer didn't "get tired" of this story strand, it was planned that way all along. This is a common horror/thriller trick. If you don't like or watch horror movies, then you probably won't appreciate this type of thing. And it's not suddenly dropped without warning, it is neatly tied up and concluded. Thank you.

Cast and Witches of Eastwick trivia from the IMDB, other trivia culled from various sources, interviews, etc. No information at all came from the incredibly dull commentary on the Region 1 DVD, except for the fact that all the actors involved are "marvellous". Please, directors: if you're going to bother doing a commentary, we want you to point out shit to us, tell us that the man in the food shop was your uncle Bertie, that hand holding the knife was actually the guy who wrote the script because the actor was off sick that day, etc etc. William Friedkin's commentary on The Exorcist is a perfect example, he never shuts up and is full of interesting trivia. Rant ends.

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