This is the third in a recurring series I will be doing highlighting obscure, unknown, forgotten and underrated horror movies. The goal is to bring to light great horror of yesterday and today that just is not on most people’s radar. Just assume spoilers will be included. Enjoy.
The allure of the horror genre has been studied for years trying to determine why people are drawn so strongly to these types of movies. For me, one of the clearest reasons would have to be that there is truly something for everyone because everyone is afraid of something. Fear of doctors or going under the knife? David Cronenberg and body horror has you covered. Maybe for you it’s the dark, deep, recess of the unknown and unexplored wilderness? There are plenty of outdoor horrors that will keep you in the confines of the big city. Conversely, what if the thought of living in the big city, surrounded by masses of people in the event of a pandemic terrifies you to no end? There is a plethora of zombie movies that will certainly cling to your darkest fears.
Fear is consistent amongst all humans and this includes not only the horror viewer but the horror creator as well. For as many distinct and unique subgenres as there are in horror there is an equal number of distinct and unique directors from all walks of life. In horror there is no exclusivity and no barrier to entry. If you are afraid and/or you know what makes others afraid horror welcomes you with open arms. This is especially true when we speak of the often overlooked 2000 Horror classic What Lies Beneath.
Have you ever watched What Lies Beneath? No? OMG, let me tell you about it.
Have you ever found yourself skimming through channels or randomly watching the Shudder TV app and you catch a horror movie somewhere in the middle? If in your channel surfing, you landed on What Lies Beneath it may be difficult to pin point exactly which director this film resembles. Certainly, it has some James Wan elements of atmosphere and jumps scares. It certainly also has some Ti West sensibilities as it is an extremely slow burn until the final smashing conclusion. If your horror palate is unable to distinguish this unique flavor that’s ok because it’s this director’s only entry in the horror genre in their illustrious career. What Lies Beneath was directed by Robert Zemeckis who you may recall from classics such as Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump which are the furthest things from horror imaginable. But that’s the beauty of horror, you don’t need a deep lineage of horror entries in your career you simply have to understand fear and how to express it to the viewer. In this respect, Robert Zemeckis does so perfectly in one of the best thrillers since the age of Hitchcock.
The story revolves around Claire and Norman Spencer played by Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford as a couple of empty-nesters who have recently seen their eldest daughter off to college. Soon after, Claire becomes a busy body snooping on her neighbors and their tumultuous relationship which her husband dismisses as foolishness. One afternoon the neighbor Mary is seen crying in the yard and later that night Claire witnesses what appears to be her husband carrying her body out of the house and into the trunk of the car. Queue the ghost of Mary moving stuff around and playing solitaire on Spencer’s Windows 95 PC.
Not only is the director of this film unique to horror, so are the actors and the characters that they portray. Harrison Ford has never worked on a horror film that I am aware of and the only horror movie Michelle Pfeiffer was in was the 1994 classic Wolf with Jack Nicholson. The characters they portray, wealthy, 50 something, sail boating in their leisure time, empty-nesters are not often the focus of horror films. Horror is often for the youth, as the protagonists are typically awkward teenagers, horny college kids and young parents. Once again What Lies Beneath is a masterwork of horror in showing us that fear is universal, fear is something that exists in all humans.
Claire continues to see images of the ghost she assumes is their neighbor Mary in the bathtub water or writing the words “You Know” in the steamy mirror so she does what any logical person does…buys a Ouija board and calls her best friend over for a séance and some wine. The séance however is not successful, but the ghost begins moving things in the house and entering the letters MEF repeatedly into their family computer. A frustrated Claire goes to her husband’s work and confronts the neighbor’s husband, publicly condemning him for killing his wife and publicly embarrassing herself as the wife appears unharmed. For an early 2000’s film the effects in this movie are spotless. The use of CGI is sparingly and the short glimpse we see are subtle enough where you don’t notice them for being outdated, the movie really holds up a near 20 years later.
The second act of the film really ratchets up the supernatural. One of the ghost’s favorite things to do is to knock over a picture of Norman accepting an award for his work as scientist. She opens the frame and the back of the picture, which was a newspaper clipping, reveals a missing woman named Madison Elizabeth Frank, MEF. Claire visits the girl’s home and steals a lock of her hair to take it home and conjure the dead which causes her to become possessed. Norman comes home early from work and the possessed Claire seduces him, triggering a repressed memory Claire had of catching Norman cheating with Madison, his former student. Claire, infuriated leaves to drink more wine with her friend only to come home and find Norman in the bathtub having tried to commit suicide.
Shortly after Norman’s attempted suicide Claire goes to the lake and recovers a jewelry box finding all sorts of pictures of Madison and her jewelry. Suddenly Norman’s story changes, Madison committed suicide in their house and he hid the body to protect his career. He tries to convince Claire to let it go but she forces him to call 911 and explain the situation. He goes upstairs to take a shower before the cops arrive. A skeptical Claire redials the last number revealing Norman dialed 411 instead of 911. Norman appears suddenly and paralyzes Claire with halothane, an anesthetic which paralyzes the body while leaving the body conscious. Norman confesses to Madison’s murder and places Claire in the bathtub and starts filling it with water, staging her suicide.
This finale of this movie is years ahead of its time. The atmosphere uses an absence of sounds and motion to build a thick heavy air of tension which makes the sudden jolting jump scares even more impactful. I watched this movie for the first time while it was still in theatres and I vividly remember my cousin knocking over her box of Buncha Crunch and the whole theater jumping and screaming at the sound. In the early 2000’s horror was Final Destination, Jeepers Creepers and The Ring where we don’t see tension and atmosphere reenter the genre until later in the decade with entries like The Conjuring and The House of the Devil. Sometimes you need a different unique voice to change the genre and Robert Zemeckis certainly did that.
What follows is one of the most terrifying scenes in horror with Claire’s paralyzed body sitting in the bathtub as it slowly fills with water. Helplessly she waits for a slow and horrible death while Michelle Pfeiffer acts out all the horror using only her eyes and uneasy breath. Robert Zemeckis films this scene fantastically as the water rises above Claire’s ear the audio becomes muffled just as it would be if you were under water. He focuses on her frantic eyes until the last moment when she blinks and is fully submerged. Absolutely beautiful filmmaking!
Claire does however escape the tub and looks to escape the house and Norman. She wanders down the stairs to see Norman has collapsed after earlier seeing Madison’s ghost. The tension builds again as Claire tries to grab the phone out of Norman’s pocket before deciding to abandon the idea and rush to their truck. As she escapes we see in her side mirror the shadow of Norman rising in the house, the door of the house swinging closed as he stumbles out. You never seen Norman, you just see the things he stumbles into as he chases after Claire who needs to get the truck to the middle of the bridge near their home before cell phone service kicks in. I’ve said many times before that the resurgence in retro-horror and horror films set in the 80’s is simply a lazy way of addressing the modern cell phone issue of constant connectivity. Again, Robert Zemeckis far ahead of the game in horror as he addresses the cell phone problem in the easiest way ever, there simply is no service in this area.
Just as Claire is going to dial 911 Norman pops up and causes the truck to careen off the bridge and into the lake. We get another high-tension drowning scene with the truck slowly filling with water threatening to drown Claire and Norman but this unfortunate car accident has dislodged Madison’s dead body from her sunken car. The body rises and avenges her own death by pulling Norman to the murky depths allowing Claire to escape. The movie ends some months in the future as Claire is seen placing roses on a grave, Madison’s grave. Beautiful.
Overall What Lies Beneath is a fantastic horror film, even if it happens to be more thriller than pure horror. The supernatural element exists and that is enough for me to classify it as horror. Could Michelle Pfeiffer be classified as a scream queen after just one performance? Certainly, her scream is amazing! Truly blood curdling and scary. Harrison Ford as the creepy husband villain is amazing as well. His voice and his cadence of speaking is haunting in this film. Finally, Robert Zemeckis as the director, only a director with his mainstream credibility could have secured these big stars for this film but his directing is truly amazing. So much of this film is ahead of its time and revolutionary in horror. I would really like him to direct more horror movies, but I fear it would never match the beauty that is What Lies Beneath.
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