What Lies Beneath (2000)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: Clark Gregg; story by Sarah Kernochan and Clark Gregg
Cinematographer: Don Burgess
Producer: Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis
by Jon Cvack
I remembered always loving the first of the film, liking the second third and not at all enjoying the last third. I also remember going back to this movie thinking maybe I was wrong, being disappointed again, and I still I went back to the movie, feeling maybe this third or fourth time was the charm. Per usual it was received the same.
Zemeckis would follow this misstep with a similar classical homage with Allied (2016), which is arguably his worst film. For those wondering why they can’t make movie like they used to from the 40s and 50s - whether Hitchcock or Curtiz - Zemeckis offers exactly what you see from the period, but adding more sex, language, and action than you’d usually find. The problem is that their somewhat disjointed plot stands in the way of the characters, in which even the greatest or more elegant camera work or movie stars could never save.
The story is Hitchcockian through and through, involving a wealthy middle aged couple whose daughter has just gone off to college. The mom Claire Spencer (Michelle Pfeiffer) is struggling with the empty nest, especially as she had given her violinist career in order to raise the kid. Left with little to do all day as her famous husband Dr. Norman Spencer (Harrison Ford) spends most of his time in his laboratory, working on his next cutting edge research project. New neighbors have moved in next door and in a Rear Window (1954)-inspired first half (or however long this goes on), after hearing some fights and with some strange interactions with the wife, Claire begins to suspect the neighbor husband has killed his wife.
It’s here that the movie works well, until you realize that it’s all a wild goose chase. Claire confronts the neighbor husband at a party, accusing him of murder, who then reveals his wife and that they were, in fact, just having some marital problems. The issue is that, come the end, when you realize that these characters are never reintroduced nor play any further role from this moment on, you can’t help but feel annoyed that this was just a bunch of empty filler to occupy the two hour and change running time and help prolong the creepiest sections.
Somewhere throughout this paranoia, Claire begins seeing ghosts, verging between what seems like a hallucination to the full fledged supernatural, though at times, I’m never sure where what she was seeing actually resided. The ghosts take the form of a young beautiful girl, which she sees in the bathtub and then in the lake outside their house where she then grabs an actual key from the corpse that leads to some other information later on, leaving you to wonder, if not a hallucination, why she didn’t want to call the police and say she had found a dead body in the lake that she pulled a key from?
This leads to the third leg of the plot, in which she discovers that Norman had an affair with a young graduate student. During the film’s most bizarre scene, Claire gets made up and puts on a sexy dress, seemingly possessed with the hopes of seducing Norman, who sees her eyes even change color. According to Wikipedia, Claire evidently had suppressed the memory of catching the two have sex, though I don’t remember this at all.
It’s here that the film then shifts, as possession aside, Norman later admits to the affair, taking us into the final act in which, given all his research, he couldn’t possibly have the truth revealed, killing the student and now willing to kill Claire. The story descends into a generic thriller as we watch the husband try and kill the wife who we know will come out on top.
The film made me consider the state of classical thrillers the Hitchcock pioneered. In the documentary De Palma (2015), we discover a man who struggled to progress the formula forward. While taking them to their limits in films such as Blow Out (1981), come the 90s, beyond Mission Impossible (1996), it seemed that all of the angles that could be pulled from the classical genre had been explored. He goes so far as to offer a fascinating dilemma he dealt with in being unable to think of new and cinematic ways to keep exploring the genre.
What Hitchcock did so well is make it seem as though a supernatural force was at play when really it was about coincidence or a villainous character deliberation. When first watching Hitchcock back before I was into film, I remember expecting more ghosts and scares. Zemeckis seemed to have a similar idea, opting for more supernatural elements within the format. Unfortunately, what I imagine both Hitchcock and de Palma struggled with was in having an adequate explanation. We never know why Madison’s ghost appears, and it continues its role through the very end, relying on a generic cheating husband/paranoid wife feud which has been long overplayed. While I understand the neighbor function more as a homage, I suspect that if that story was better incorporated into the plot, if not the dominant focus, that the story could have worked much better. It’s a great film up until the final third, worth watching until that point, then becoming one of the more disappointing films you’ll see - at least compared to how strong it started out.
BELOW: A very sexy scene that I'm still a bit confused about
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