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What Lies Beneath (2000)
Director: Robert Zemeckis

review by Christopher Geary

It's not often that you see two big stars like Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford in a relatively low-key Hitchcock style thriller like this. All the more surprising is the fact that this film is a suspenseful murder mystery ghost story directed by one of Hollywood's top filmmakers, Robert Zemeckis - responsible for the Back To The Future trilogy, Death Becomes Her, Contact, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
What Lies Beneath marks quite a change for someone with a track record of such big scale genre movies, and this is a somewhat unusual project for Zemeckis, because it lacks any obvious showcase for the kind of visual trickery that he does seem to favour. In fact there are so few gimmicks - of the type designed mainly to impress you - present in this leisurely paced two-hour drama that such deliberate downplaying of the production's special effects content is disconcerting by itself. For once, here's a major US studio picture where the main spectacle is the acting process and the driving force is the development of characters.
   "There's a ghost in my house." This tells the story of a missing girl, a flagging marriage, and a vaguely supernatural threat as past sins resurface - in a superbly controlled, modern gothic style. Pfeiffer is anxiously vulnerable and engagingly intuitive; then seemingly possessed and sexually dangerous in her role as Claire, the professional man's wife suffering an "empty nest episode" - after her teenage daughter leaves home. Few fans of the superstar will be able to resist the marked shifting of sympathies for and against Ford's doctor Norman in the wake of some unexpected revelations about marital infidelity, and a crime of resentful passion.
   James Remar is fine as the creepy neighbour suspected of murdering his neurotic wife. Joe Morton underplays his nonetheless important job as the understanding shrink for Claire's psychotherapy. Diana Scarwid is dazzling as Claire's confidant, and reluctant ouija board partner. Questions that arise from all this sophisticated exploration of deception in a genre narrative: is the lakeside house haunted? Will Norman confess all? Should Claire believe him if he does?
   What Lies Beneath is a composed and layered story with hyper attention to every passing sight and faint sound, and exceptionally restrained use of musical motifs, throughout the ups and downs of atmospheric tension, and Diaboliques inspired body-in-the-bathtub shocks. You will find some marvellous widescreen framing in the long takes - which complement angled mirror reflections, gliding steadicam moves, and inconspicuous f/x so well embedded in the plot they can happily be ignored. Although there is little here that can be identified as original, Zemeckis is canny enough at the homage game not to make the audience overly conscious of his allusions to classic material, and manages to gently remind us of many psychic and paranormal tales without causing us to lose sight of what's new about this refined variation of familiar genre themes. Not many of today's screen dramas build apprehension to a climax that makes you hold your breath, but this one does.
previously published in VideoVista #32
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