What Lies Beneath is a film I really didn’t like when I saw it upon its release in 2000. As a fan of Robert Zemeckis, I was looking forward to him taking on a Hitchcockian thriller with a cast top-lined by Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer. And when I left the theatre that first time, I wholly rejected it. The supernatural elements of the film turned me off, feeling like a complete betrayal of the human monsters of Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre. I went in expecting one thing, got another, and let that bad taste simmer in my mouth for almost twenty years.

But I think it’s time we go back and take a look at What Lies Beneath with fresh, more mature eyes and meet on a level with the intentions of the filmmaker in mind, rather than the baggage we brought to it.

This post contains spoilers.

The Puzzle Pieces

The film centers around a pair of empty-nesters, Norman and Claire Spencer, played by Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer. The two of them restore an old house on a lake with a history to it. Slowly, after some presence from beyond continues reaching out to her, Claire Spencer believes a murder has occurred. At first, it’s a Rear Window situation and Claire believes the neighbor has killed his wife. When the neighbor’s wife (played by a pre-Lord of the Rings Miranda Otto) turns up alive, Claire is left to wonder if she’s simply going crazy. Her husband, the ever-charismatic Harrison Ford, coaches this line of thought, sending her to therapy and making her think she’s imagining things, hearkening back to George Cukor’s 1944 film Gaslight. In fact, because of our deep knowledge of Hitchcock, Zemeckis is actually gaslighting us, but we won’t realize that until much later in the film.

As Claire slowly realizes that she’s right and something else is going on, she pieces together the real murder that took place and the crime is laid bare on her very doorstep. This leads to a tense chase where Claire might not make it out alive that brings to mind elements of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Psycho, and even Rope.

Zemeckis, the Master Storyteller

Zemeckis created a film perfect for Hitchcock aficionados. It leans into and out of Hitchcock tropes in ways that play toward the held knowledge and then pull back to defy the expectation. With the Rear Window situation, we fully expect it to be the case and have it take over the movie. Zemeckis leans hard enough into that dilemma to make us believe it, so when it turns out there was no murder and Claire comes face to face with the wife herself, we’re left with the rug pulled out from us just as much as she is.

As Zemeckis constructs the denouement, Harrison Ford is utilized as a great mix of Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant, particularly in Rope and Suspicion, respectively, giving a monologue in ways only actors of that calibre and charisma can.

The pure cinema of the film, the cuts of reaction, the shot choices to build tension, and the construction of sequences, are masterful. Zemeckis plays with the audience the same way Hitchcock did and constructs truly frightening moments.

Perhaps the best instance of this construction comes when Norman decides to kill his wife once and for all, staging it as a suicide. Earlier in the film, we’re given hints that Norman has access to an experimental new drug that paralyzes a subject but allows it to retain consciousness. He attacks Claire and doses her with the drug before carrying her up the stairs and depositing her in the bathtub. He begins to fill the tub and the terror on her face and in her eyes is felt viscerally by the audience as the water soon over takes her head. She has mere seconds to regain feeling enough to save herself and we’re left wondering the whole time, “Will she?”

Another favorite moment in the film is a high-tech play on a moment from Hitchcock’s Rope. In Rope, Hitchcock gave himself the challenge of filming the movie in what would seem to be one continuous take. In order to achieve the tension of his editing, he used camera moves or other devices to simulate editing. There’s a moment early in the film where one of the characters is disposing of the murder weapon, a length of rope, in a drawer in the kitchen. As he does so, the door to the kitchen, swinging on the hinge, creates three unique “shots” of the action, building the tension. Zemeckis takes this moment and transfers it to the sideview mirror of a car. Claire is trying to escape her murderous husband and gets into her car only to find she has the keys to the truck, not the car. We cut to the side view mirror and we see the truck in the background. Claire opens the door and the camera remains affixed to the sideview mirror, giving us a look at the silhouette of Norman rising to his feet inside the house. When she closes the car door, the camera still remains in place and we watch her race to the truck.

It’s exactly the sort of thing Hitchcock would have done had he the technology to do it.

Suspicion 

So why did this film get a bad reputation in the first place?

The first negative the film had going for it was the abysmal marketing campaign. This was not the fault of the film, but certainly hurt the experience in the theatre. The trailer gives away the twist that Harrison Ford is the villain here. That only serves to undercut the two hours of the film where we’re supposed to believe that Harrison Ford is a loving husband. It robs the movie of tension on its first viewing in a way that only subsequent viewings in the right frame of mind can heal.

It’s unsettling to see Harrison Ford slowly transform into a villain. It’s not something he’s really done in his career, which is what makes his casting and performance so remarkable in that they are tools of the filmmaking. That’s why the marketing let the movie down so much. You want to trust Harrison Ford. And letting his charisma do that work for you when watching the film does it wonders.

For an audience already prone to being jaded, the marketing simply ruins the experience of the film.

This could have been a shining moment for the marketing. Go back to all of the marketing of Psycho. Janet Leigh is everywhere and she’s killed early in the story. Her casting was designed to add to the shock of her death and the marketing reinforced it. They did no such thing for What Lies Beneath and it’s a shame.

The Ghost of Alfred Hitchcock

Many of us saw this film when it first opened and felt betrayed – we didn’t get the movie we wanted. I remember leaving the film angry about the ghost story element, feeling that it was somehow a betrayal of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock would never use something like a ghost as a macguffin in a film, so why would Zemeckis? There was an intense lack of self-awareness to such an idea, but that’s how I felt upon first viewing. No one was immune to this – even Roger Ebert fell into this trap. Reading his review, he lamented exactly the same thing. He found the nature of the ghost story ending absurd.

Coming back to the film, it’s easy to realize that Zemeckis set out to tell a Hitchcock story with the trappings of modern cinema and the added twist of the supernatural seems commonplace now. Guillermo del Toro has practically mastered it. Zemeckis’s premise was solid: How would Hitchcock tell a movie like this? And then he did it.

I simply wasn’t aware enough then to realize that the supernatural element was a feature, not a bug.

Reevaluation

When you meet the film on its own terms and take the premise they set out with at face value, it’s a remarkably taut supernatural thriller. It has elements of Gaslight, Psycho, Suspicion, Rear Window and many other films of the genre, blended together into something well designed and modern — well, modern for the year 2000, anyway. The script, written by future Marvel mainstay Clark Gregg, is taut and folds in on itself neatly, paying off every set up, no matter how small they may seem. The cinematography is exactly what I’d imagine Hitchcock would go for, too, to the point that I’d be interested in watching this in black and white. Or even three-strip Technicolor.

This is a film that I want to rewatch and study since I’ve revisited it. Zemeckis mastered every move he’d borrowed from Hitchcock’s toolkit and adds them up in really fascinating ways.

What Lies Beneath is a film that does everything right, but it wasn’t right for the time it came out. We can look back on it now with those fresh eyes and realize that we can stand it up against the best of Zemeckis’ filmography. I only hope the critical reception of the film over the last two decades hasn’t turned him off of thrillers and horror forever. He’s remarkably good at it and it would be a shame to never get another one from him.

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