If you’re old enough, you definitely remember What Lies Beneath coming out. Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer in a horror movie directed by Robert Zemeckis. It was a slam dunk. And it made A LOT of noise when it dropped in 2000, cracking the top 10 highest grossing films of the year. Now, almost 20 years later, we’re taking a spoiler-filled look back on the movie and weighting in on the good, the bad and the in between. That is how reviews work, after all.
Reviewed by: Jake
Note before we get into this little segment that this is going to be a streamlined version of the plot. We’ll hit the main beats but some of the more nuanced elements are being omitted. Just wanted to tell you that up front. Build the trust, you know?
Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Norman (Harrison Ford) Spencer live in New England. He’s a successful scientist and she is a housewife who previously gave up a musical career to help raise their daughter, who is now off to college. Claire starts experiencing strange events in their home shortly after her daughter leaves and begins to suspect that their house might be haunted. As clues start to appear around the house along with the paranormal events she is experiencing, she is led to discover that the ghost may be that of a missing person named Madison Frank.
Claire follows the clues and eventually has a seance to try to call Madison’s spirit in as a way of trying to help release her. Instead, she is possessed temporarily by her spirit and discovers that Norman had an affair with Madison before she went missing. Norman claims Madison became emotionally unstable and then disappeared. He also ostensibly tries to commit suicide so his story seems dubious. Claire continues to find clues related to Madison in the lake near their home, and after finding a lock box with Madison’s necklace inside, Norman changes his story and claims Madison committed suicide so he tried to cover it up. Claire forces him to call the police but discovers that he dialed 411 instead of 911. Norman then hits her with a paralyzing agent and attempts to drown her in the bathtub while staging it as if it were a suicide.
Midway into the sequence he is spooked by seeing Madison’s face on Claire’s and he bangs his head and knocks himself out. Claire is able to escape the tub as the paralysis wears off and she tries to flee in their truck. Norman attacks her and they plunge into Lake Champlain near a boat ramp. As the car sinks it disturbs the car with Madison’s body inside and her corpse floats up and drowns Norman. Claire lives. Probably not happily ever after though.
What the Movie Does Right
This should come as no surprise with Robert Zemeckis at the helm, but this is a well shot film. There are quite a few great scenes, most notable of which is the sequence in the bathroom where Norman is trying to kill Claire. It is tense and extremely well crafted. The shot angles are great and the score ceases to allow a quiet eeriness build as Norman continues along with his sinister plan. The only sound is the water in the tub, which amplifies the tension. Seriously, that part of the film is really solid. If you watch nothing else, watch that part.
And you know what? Maybe just watch that part because...
What the Movie Does Wrong
Y’all. I left out sooooo much from the plot rundown. Guess what? None of it fucking mattered or truly needed to be in the film. This movie is over 2 hours long and I think it could have been cut almost in half. There are a preposterous amount of tangential story elements that make no difference and are clumsily tacked onto the film which pad the run time and then some, make the movie ridiculously boring, and actively distract from what it does have going for it in terms of tension. And they throw in about 10 totally unnecessary and mostly unearned jump scares as means of cutting through the “tension”. I missed most of them the first time because it was impossible to stay immersed in the film so as a good reviewer, I was forced to rewind and watch them again just to validate that they sucked. They do.
I could continue to shit on the movie for how boring it is and how remarkable it is that this screenplay wasn’t chopped significantly and I could pontificate on what the hell they did cut considering what was left in the film but I’m not going to. That would get boring as hell and I’m not going to let a review of a boring movie get boring. You get the point. This is a technically well made movie from a great director starring two powerhouse actors and it just can’t get out of its own way and tell a compelling story.
Story: 4 - There is a moderately compelling, dare I suggest Hitchcockian story in here somewhere but it’s engulfed by so much pointless bullshit that it’ll make your head spin with rage.
World-Building / Immersion: 3 - the net impact of the above is a very difficult to watch, boring movie. And it leans too heavily on jump scares (bad ones) to cut through the fat during the first two thirds. The final act is quite good but there was way too much damage done at that point to recover my interest.
Scare-Factor: 3 - There are things the movie has going for it in this category. First is the sequence where Norman is trying to kill Claire. It’s pretty sinister and will get the heart pumping a bit. Second is a specific scare that happens at the laker where claire is on the dock looking into the water and she sees a face underneath. It’s nuanced and spooky.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 6- This is mostly a judicious lack thereof film, meaning this is about as high as I can go for this category. There’s plenty going for it here from the direction and stes/props, to the audio. No real complaints. It does what it needs to but this is not a movie where you will be talking about effects unless you’re doing shit like this and dissecting it.
Overall: 4 - This movie is kind of a boring mess. It had the names to be a very solid entry but it just couldn’t get anything going.