Next time you’re passing through a video store, looking for a quiet but scary ghost story — pass this one by.
You’re better off renting The Changeling (Canadian 1979), a film of quiet ghostly scares. Atmospheric, suspenseful, thought-provoking. Or try Ghost Story (1981), a film with beautiful wintry scenes, and rich characters played by seasoned Hollywood Golden Age pros. The Changeling is a low-budget import, Ghost Story a big studio effort, yet both are excellent ghost films.
As for What Lies Beneath … well, it’s hardly worth sitting through two hours to find out.
Despite its length, its star cast and star director, What Lies Beneath has a smallish story. One trade critic compared it to a TV movie. True enough. What Lies Beneath feels as though it was written as a TV movie, until by some miracle Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Robert Zemeckis were conned into it. Maybe one of them actually liked it, signed on, and then it snowballed. Once those names signed on, distribution had to shift to the big screen. The script was lengthened to accommodate the theatrical distribution and star talent (important people require a film of important length). A few unnecessary special effects further padded the story.
It’s still a small story. And not a terribly original or compelling one.
Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer are a trendy but classy New England couple. He’s a college professor, she’s a former concert cellist who gave up her career to raise a daughter. They’re the sort of people who’ve lived or worked in Manhattan, attend museums, summer at the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard, and try to find authenticity in a faux rustic lifestyle. Literate, sophisticated, a perfect New York Times Sunday Magazine kind of lifestyle in a small northeastern college town.
But things only appear perfect. Soon after their daughter is sent off to college, Michelle Pfeiffer imagines things. She thinks the couple next door may not be what they seem. She imagines murder. She imagines ghosts. But her initial suspicions prove wrong. So too her new suspicions. What Lies Beneath is full of twists and turns, and red herrings leading into more twists and turns, and still more red herrings and twists and turns.
Long before film’s end, one wearies.
All the twists and turns and discoveries feel less suspenseful than artificial. It’s as if Zemeckis thought: “Gee, there are so many ways this film can go … so many good possibilities … let’s use them all!”
Yet despite its ponderous length and pretty cinematography, What Lies Beneath remains a Lifetime Original TV movie. Men are evil, concealing a “beast within.” Women are victims — smart and brave! — but weakened by their one great fault: they just “love too much.” (Another critic noted that whenever a man commits adultery in a Lifetime movie, it’s inexcusable. When a women commits adultery, it’s “a matter of the heart.” In that sense, The Bridges of Madison County was also a TV movie).
It’s hard to discuss this film without giving away its red herrings or surprise twists, or letting on which is which. Suffice to say that issues of spousal abuse and adultery and murder all emerge at various points. The title has two meanings: what lies beneath the veneer of domestic tranquility that neighbors present to the world, and the veneer of love and fidelity that couples present to each other. And what lies beneath the ground, and beneath the lake.
I don’t know who’d like this film. It’s more of a “chick flick” than a horror film. But “chick flick” fans (which does not include all women) would dislike the occasional ghostly gore. Horror fans would respond: “What gore?” For that matter: “What scares?”
There are a few shocks buried in those wearying hours. The ghostly makeup evokes Ghost Story. (Now there’s a “wronged woman” film that horror fans can enjoy! If you’re tempted to rent What Lies Beneath, rent Ghost Story instead).
Harrison Ford plays against type. Pfeiffer’s the heroine, Ford the cad. That’s good for one big surprise (except now I’ve ruined it for you — sorry). What Lies Beneath seems intended as a star vehicle for Pfeiffer. But since when do TV movies qualify as “star vehicles?” When they’re released on the big screen?
Pfeiffer has a clichéd Best Friend. The usual “Rhoda type.” Slightly overweight (obese, by Hollywood standards), always arriving unannounced, full of wisecracks. One almost hears a TV sitcom laugh trax whenever her unwelcome presence intrudes, adding yet another unnecessary layer to this sluggish mess.
There is also a clichéd Musty Occult Book. You know the type. Whenever someone in a horror film or TV show confronts the supernatural, they always visit a dim library or used bookstore to research the topic. There they discover a thick, heavy, rare, dusty, musty volume of ancient lore. Seems these books are hard to come by. No wonder these people know nothing about ghosts, or vampires, or werewolves. For some reason, they never enter a brightly lit Barnes & Noble superstore, where they’d find many aisles of occult books in the New Age section. And not the old musty kind with woodcut illustrations, but shiny, new, clean-smelling paperbacks.
Appropriately, it is the clichéd Wisecracking Best Friend who delivers the clichéd Musty Occult Book to Pfeiffer.
As for the special effects, they’re pretty, but often unnecessary. Without the effects, What Lies Beneath could have been shot as a workable TV movie. One senses that after the stars signed on and theatrical distribution was secured, the budget rose in all areas, so they had to find ways to spend it.
For instance, the final scene is in a cemetery. It’s the prettiest scene in the film, seemingly shot indoors on a sound stage. Wintry gray “skies.” Shades of gray tinged with white and black, creating a bleak, expressionistic — almost Caligarian — sensibility. Then as a final touch, just before the end credits, the outlines of a woman’s face forms in the snow. Not a clear image, but the kind one sees in passing clouds.
I expect a team of computer graphic artists spent at least several days on just that one image. It’s a pretty image, but wholly unnecessary to the film.
It’s still just a TV movie.