Some movies seem to work while you are watching them, but afterwards begin to unravel in retrospect, their appeal dissolving until you decide that you don’t really like them the way you thought you did. What Lies Beneath, a wobbly, intermittently effective ghost story, doesn’t really work even while you’re watching it, and after it’s over it only gets worse. It kept reminding me of the original The Uninvited (1944), a much better ghost story that I heartily recommend in place of this film.
Director Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away; Forrest Gump; the Back to the Future trilogy) is probably too talented to make a really unwatchable movie; and the considerable star power of Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer doesn’t hurt, either.What Lies Beneath does have some effectively creepy moments, and even one or two real scares.
But the seams are showing. Most of the "boo" moments are obvious a mile off, which makes it hard to be properly frightened, or even startled. Remember jumping during The Sixth Sense when the first ghost whisked past the open bathroom door? Here, as you watch a character looking one way while walking another way that you can’t see, or bending in front of an open refrigerator door that blocks the view of the kitchen doorway, you know what’s coming.
Similarly, lines like "Will that [paralyzing agent] work on all mammals?" and "You know the cell phone won’t work till you get to the middle of the bridge" are readily obvious set-ups; they exist for no dramatic reason except to establish the rules in a universe in which, sooner or later, somebody is going to be paralyzed, and somebody is going to be racing with a cell phone to the middle of the bridge.
Even worse than the seams are the loose threads: Characters wander into and out of the film without advancing the story or even adequately accounting for their presence, let alone their actions. Michelle Pfeiffer spends much of the first act spying on the new neighbors, suspecting possible foul play. Certainly she sees some odd things; and an obnoxiously double-edged supernatural clue seems to confirm her suspicions. This leads to a scene in which Pfeiffer confronts the man next door at a cocktail party, openly denouncing him as a murderer; thereby reassuring discerning viewers that his wife must be not only alive but on hand.
Then, when it becomes clear that nothing sinister is afoot with this couple, they drop out of the picture. They’re a mere red herring, an otherwise irrelevant distraction that not only doesn’t mean what it seems to mean, but ultimately doesn’t mean anything at all — that doesn’t contribute to the plot development in any way, but merely delays it.
In the same vein, Pfeiffer tries therapy, even a séance, all to no narrative purpose. A daughter, a best friend, a therapist, and even a dog are all employed here and there for dramatic effect, but don’t figure into the story in any larger way. Some (like the dog) don’t even seem to exist when they’re not needed.
Despite such flaws, Zemeckis does manage to breathe new life into such creaky devices as doors that open by themselves and reflections where no one is standing. And I had to smile when, after a failed attempt to contact the ghost through a Ouija-board séance, a computer boots itself up and an application launches itself and generates a repeating message: a very contemporary ghost, obviously.
But then the data on the screen — the ghost’s initials — merely perpetuate the annoying red herring mentioned above. It’s bad enough that the ghost’s initials happen to be the same as those of another character; but when the ghost then tries to communicate by typing those initials, you get the feeling the ghost is more interested in filling out the movie’s running time than establishing its identity. (Again, see The Uninvited for how this kind of thing can be made to work.) I was also distracted by the fact that, while the computer the ghost boots is clearly a Macintosh, a later close-up of the screen displays Windows software.
The film isn’t helped by its Hitchcockian pretensions. Not just individual shots but entire subplots are borrowed directly from the Master of Suspense (notably Rear Window), to dubious effect. Even the name of Ford’s character, Norman, is taken from Hitch’s most famous film, Psycho. (You might think that’s kind of a giveaway that his character isn’t necessarily on the up-and-up: but Zemeckis, leaving nothing to chance, made sure everyone already knew that from the trailers, before even seeing the film — a strategy he also applied, incidentally, to Cast Away, another better film.)
To the limited extent that What Lies Beneath does work, much of the credit goes to Pfeiffer, who’s in virtually every scene. I may have had a hard time believing this movie, but I believed that she believed it, which was a definite plus. Ford, too, is surprisingly effective in a bit of a departure role for him — not that I didn’t think he had it in him, but he hasn’t exactly been challenging himself lately. (The last time he took on a great role was probably 1993’s The Fugitive. Okay, Clear and Present Danger was more recent; but Ford first assumed the Jack Ryan role before The Fugitive, in Patriot Games.)
But the acting can’t redeem the goofily overwrought final act. I can accept the bathtub scene (the one plastered all over the promotional materials); though contrived, it’s keeping with the established themes of the story. But when the plot then descends into a Lethal Weapon-type action-chase scene, it’s clearly gone off the rails: a proper ghost story has an entirely different atmosphere from a Lethal Weapon action flick. And the climactic scene itself is so enormously preposterous that it could be pulled off only through well-earned audience goodwill. What Lies Beneath hasn’t got what it takes.
A general sort of New-Agey milieu pervades the film, mostly in connection with Pfeiffer’s friend Diana Scarwid, who consults with a psychic, gives Pfeiffer a book on magic, and holds the Ouija-board séance with her (to be fair, the séance doesn’t work, though information from the magic book does seem to impact the plot). The fact that the ghost takes possession of Pfeiffer’s body is also a potentially problematic device that may be felt to blur a line between fantasy ghost behavior and the kind of influence more properly associated with demons.
A ubiquitous tagline and a mind-bending climactic twist made M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout hit The Sixth Sense a monster sensation — yet this deliberately paced, psychologically sensitive paranormal thriller is much more than a one-trick puzzle movie, and holds up well to multiple viewings.
Then re-anchor the story to reality by asking whether there are really any ghosts at all — whether apparently spectral manifestations might not in fact be no more than an unstable woman’s imaginings, or the cruel pranks of a spiteful child, or the malicious work of mysterious servants with unguessable motives. Bear in mind that moviegoers are increasingly wise to Sixth-Sense style tricks, and will carefully analyze each of these characters in turn, trying to figure out what might not be as it seems.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.