An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: What Lies Beneath (2000)
- Credit: Archant
Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different
What Lies Beneath; dir: Robert Zemeckis; Starring: Michelle Pfeiffer, Harrison Ford, Miranda Otto, James Remar, Katharine Towne. Cert: 15 (2000)
A little bit of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight, a dash of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, a touch of Vertigo, What Lies Beneath is not afraid to wear its influences on its sleeve but, as the old saying goes, if you are going to steal then steal from the best, and this suspense-thriller is a cut above the usual schlock horror movie that Hollywood churns out seemingly on auto-pilot.
This is unsurprising as it has a top notch cast and Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis injecting some genuine mystery into the proceedings and stars like Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer working hard to avoid the clichés that are usually found in material of this sort.
This is a movie that intrigues you, seduces you and draws you into a world which lulls you into a false sense of security before whipping the narrative rug out from under your feet. It’s a nice trick and makes the movie twice as rewarding as you would expect going in.
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It’s a rousing tale of doubt, deceit, and murder that is almost gleeful in its storytelling. Ford and Pfeiffer work very well together, they make a convincing couple, but ever-so gently Zemeckis starts planting the seeds that something is not quite right.
In a nod to Rear Window Claire (Pfeiffer) becomes obsessed with the comings and goings of the house next door, even starting to watch the house through a pair of binoculars. She becomes convinced that the vaguely anti-social Warren Feur (James Remar) has murdered his wife.
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For renowned gene scientist and university lecturer Norman (Harrison Ford), things start to take an even more unsettling turn when Claire starts claiming that a ghost is stalking her house - is this the spirit of Mrs Feur, desperate to point her towards the truth?
This is when the film starts channelling the classic British chiller Gaslight. She starts hearing voices. Doors open by themselves. A framed photograph of Norman at an award ceremony keeps falling off the table. Hot baths are mysteriously run, as if waiting for her to slip beneath the surface. Shadowy figures lurk in the background, obscured by steamed up mirrors.
Ford may get top billing but this is Pfeiffer’s film. She turns in an electrifying performance. Pfeiffer is very good at being nervous. Her fragile state of mind allows her to command our attention. It turns out that she used to be a concert-cellist but no longer plays. It seems that this has something to do with a car crash but we are not too sure. After her daughter has left for college, she also no longer feels comfortable in the house.
Between them Zemeckis and Pfeiffer do a brilliant job at creating a sense of unease. At times the film seems to pause as Claire fights to collect herself, forcing to herself to get on with her life. The result is that we, the audience, have real doubts about the state of her mind.
Robert Zemeckis has clearly cast the film with great care. While, he allows Michelle Pfeiffer to stretch herself as an actress, a rare opportunity to be more than a pretty face, something she seizes with both hands, Harrison Ford is required to be a pillar of dependability. He brings his gruff, rock-solid, no nonsense persona which has seen him through countless action films and Hollywood blockbusters.
He tries to calm his wife’s fears and reassure us that she is imagining it all. Except when a ghostly figure with two different coloured eyes turns up, we start to think that perhaps Claire is not seeing things after all – particularly when the dog starts barking at unseen menaces.
They’re renovating Norman’s old family house on the shores of a lake; a house, which, does seem haunted by spirits, possibly the ghost of the disappearing wife next door.
It is at this stage, the film then shifts into a detective thriller. Rather like James Stewart in Vertigo, Pfeiffer’s Claire Spencer starts flipping through photo albums, reviving old memories and starts to visit half-remembered people and places, trying to recall the events which led up to that mysterious car crash, which increasingly appears to lay at the heart of the movie.
It’s a cracking film, which constantly keeps you guessing. The incredible thing is that Robert Zemeckis shot the film while on a break from Castaway, a temporary hiatus in production to allow Tom Hanks to lose weight. It is ironic that the stop-gap movie was far superior to the much heralded blockbuster he was making. It’s worth checking out if only to confirm that Hollywood can still make a genuine suspense movie rather than lazy special effect-filled horror film, if it really wants to.