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"WHAT LIES BENEATH"
(2000) (Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Horror/Suspense/Thriller: As increasingly bizarre events occur around her, a housewife tries to figure out whether she's going crazy or if her house is really haunted.
PLOT:
Norman (HARRISON FORD) and Claire Spencer (MICHELLE PFEIFFER) are a seemingly happily married couple who've just sent their only daughter, Caitlin (KATHARINE TOWNE), off to college. Living in the picturesque New England lake home once owned by his later father, Norman is running an important and time consuming research project at the local university while Claire remembers her past as a cellist and an automobile accident from nearly one year earlier that's left her somewhat skittish and highly emotional.

That comes into play when she begins to think that her new next-door neighbors, Warren (JAMES REMAR) and Mary Feur (MIRANDA OTTO) are having major marital problems and then begins to suspect that the husband may have killed the wife after she suddenly disappears. When Norman questions those conclusions and she begins experiencing weird and seemingly supernatural phenomena in their home, Claire worries that she may be going crazy.

A visit to psychiatrist Dr. Drayton (JOE MORTON) doesn't help, while Claire's best friend, Jody (DIANA SCARWID), thinks she's blowing everything out of proportion, but does participate in a Ouija board experiment and leaves her a book on witchcraft and spells just in case. As the creepy phenomena continue to occur, Claire begins to believe that their house is haunted, possibly by a young woman, Madison Elizabeth Frank (AMBER VALLETTA), who's been missing for around one year.

Despite sensing that no one believes her, Claire begins digging deeper for clues and information about the apparition's identity and possible cause of her demise, a search that will soon unearth far more than what she bargained for.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Comedian Rodney Dangerfield's signature line has always been that he doesn't get any respect. While most everyone has felt that way at one time or another, the feeling is compounded when one has had great success, but still ends up being unrecognized or under-appreciated.

That obviously also applies to the world of moviemaking where actors and actresses are almost always given the exclusive credit for a film's success - and/or failure - despite a myriad of other creative talent - most notably the directors and writers - who are just as involved but don't get the recognition. Of course, some directors have gone to become household names, including Hitchcock, Spielberg and Lucas, but most remain - unhappily or not - in relative obscurity.

Among them is one of my favorite filmmakers, whose filmography reads like a hit list of popular and award winning films. With "Forrest Gump," "Back to the Future," "Contact" and "Romancing the Stone" (to name a few), director Robert Zemeckis has successfully crafted various audience pleasing films in a number of different genres.

His latest picture, "What Lies Beneath," finds the talented auteur entering uncharted territory for him - the horror/suspense genre - and isn't likely to make his name part of the popular American lexicon. It is, however, at least until the contrived and clichéd ending, a moderately successful effort at frightening viewers.

Some - or many - might complain, though, that Zemeckis - who works from a script by actor-turned writer Clark Gregg (who makes his screenwriting debut after appearing in films such as "The Usual Suspects" and "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole") -- has changed here from being an innovative and original storyteller to one who borrows, steals or pays homage a bit too much from others in fashioning this film. Most notable is the influence of Hitchcock and his thrillers, while everyone will also recognize the standard horror clichés and red herrings scattered throughout the picture.

Regarding that first complaint, a major element of the first act is essentially just a retreading of "Rear Window" where spying on one's neighbors and not possessing all of the facts will always lead to incorrect assumptions and suspicions. While that whole subplot is there for a reason - it helps everyone question Claire's sanity - the viewer is apt to wonder why the neighborly characters then disappear from the rest of the film once the truth about them is discovered.

There are also bits - intentional or not - lifted from "Psycho" (a major character is named "Norman," there's a bad encounter in an old bathtub complete with the "victim" pulling the shower curtain off the rod, etc.). When such moments aren't lifted and/or adapted, the creepy Hitchcockian look, shooting style and even a familiar score permeate the proceedings.

The same holds true for most every haunted house cliché know to man and filmmakers alike. Of course, and notwithstanding the brilliance of "The Sixth Sense," it's becoming increasingly difficult to scare today's sophisticated audiences who've seen and subsequently grown accustomed to just about every fright-inducing technique that has been used in previous films.

That said, such moments here - including the obligatory use of reflections in mirrors, slow camera movement, people suddenly showing up behind opened doors and plenty of telegraphed "jump scenes" - are the film's highlights.

Much like the thrills one expects when riding or walking through some horror or haunted house themed attraction, the fun comes from knowing such scare tactics will be deployed, but being uncertain about the way, order or timing in which they'll be unleashed. There's nothing really new here, but such scenes are fun - often eliciting giddy laughter as much as terror - and do manage to elicit their share of goose bump and jump-from-your-seat-moments.

When the terror and supernatural doings are put on hold, however, the film often drags and/or loses much of its momentum. Granted, it certainly benefits from the star presence of Harrison Ford ("Random Hearts," "Air Force One") and Michelle Pfeiffer ("The Story of Us," "The Deep End of the Ocean"), and while the former Indiana Jones plays another of his less than charismatic characters that audiences tend to dislike, Pfeiffer carries most of the film with her mostly credible performance.

The "Rear Window" type subplot that features Miranda Otto ("The Well," "Love Serenade") and James Remar ("Boys on the Side," "Drugstore Cowboy") turns out to be another of the film's many red herrings, and thus leaves Diana Scarwid ("Inside Moves," the HBO movie "Truman") as the only other major character to appear in a supporting role. Playing the comic relief part, Scarwid delivers a fun performance and it's too bad she doesn't get more screen time.

After the three of them essentially disappear, it's up to Ford and Pfeiffer to carry the film over the finish line, and their star power alone helps complete that goal. Yet, many viewers may be disappointed that the film suddenly switches gears and becomes a standard suspense/thriller (rather than a supernatural one) along the lines of "Fatal Attraction" (as filtered through "Poltergeist") where the "mystery" is resolved too easily and too soon.

As such, Zemeckis and company simply resort to a storyline and conclusion are just variations of about every other film of the thriller genre we've seen over the past decade or so. While some may find the ending thrilling, many will probably feel that it's too familiar and predictable to be as much "fun" as it could have been, and that it lets down what was built up before it.

While I'll take this sort of film any day over the special effects laden debacles like "The Haunting" and the many redundant and increasingly boring slasher flicks that have overrun the genre, I just kept wishing that the film were better and operated on more complex levels.

Although it has its share of spooky moments mixed with just the right amount of comic relief, the filmmakers' efforts often seem too derivative when they should have been more original, the characters aren't appealing enough to make us worry about them enough, and the story lacks the proper zest and creepiness to make it stand out as a classic. Something of a "guilty pleasure" simply due to the fun house type thrills it offers, "What Lies Beneath" isn't great, but it's good enough to score an above average rating of 6 out of 10 just for that reason.




Reviewed July 17, 2000 / Posted July 21, 2000


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