Robert Zemeckis' self-indulgent direction hangs like an albatross around the celluloid neck of "What Lies Beneath," a soft-peddled yuppie horror flick that could have been -- with some fine tuning -- a sharp and genuinely scary thriller.
Forty minutes longer than necessary and featuring a cry-scream-and-run climax so drawn out that every ounce of tension evaporates from the screen half an hour before the credits roll, it's a frustrating movie to watch because of all the wasted potential.
Anything but a standard teens-in-peril slasher movie, "What Lies Beneath" stars Michelle Pfeiffer as a New England mom with empty nest syndrome after packing her daughter off to college in the opening scenes. Now alone in the house a lot, she becomes a busy body, spying on the new next door neighbors and witnessing what she thinks is a murder.
Soon she starts hearing whispers in the house. Doors start opening and closing on their own. Pictures fall from bookshelves, shattering the glass. The bathtub fills to the brim instantaneously and without explanation, steaming up the bathroom -- and when Pfeiffer looks into the water, she sees the reflection of a decaying corpse staring over her shoulder. Yikes!
She thinks it's the ghost of her neighbor's suddenly absent wife. Her dubious college professor husband -- played by Mr. Generic Nice Guy Harrison Ford -- thinks she needs a shrink. But as the haunting, disquieted spirit begins to take over the house, he realizes she may not be crazy, and makes a chilling admission that opens the door to even scarier prospects than a murder next door.
Ooo, what an terrifically eerie set-up! And for the first few reels, Zemeckis succeeds in raising goosebumps again and again with cheap but expertly executed, shiver-inspiring jump starts.
But ewww, how the film becomes disjointed, inflated and putrefied by predictable plot twists.
While the director sustains a consistently unsettling mood, "What Lies Beneath" starts to slack early on as it spends way too much time on getting-to-know-you scenes. For a pair of actors who have been phoning in flat performances for the better part of a decade, Pfeiffer and Ford have convincing chemistry as a couple, and for a while they seem smart enough that the picture might assume the audience can think for itself.
Early in my notes, I wrote "cerebral and spooky." But an hour later I was madly scribbling stuff like "Oh, come on already!" and "Don't insult my intelligence."
If Zemeckis hadn't d...r...a...g...g...e...d out the utterly unoriginal finale (not to mention every other scene) to the point where panic turns to boredom; if the compulsory "surprise" plot twist didn't depend entirely on paradoxical casting; if the picture hadn't abandon its short-lived smarts and visceral fear-baiting for the hex of hackneyed Hollywood tripe -- "What Lies Beneath" might have been a choice scary movie, operating on a much deeper psychological level than flicks that bank on gallons of red Karo syrup and day players in cheap Halloween masks.
But even after trimming a superfluous 25 percent of screen time and tightening up the script, with Robert Zemeckis behind the wheel we'd still be stuck with the man's distracting enchantment with unnecessary computer effects (remember the gratuitous President Clinton scenes from "Contact"?). In "What Lies Beneath" even a simple dusting of snow becomes a over-produced CGI event, when much simpler effects would have done the trick and been far less conspicuous.
Oh, what this movie could have been directed with even a vague sense of subtlety.
Run time: 130 mins
In Theaters: Friday 21st July 2000
Box Office USA: $155.0M
Box Office Worldwide: $155.5M
Distributed by: DreamWorks SKG
Production compaines: 20th Century Fox, DreamWorks SKG, ImageMovers
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 46%
Fresh: 57 Rotten: 67
IMDB: 6.6 / 10
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Harrison Ford as Dr. Norman Spencer, Michelle Pfeiffer as Claire Spencer, Diana Scarwid as Jody, James Remar as Warren Feur, Miranda Otto as Mary Feur, Ray Baker as Dr. Stan Powell, Wendy Crewson as Elena, Amber Valletta as Madison Elizabeth Frank
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