So why did so many talented people throw their considerable clout behind this Frankenstein monster built from bits of better films? That’s a bigger mystery than the one at the core of actor Clark Gregg’s first screenplay, which samples so freely from Alfred Hitchcock’s films that his estate should be receiving royalties.
It opens with Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Norman Spencer (Harrison Ford) dropping their teenage daughter off at her college dorm. The general consensus is that Claire will suffer from empty-nest syndrome (the first of many misogyny-tinged presumptions). But instead, Claire’s behavior begins to change in curious ways. Not only does she suspect that their new neighbor has killed his wife (á la Rear Window), but she comes to the conclusion that their Martha Stewart-perfect domicile is being haunted by a coed Norman had an affair with.
Is all this happening strictly in Claire’s head? Another director might have imbued What Lies Beneath with an air of mystery, but Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back To The Future) is a master of what’s on the surface, and he plays everything perfectly straight.
Even though Pfeiffer does indeed portray a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown (her scenes with shrink Joe Morton are some of her best), Zemeckis makes it clear that she has every reason be afraid, and not only of the supernatural.
Gregg’s script tries to add some substance to the central characters via their underlying expectations and regrets. Norman, a genetic researcher and academic star, nonetheless lives under the shadow of his groundbreaking father. Claire, once a promising cellist, promptly gave up music when her first husband’s death left her a single mother. Swept off her feet by this dashing scientist, Claire has let Norman determine the course of her subsequent life.
Hitchcock references aside, What Lies Beneath is actually a retelling of a fairy tale, namely Bluebeard. Careful ladies, it warns, don’t look beyond the charming façade of your control freak hubby, you might not like what you see (especially when the long-in-the-tooth Ford is still treated as a sex object).
Robert Zemeckis is a sluggish suspense director, but he does excel here in his use of water. A bathtub has never seemed quite so menacing, and the waterways surrounding the Spencers’ splendid country home take on a genuinely ominous air.
Too bad, then, that what lies beneath that water’s placid surface isn’t nearly as frightening as it ought to be.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].