Logline: The wife of a sexy and rugged college professor, reeling from a recent car accident as well as empty nest syndrome, believes she is being haunted by a mysterious spirit who may or may not have anything to do with how sexy and rugged her husband is.

“What Lies Beneath” was one of my first reviews for Ain’t It Cool News. Please do not seek it out. With ten years hindsight, the review is a goddamn embarrassment, being simultaneously pretentious, cocky, naïve and ultimately pointless. At the time, the only early screenings I could get into in the San Francisco Bay Area were either week-early sneak previews or, more often, screening passes from “Entertainment Weekly” that allowed me to wait in line for three hours at the AMC Van Ness simply to see a movie a mere 24 hours before general release. And it didn’t really save me money, as driving out to San Francisco and parking offset the freeness of the screening pass. Whatever. I had a good time, whoever I brought also had a good time, and my Mazda MPV was put to some good use.

Often it seemed that, even with only a 24-hour jumpstart on major films, I would be so juiced by the excitement of a non-paying audience, as well as feeling that I was somehow special, I enjoyed these films more than had I seen them over the weekend like any other schmoe, and it wasn’t until college that I was able to see movies as they were and not simply how I saw them. And with “What Lies Beneath” and my memories of loving the film, I think I have a damn good example of this problem.

Is It Better Or Worse Than I Remember?

Worse. This is what I’m talking about. 10 years ago, I thought this was a very strong film, a wonderful exercise in how sometimes all a good suspense thriller needs is a director who gives a shit and has something to prove. I think Zemeckis is one of our mainstream greats, and even though he’s been recently stuck in Motion Capture Land (where he admittedly can now tell exactly whatever film he wants however he wants, so I don’t know why he’d want to continue adapting other people’s works), I miss the ingenuity of the man who brought us “Used Cars,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” “Contact” and the “Back to the Future” films. And here, he literally made an entire movie while on hiatus from another. (Tom Hanks had to grow that “Cast Away” beard somehow.) I love it when directors do that. Simply with recent examples, Linklater did it with “Tape” while waiting on post for “Waking Life,” and Sam Mendes did it with the lovely “Away We Go” while doing the long edit on “Revolutionary Road.” It seems to free filmmakers, relax them, show them that they are storytellers. And “What Lies Beneath” was Zemeckis’ excuse to have fun and make a Hitchcock movie, showing that he is capable of, at least aesthetically, making a better suspense thriller than most, seemingly with both hands tied behind his back, just because he can.

Ten years ago it worked. Now, it’s 30 minutes too long, the one element that slightly bothered me is now a massive flaw, and I finally noticed that the film is actually two very different kinds of thrillers fighting for space.

Do I still like it? Yes. Very much. I appreciate the artistry and the professionalism. But now it’s a goofy exercise instead of a nail-biting thriller, one that worked over the audience so well back in the summer of 2000 that I remember, the second time I saw it (with my family), the film was so tense that somebody in the audience shrieked when the Michelle Pfeiffer character, early in the film, pulled out a bathtub plug with force.

Now follow me through a bunch of random nonsense thoughts! In honor of the film’s scattershot script and disparate elements, I’m barely going to rewrite these stream-of-consciousness thoughts so that they make any kind of sense. Knee-jerk responses, yo.

What’s Better About The Film?

  • To get Norman’s attention (yes, you caught the reference right), Claire makes a weird, off-color joke about cells getting raped. What the hell?
  • I love how much effort Pfeiffer puts into playing absolutely crazy, especially in her run-ins with Remar, and when she’s possessed by the chick from “Hitch.” (Although that scene makes absolutely zero sense.) It doesn’t necessarily work all the time, but it certainly gave me giggles.
  • Harrison Ford line delivery I loved: “It’s a brand-new shirt!”
  • I love how Norman, in the film’s final act, just kind of mumbles his big villain monologue — “It’s a passive-aggressive masterpiece” — thus undercutting the obviousness of the screenplay. Say what you want about Ford, but he has always been able to take something out-of-the-ordinary and ground it in some semblance of reality.
  • God, the climactic bathtub scene is stunning. Even the fifth time around, the suspense works. Zemeckis understands that, in order to feel dread (here), wonder (“Contact”) or terror (the plane crash in “Cast Away”), nothing works better than putting you in the character’s shoes and showing things almost entirely from their perspective. Human drama trumps over-the-top action every time. I think that might be the reason his motion capture films don’t always entirely work, that they’ve forgotten this fact. (For the record, I love the hell out of “The Polar Express,” but find “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol” interesting yet cold and distant.)
  • Alan Silvestri’s Herrmann-esque score is better than ever. I don’t care that there’s no originality to it, since there’s no originality to the film itself.
  • The final underwater shot is still beautiful, where Madison’s corpse transforms.


What’s Worse About The Film?

  • Jesus, I remember this film being overstuffed with “Boo!” moments, but even the first bathroom sequence has at least four. They could have retitled the damn thing “Let’s scare Michelle Pfeiffer to death.”

[Sidenote: God, I miss her. I know that most female roles go away once an actress hits a certain age, but I’m always thrown off when I think about an actress and realize I haven’t seen them in anything in years, and how quietly they slipped away from the public eye.]

  • Here is the massive flaw I was talking about. The next-door neighbor red herring continue to not work, and makes the film’s 130-minute running time a gargantuan problem. Okay, to be fair, the subplot it does a good job establishing that Claire might be a crazyface, but couldn’t they have found a way to fucking tie in anything about it to the actual major plot? Okay, the big laugh at the end of the subplot is worth at least five (maybe ten) minutes of wasted story time.

[Sidenote: Has James Remar ever played anybody non-creepy or non-douchey? And can Miranda Otto ever not be Eowyn in my mind anymore?]

  • On a slightly similar note, what the fuck is this 45-minute stretch where nothing happens? Which is it, Zemeckis and Gregg? Do you want a character-building film of little vignettes where a woman becomes increasingly doubtful of her husband, or a tight suspense thriller based around secrets, murder and supernatural elements? Basically, do you want two different kinds of Hitchcock movies, the external (“Shadow of a Doubt,” any number of spy films) versus the internal (“Vertigo,” “Spellbound”), mixing together? I don’t think you can have both. They go at different paces and touch on different forms of terror. The elements that make the third act work negate much of the plot of the first act, and how does that help replay value?
  • “Are you saying I was attacked by a ghost?” – Ford’s most awkward line reading


What Did I Learn From This Experience?

Despite my issues with this film, they don’t really make too many thrillers like this anymore, do they? With some exceptions, they aren’t really around much anymore. The 90s had some wonderful ones, and then, much like many mainstream films in the last decade, they become test-screened and teenager-marketed to death. It seems that boring horror movies took over. Feh!

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