During the making of Robert Zemeckis’s deserted-island drama Cast Away, production had to be shut down to grant its star, Tom Hanks, time to lose enough weight to suit his character’s physical transformation (which, for reasons I’m guessing are explained in the film itself, also required growing a beard). As we all know, Zemeckis is a busy boy, so he took this time to shoot what, in his own words, “Alfred Hitchcock would have done if he’d lived in the digital age and had access to computer graphics.” And indeed, you don’t have to look hard at the final product to spot traces of his ghost, looming ever so faintly around the corner. Pity they couldn’t have been put to better use.
Let’s back up a little: I went into What Lies Beneath knowing absolutely nothing about the plot, and was only really curious about it because of where everything took place (and, with the exception of the main house’s interior, was entirely filmed in): Vermont*. As a longtime resident of the state myself, seeing a big-budget Zemickis movie taking place there did, I’ll admit, give me a flash of patriotic pride. A-lister names like Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer being attached also seemed quite promising, so going in as blind as humanly possible seemed like the best way to keep my (mild) excitement high enough before pressing play.
Considering how much the trailer spoils for no reason, this was probably the best decision, but regardless, sustaining this excitement throughout the film’s runtime proved to be quite the challenging—and, being a wee bit blunt, quickly impossible—task. All I’ll say about the story is that it involves Pfeiffer’s character, the ex-cellist Claire Spencer (who, from what I can tell, has seemed to chuck such instruments to the curb altogether after retiring), worrying about a ghost possibly haunting their tidy waterfront home; and Ford’s character, the honorable scientist and professor Norman, becoming increasingly annoyed at her suspicions.
Not very far in, something happens that I would usually discuss for the sake of adequately summarizing this setup, but, after 40 (!) tedious minutes, it’s revealed to mean absolutely nothing, and all the supporting characters specifically involved in this non-plotline inexplicably vanish from the entire rest of the movie. Say whatever you like about the deliberate—albeit far more purposeful—red herrings in a suspenser like Under the Silver Lake, but at least none of the forward momentum in that film sloppily came to a halt once your suspicions that they were, in fact, red herrings were (indirectly) confirmed.
Oh, and while we’re on the topic of forward momentum, most of What Lies Beneath has so little of it anyway that even before the first hour had gone by, I was seriously toying with the notion of shutting it off. Yeah, yeah, Hitchcock liked slowly building up tension to make his shocks more shocking, and Zemeckis was trying his best to emulate that, and yada yada yada. Is it too much to ask that any of these slower scenes be less flatly-written, annoyingly repetitive, unbearably reliant on the most unscary “scare tactics” imaginable (the creepy dude’s not over there, or there, or there, or there… OH NO, HE’S LOOKING STRAIGHT TOWARDS ME!!!), or otherwise dully executed?
Even after starting out so roughly, all my gripes with the story would’ve been forgiven if it justified its major lulls with enough truly attention-grabbing moments or reveals. No matter how many “unexpected” wrenches are thrown into this story’s machine, though, virtually all of them fail miserably at this task. Plot points like the ghost trying to seduce men while possessing their wives, or the couple’s daughter leaving for college, while undeniably clichéd, aren’t established horribly, only to be completely tossed to the side before we can even begin settling into them.
To my relief, things finally started picking up towards the end, and a possible-death-by-bathtub sequence, while frustratingly illogical (saying why would be getting into serious spoiler territory, so that’s a discussion for later), is done with enough genuine subtlety and restraint to actually catch me by surprise. Does that really justify sitting through the rest of this overlong, incredibly half-baked (and pointlessly talky) bore? I’d say not.
As previously discussed, all of What Lies Beneath’s outdoor scenes were filmed in Vermont, so parts of the cinematography are obviously quite nice on the eyes. Unfortunately, those parts are only really set around the house itself, which is probably meant to make the warm atmosphere seem more claustrophobic, yet only exposes several frustrating missed opportunities to showcase the state’s pristine natural beauty (admittedly, such criticisms may come more from a place of personal bias than anything, but they’re no less valid to me).
Similarly, Pfeiffer’s and Ford’s performances are good (especially Pfeiffer’s, which tries its best to inject emotion into her increasingly dire situation when the scene needs it), but it’s a shame they couldn’t have been in a service of a less tiresome, painfully unimaginative script. With that being said, it did wind up making this $100 million-costing escape-to-Vermont fantasy over twice its budget, and judging by the film’s Cinemascore rating being a B+, a decent amount of people seemed to have left the theater satisfied. All diving Beneath left me clutching was a sudden, burning desire to finally see Poltergeist, which I guess is better than nothing.
*It’s worth mentioning that Hitchcock’s own The Trouble With Harry takes place around (and was entirely filmed in) Vermont, though despite being better than Beneath, it’s still so aggressively middle-of-the-road—and, if my memory serves me best, far too similar to a stage play in its general storytelling and presentation—that there’s really nothing to say about it. (In case you’re wondering, I gave it a 6.)
[MAJOR SPOILERS] OK, so it turns out that Norman murdered Madison Elizabeth Frank (the ghost’s real identity all along), and that he’s willing to kill his own wife as well to keep that a secret. Not only is it ridiculous that the ghost—who, despite possessing her earlier to trick Norman, eventually gets on Claire’s side—wouldn’t help the paralyzed-by-drugs woman out of the rapidly-filling tub after scaring him into violently smacking his head against the sink, but also that such an all-knowing being answers Claire’s yells of “What do you want?” (probably not paraphrasing that) by scrawling “YOU KNOW” on a mirror when, in fact, she obviously doesn’t know squat. If only such a thing as pen and paper existed in this universe, Madison could’ve very easily explained everything to Claire while Norman was away at his full-time UVM (The University of Vermont) job, but alas.