Robert Zemeckis has been producer for several horror movies, none of them particularly great examples of the genre (“House on Haunted Hill,” “Bordello of Blood,” etc.), but at least passable diversions, suggesting that to whatever extent he’s been involved in the films as a producer, he has some idea what works and what doesn’t.
When it comes to directing, though, he’s stuck to more soft-hearted fare: “Forrest Gump” and the “Back to the Future” trilogy, for example.
So now that he’s actually directing a thriller himself — “What Lies Beneath,” starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer — we discover something that is true of a lot of areas of life: Just because you can supervise a project doesn’t mean you’d be good at doing the work yourself.
Ford is Norman Spencer, a medical scientist who lives with his wife, Claire (Pfeiffer), a former Juilliard-trained cellist, in Vermont. When their daughter goes off to college, Claire starts to experience “empty nest” symptoms: i.e., she hears voices and, eventually, sees images of a young woman’s ghost.
At first she thinks it’s the woman who lives next door, whom she suspects was killed by her husband. (There’s the first of several Hitchcock homages — or are they rip-offs? — with the “Rear Window” connections.) When the woman turns up alive, Claire has to figure out who the ghost is, then.
The film’s first half builds up some real suspense — almost unbearable, at times, as creepy things start happening and we just KNOW there’s going to be a ghost popping up any moment. It also blends in some nice gallows humor when Claire and her friend Jody (Diana Scarwid) hold a Ouija Board-assisted seance to summon the ghost, not to mention Claire obsessing over the not-dead neighbor wife. Claire’s visits to a psychiatrist are wryly humorous, too, proving Pfeiffer to be a worthy actress for an intelligent thriller.
Unfortunately, the film’s second half regresses into a standard woman-in-peril movie, and Pfeiffer, good as she is, has no choice but to run around, scream, tiptoe past supposedly (but of course not quite) dead people, and everything else you’ve seen a thousand times before. Truly a waste of good talent.
And speaking of wastes, let’s talk about Harrison Ford. The film wins points for casting him against type — an adulterer who may have dark secrets — and to be honest, I take perverse delight in seeing such a quintissential Good Guy playing a more-or-less bad guy. The problem is, he’s only given a few scenes in which to show that side of himself, and it doesn’t come across very well — probably because it’s only a few scenes. We need time to work up to the idea of a bad Harrison Ford, and by the time we’ve settled into it, the movie’s over.
Zemeckis has been around horror movies enough to know what makes them scary. But it would seem he’s only learned the little tricks, without learning the substance behind them — like a magician who, sure enough, can make the right card turn up at the top of the deck, but doesn’t know about the showmanship that has to surround such a trick to make it entertaining.
Here’s a standard scary-movie device you’ve certainly seen before: The camera is on a character, who turns to look at something somewhere else. The camera follows her as she moves. When she and the camera move back again, something has changed — a person has appeared in the doorway, or whatever. And we jump, because we, like the character, remembered the room looking a certain way, and when we come back to it, we expect nothing to be different. It’s an effective jump-inducer, used once or twice in a movie.
“What Lies Beneath” uses this technique at least a dozen times. By the end, it literally becomes ridiculous. When you show us a woman walking down the stairs BACKWARDS, the camera trained on her feet, we KNOW a hand is going to reach up suddenly and grab her ankle. We also know it’s going to happen really fast, and be accompanied by a loud shriek of music, practically forcing us to scream. It’s a cheap trick, and it’s way too overused in this movie. Didn’t Zemeckis learn anything else?
Yes, he did. He watched “Psycho” a few times. The connections are too many to be coincidental: a main character named Norman, an overhead shot of Norman carrying someone up the stairs, mirrors in almost every scene, a woman stumbling out of a tub and pulling the shower curtain down with her — what’s the deal here? The film bears no resemblance, in plot or theme (or quality, to be catty), to “Psycho,” so why borrow from it? Especially when what he DIDN’T borrow is “Psycho’s” great tension and delicious eeriness.
I like the idea of Ford and Pfeiffer playing a married couple, and they do it very well for a while, before things turn crazy. Then Pfeiffer turns into a “Scream” victim, and Ford is just a big stupid lump.
“What Lies Beneath” has some fine moments. A scene in which Claire is temporarily possessed by the spirit of the dead woman is hysterically weird, and there really are some scenes of true, honest, palpable tension. But they are simply outnumbered by the manipulative “jump” moments that reveal the filmmaker’s unwillingness to try anything new.
You’ll jump during the movie. If you’re a woman, you’ll scream. (This has been field-tested: I watched the audience I was with at the screening.) For cheap thrills with absolutely no substance, it’s a fine film. But fans of terror and suspense have seen it all before, and better.
B- (; )