They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and there certainly is no shortage of that in Hollywood these days. In the wake of every groundbreaking or successful film, there are numerous me-too copycats that attempt to cash-in on the audience goodwill cultivated by the pioneer. "Star Wars", "Die Hard", "Pulp Fiction", "Speed", and "Scream"-- each film showed the audience something they had never seen before, and dozens of filmmakers came in afterwards to make sure that they saw it over-and-over-and-over-again. Even more interesting is when screenwriters start combining elements of popular films to create the cinematic equivalent of mongrel half-breeds. Robert Altman had fun with this creatively bankrupt technique for developing movie ideas in "The Player" with an opening scene that had a couple of screenwriters pitching something akin to "Pretty Woman" meets "Out of Africa".
For example, this principle can be seen being applied in this year's "Mission to Mars", which was essentially "The Abyss" meets "2001: A Space Odyssey", and also in any movie 'set in a high school or college', such as "She's All That" ("Pygmalion" set in a high school) or "Whatever It Takes" ("Cyrano de Bergerac" set in a high school), and even "Loser" ("The Apartment" set in a college). In the case of the new horror flick from director Robert Zemeckis', "What Lies Beneath" seems to be the bastard child of a menagé-trois-- it's "Fatal Attraction" meets "The Sixth Sense" meets "Rear Window"! It's just a shame that the film's engaging first hour had all the suspense knocked out by some overzealous marketing.
Harrison Ford and Michelle headline as Dr. Norman and Claire Spencer, a Baby Boomer couple who find themselves in an empty nest after Caitlin (Katharine Towne of "Go"), Claire's daughter from her first marriage, heads off to college. While Norman has his genetics research at the local university to keep him busy, Claire spends most of her days toiling around their grand house overlooking a lake. Unfortunately, strange things begin happening when Claire is by herself at home-- doors open on their own, pictures fall of shelves, and strange noises are heard-- convincing her that the house is haunted. Of course, Norman views his wife's outlandish claims as psychosomatic symptoms brought on by anxiety, and he immediately sends Claire to a see a shrink (Joe Morton of "Blues Brothers 2000"). Despite the psychotherapy, Claire's unearthly visions begin to escalate in frequency and intensity, and it soon becomes evident that the Spencer household may indeed be possessed by a malevolent spirit...
If you have been unfortunate enough to have sat through the trailer for "What Lies Beneath", then you will be familiar with a number of the film's major plot points. The first hour is probably the film's finest, as Claire tries to piece together the strange things she has been seeing and hearing. Even a subplot about the Spencer's argumentative neighbors, Warren (James Remar of the "Psycho" remake) and Mary Feur (Miranda Otto of "The Thin Red Line"), which develops in true Hitchcockian form à la "Rear Window", neatly adds to this suspenseful atmosphere and plays wonderfully with audience expectations. However, if I had not seen the trailer, and thus not had foreknowledge of the major plot points that were revealed in it, the first half would certainly have done a better job in holding my attention.
Unfortunately, the script (penned by Sarah Kernochian and Clark Gregg) makes a few stumbles along the way, until it completely loses its footing by the final act. Obvious bits of exposition are clumsily inserted into the dialogue, telling you exactly which way the story is headed. After all, when Claire overhears a detailed explanation of how the anaesthetic halothane works, or makes an off-handed remark to Norman that his cellular phone will not work unless they are past the bridge linking them to the mainland, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how these elements will come into play in the film's climax (especially if you have seen the trailer).
And when the 'big reveal' is finally made, there is little on-screen that is original or truly frightening, other than the interesting perilous situation that Claire finds herself in. Otherwise, it's the same old bogeyman/horror movie conventions that the "Scream" movies so ruthlessly skewered-- just because someone looks dead doesn't mean they are dead, just when you think you're alone you're not, and you're asking for trouble if you stop to call for help.
In watching "What Lies Beneath", I couldn't help but be reminded of last year's "Stir of Echoes", which quickly disappeared under the onslaught of "The Sixth Sense". Though the film started off strongly with some genuine suspense and mystery, it eventually collapsed in the final twenty minutes with some lazy scripting that borrowed heavily from thriller clichés. The exact same thing happens here-- great start, lousy ending.
However, fans of Alfred Hitchcock might have a ball spotting all the little references to his work. In addition to the obvious tip to "Rear Window" mentioned earlier, Zemeckis makes a number of references to "Psycho" (including the infamous 'shower scene'), and uses a number of camera angles and techniques that were favored by the Master of Suspense, including things suddenly appearing in mirrors, people appearing from behind closing doors, and camera pans that falsely create the illusion of an imminent scare.
In terms of performances, Michelle Pfeiffer is engaging as she does a credible job playing an anxious, frightened, yet determined woman who is pushed to her wits' end by things she cannot explain. Harrison Ford, on the other hand, seems to have merely shown up for the paycheck, with a bland and unconvincing performance reminiscent of his workman-like acting in last year's "Random Hearts". As for the rest of the cast, Diana Scarwid does a memorable turn as Claire's recently divorced best friend, while Remar is sufficiently sinister as Claire's belligerent next-door neighbor who may or may not be hiding something.
"What Lies Beneath" certainly has the potential to offer some true mid-summer chills, especially in light of Pfeiffer's convincing performance and a wonderfully creepy and suspenseful set-up. Unfortunately, with a script that telegraphs its every move and a marketing campaign that saps all the intrigue out of the first hour, there's little reason left to see the film. "What Lies Beneath" is best left under wraps.