ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 27, 2000
Director-producer Robert Zemeckis has reached the highest highs and plumbed the lowest lows during his career in Hollywood. As a director, he’s hit the mark with the critically acclaimed Contact and Oscar-winning Forrest Gump, yet his producer credits include such lowly horror fare as House on Haunted Hill and the Vancouver-shot stinker Bordello of Blood.
With What Lies Beneath, Zemeckis finally combines his fondness for fright flicks with the character-driven drama of his best work, and the result is one doozy of a ghost story. Don’t let the hokey title fool you: this movie boasts at least half a dozen moments of sheer, quake-in-your-seat terror.
And that’s five more than I noticed in The Blair Witch Project.
Because I’m wholeheartedly recommending this movie and don’t want to ruin any of its surprises for you, I’ll keep the plot description vague. Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford star as Claire and Norman Spencer, a happily married couple who move into a big house by a lake in Vermont, where all sorts of creepy things start to happen. Suffice it to say that some of the spooky stuff is tied in with Claire’s fragile mental state (she was involved in a mysterious car crash a year before) and Norman’s all-consuming ambition (he’s an overworked research scientist).
As the story unwinds, there are various tributes to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but Zemeckis wrings the suspense so skillfully from Clark Gregg’s restrained script that his obvious nods to the greats are easily forgiven.
As far as the two leads are concerned, Pfeiffer brings just the right mix of courage and vulnerability to the tormented Claire, while Ford’s typical blandness is perfectly suited to Norman’s purposes. And it doesn’t hurt that Zemeckis brought Don Burgess and Arthur Schmidt—respectively, the cinematographer and the editor from Forrest Gump—onboard.
I was so impressed by the believable first 80 minutes of What Lies Beneath that even its unlikely, over-the-top ending couldn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth.