What Lies Beneath

(Robert Zemeckis, USA, 2000)

BY MICHAEL KORESKY | January 24, 2024

A woman’s experience of empty-nest syndrome manifests as a supernatural return of the repressed in Robert Zemeckis’s cathartic ghost story, an exercise in classical Hitchcockian tension and plotting that transcends pastiche. Proving again that Zemeckis is in his finest fettle when he leaves kiddie spectacle behind and plunges into giddy Gothic territory (see also Death Becomes Her, but especially his horror episodes for the TV series Tales from the Crypt and Amazing Stories), What Lies Beneath is a gratifying mix of traditional “woman’s picture,” mystery, and horror that grips the viewer early and refuses to let go. Without ever overplaying its hand in any of its given genres, Zemeckis’s film elegantly combines sentiment and cruelty, and pulls back the covers on the violent misogyny simmering beneath our social, professional, and personal lives.

Perfectly cast for her balance of neuroses and wit, Michelle Pfeiffer plays Claire Spencer, who had given up her formidable career as a cellist for a quiet domestic life in isolated, upper-middle-class Vermont. After her teenage daughter Caitlin (Katharine Towne) leaves for college, Claire is left in their oversized, pristine lakeside home with her husband, Norman (Harrison Ford), a college professor and scientist in constant worry about his career and standing in academia, and whose almost pathological fixation on the death of his beloved father reveals his own lingering sense of masculinist inadequacy. While mourning her daughter’s departure from their everyday lives and reconsidering the loss of her musical career, the bored Claire suspects that their new next-door neighbor Mary (Miranda Otto) is being abused by her loutish husband (James Remar). When Mary seemingly disappears, Claire begins to spiral into an obsession, convinced that she has been killed. At the same time as this Rear Window scenario is playing out, odd, poltergeist-like disturbances start plaguing Claire, leading her to think that Mary has returned as a ghost with unfinished business.

The ingenious plotting of What Lies Beneath by Sarah Kernochan and Clark Gregg relies on a series of red herrings, but rather than lead to dead ends, these misdirections come together to create a wholly coherent narrative—each element finally makes perfect, terrible sense. It may come as little surprise that Claire’s haunting originates from inside the house rather than from external disruption, yet the pleasure of the film lies in the ways that Zemeckis and Pfeiffer are able to bring us to the edge of terror (and self-doubt) again and again. When the source of the evil is ultimately revealed, the audacity of the conceit is nearly breathtaking, as is the unforgiving nastiness with which Zemeckis turns the screws. With Hitchcockian glee, the director brings us back into the pristine white of a steaming bathtub, the primal scene of canonical movie horror. Only this time, instead of the Master of Suspense’s quick slice-and-dice montage, Zemeckis slows things down to an almost unbearable, glacial pace. If death comes, it won’t be quick. Thankfully, Claire proves to be resourceful—as do the ghosts that bubble to the surface for one last kiss of death. 🩸

Michelle Pfeiffer holds a candle to Harrison Ford

is Editorial Director at Museum of the Moving Image; cofounder and editor of the online film magazine Reverse Shot, a publication of MoMI; a longtime contributor to The Criterion Collection, where he programs the Criterion Channel series “Queersighted”; and the author of Films of Endearment (Hanover Square Press, 2021).

X: @reverse_shot

How to see What Lies Beneath

The film is also available on DVD and Blu-ray.
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