Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle What Lies Beneath

By Marc Savlov

JULY 24, 2000: 

D: Robert Zemeckis; with Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Diana Scarwid, Dan Block, J.C. Brandy, Mark Patrick Costello, Amber Valletta, Joe Morton, MIranda Otto, James Remar. (PG-13, 130 min.)

Director Robert Zemeckis is probably best known to the mainstream moviegoing public as the man who helmed the surprise hit Forrest Gump some six years ago, but to genre aficionados he's more fondly recalled as one of the guiding forces behind HBO's fine horror anthology series Tales From the Crypt. Zemeckis also had a hand in Steven Spielberg's short-lived NBC genre anthology Amazing Stories back in 1985, as well as creating his own mini-anthology series of feature films with the wildly popular Back to the Future triumvirate. This love of cinematic short stories stems, it appears, from the director's avowed passion for those old E.C. comic books of the Fifties, which were predicated on the same sort of shock-ending morality plays that made up so many of the Tales and Amazing Stories episodes. With What Lies Beneath, Zemeckis has grafted the late E.C. publisher William Gaines' penchant for gritty, endearingly supernatural hokum to more adult fare. Watching it, you marvel that it works as well as it does. Ford and Pfeiffer, two actors not necessarily known for their horror genre work (not counting Pfeiffer's turn in the lamentable Wolf, which raised the stakes on her cheekbones but gutted director Mike Nichols as savagely as a silver foreclaw), are supremely believable here as a longtime married couple living in a gorgeous, lakeside Vermont township. Their daughter (Towne) has just left for the university, and though she diligently tends to her garden and putters about her home, it's clear Pfeiffer's Claire is suffering from a crippling bout of empty-nest syndrome. Ford's Norman, a research scientist at the local university brain trust, is too caught up in his work to adequately tend to Claire's misty-eyed doldrums, and when she begins seeing ghostly figures in the bathroom mirror and eerie whispers in the hallway, he packs her off to psychiatrist Joe Morton and hunkers back down to his laptop. Joe Morton or not, the apparitions continue unabated until Claire discovers dirty doings in her own metaphorical back yard (though it's hard to know what to make of a shrink who uses cinnamon FireBalls as a mode of therapy). It's a shame the ad campaign for What Lies Beneath gives away as much as it does; an early subplot involving mysterious goings-on with some new neighbors is over too quickly, and though it's a red herring of the most crimson stripe, the producers ought to be soundly chastised for giving the film's main conceit away in the tagline. Zemeckis' film is, ultimately, a simple but sleekly outfitted morality tale, a close kin to those old horror and crime comics of the Fifties. But What Lies Beneath is saved from sheer ridiculousness by the director's increasingly fervid style. Not since Brian DePalma's early works has a director mined Hitchcock so fervently. The film is full of homages to that director's greatest moments, from Rear Window to Vertigo and Psycho, as well as more than a few nods to Hitchcock's Italian soulmate Dario Argento. At two hours and 10 minutes, What Lies Beneath has a stately pace (sometimes too stately ­ characters tend to utter their lines with an abundance of overlong pauses in between the words), but there's no denying that Zemeckis can ratchet up the suspense to jarring levels when he feels so inclined. It's a kinder, gentler Tales From the Crypt that, in the end, is neither kind nor gentle, a chilly Vermont breeze in the midst of an overheating summer sweatfest.

3 Stars

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