When it was released in 2000, Robert Zemeckis’ ghost thriller What Lies Beneath was met with mixed reviews from critics, who praised it for its technical achievements but overall thought it was slow, unoriginal, and too far fetched to be anything great. Word of warning moving forward, there will be spoilers.
There is an element of truth to those criticisms of What Lies Beneath. Shot while production on Castaway was halted for Tom Hanks to lose weight for the role, What Lies Beneath does rely on some obvious, albeit well crafted, scares. It leans into the horror genre’s tropes rather than attempts to subvert or move away from them.
Zemeckis seems happy to play in the horror sandbox without bringing anything new to it, instead applying a Hitchcockian eye to the suspense sequences and going for the most obvious jump when it can be got. A hole in the fence is covered by an eye, for example. The audience jump, sure, but it isn’t like that’s not something we’ve seen before.
And there’s nothing wrong with that sort of workmanlike approach to genre filmmaking, but it’s never going to change the world or linger in your conscious long after the lights go up and the credits roll.
I understand completely why the critics looked at What Lies Beneath in 2000 and all pretty much agreed that this was competent but uninspired filmmaking. There was praise for the film, of course. For example, the performances were widely recognised as being well crafted, solid pieces of acting, but then what do you expect from A-listers like Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford?
Almost unanimously, it seems to me at least, the consensus was that What Lies Beneath was a serviceable but entirely unforgettable entry into the ghost story sub-genre that would serve to kill a couple of hours, but wouldn’t be remembered alongside the greats.
But here’s the thing; if that’s the case then… why can’t I seem to forget it?
I must have been thirteen or fourteen the first time I saw What Lies Beneath. I was into horror before then, but I had avoided the movie becaause, at that early stage in my journey through cinema, What Lies Beneath looked sort of tame. At around that age I was just sort of discovering the likes of The Evil Dead and Friday the 13th, and so the film wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.
I’m not entirely sure why I first actually sat down and watched it, but I suspect it had more to do with the realisation that it was directed by the guy who did Back to the Future than it did with anything else. Perhaps I’d just run out of weird looking horror movies in the limited selection offered up by my local video store and so figured I may as well give it a try. Whatever the reason, I watched it, my expectations low… and it frightened me.
Now, I would say so much that it genuinely, properly scared me. It’s not The Shining. But I was definitely frightened. Sure, the jump scares are obvious, it hardly reinvents the wheel, but none of that was what got me.
I can remember feeling stressed, yet unable to put my finger on just what it was I found so stressful. As the film progressed it became more and more uncomfortable. Needless to say after that I bought it and returned to it many, many times. But it wasn’t until I was much older that it finally dawned on me just what it was I saw in What Lies Beneath that got so under my skin.
The answer is gaslighting.
What Lies Beneath may present itself as a ghost story, and it is one, but what it really is is the story of a woman who is being gaslighted by an abusive husband. Much like Rosemary’s Baby, the film is told from the point of view of the victim – in this case Claire Spencer (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) – and we as the audience are never given all the information. Instead we discover things with Claire.
This in and of itself isn’t especially groundbreaking, but there was something so incredibly uncomfortable, I found, about how Claire is continuously shut down, ignored, brushed off, and generally just made to feel like she is being overly dramatic or even going mad. As the film slowly unfolds, revealing itself for what it actually is, I found myself becoming frustrated for her.
And the idea of not being taken seriously, not being acknowledged or heard, is uncomfortable. But what really frightened me about it, was that the person doing the most harm (both in the emotional aspect and then later physically) also happens to be the person we, and Claire herself, believe is the most trustworthy.
I don’t know why it had never really occurred to me before that the person you choose to spend a life with might not be who you think they are, but What Lies Beneath was the film that brought that idea to my attention. And that idea is what is most frightening about the entire thing. And that’s why I still remember it, all these years later, with a great fondness.
I know it isn’t the most original movie, and I know that the scares are lacklustre and the whole thing somehow feels very much by the numbers. Yes, the final act does get out of hand and stretch credibility. But it’s also a really interesting take on that kind of idea, that uses the tropes and expectations of the ghost story sub-genre to tell a timelier tale.
What Lies Beneath may not be a masterpiece, but it is a pretty good movie, and I think we should recognise it as such.