ⓘ What Lies Beneath

What Lies Beneath

ⓘ What Lies Beneath

What Lies Beneath is a 2000 American supernatural horror film directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer as a couple who experience a strange haunting of their home. It was the first film by Zemeckis production company ImageMovers. The film opened in 2.813 theaters in North America, and grossed 1 million at the worldwide box office, becoming the tenth-highest-grossing film of the year. It received mixed reviews, but was nominated for three Saturn Awards.


1. Plot

After her daughter Caitlin leaves for college, Vermont housewife Claire Spencer begins noticing the volatile relationship between new neighbors, Mary and Warren Feur. Claires husband Norman, an accomplished scientist and professor, dismisses her preoccupation.

After failing to see Mary for several days, Claire suspects that Warren may have killed her. Claire sees the image of a woman floating in the lake, and discovers an odd key inside a heater vent in her home. Claire and her mystic friend Jody unsuccessfully hold a seance to contact Mary, after which Claire finds the bathtub filled with hot water and, "You know," written on the mirror. Claire then finds her computer inexplicably typing "MEF" repeatedly. Claire becomes convinced Mary is haunting her, but Norman is unconvinced. Several days later, Mary returns home alive and well, saying that she was with her mother in Rhode Island after a fight with Warren.

In a broken picture frame, Claire finds a newspaper clipping of a missing woman named Madison Elizabeth Frank, who bears a striking resemblance to her, and whose initials match "MEF." Claire tracks down Madisons mother and steals a lock of Madisons hair from a photo in the home in which Madison is wearing an unusual necklace. Later that night, Claire reads about conjuring the dead, and becomes possessed. When Norman arrives home from work, Claires personality has noticeably changed, and she aggressively seduces him. However, the encounter is interrupted when Claire recalls a repressed memory of discovering Normans affair with Madison, his student. Norman admits to the affair, and Claire spends the night with Jody, who reveals to her that she had witnessed Norman arguing with a blonde woman at a cafe in the nearby town of Adamant about a year earlier.

Claire returns home and finds Norman in the tub after an apparent suicide attempt, but he recovers. Claire asks Norman if he killed Madison, which he denies. He then witnesses Claire being drawn to the lake, where an unseen force pulls her under by the lock of Madison’s hair in her hand. It pulls her down to the bottom, where she finds a box with the same symbol as Madison’s necklace. Norman saves Claire from the lake, and the two burn the hair. After visiting Adamant and spotting ornate lockboxes at a shop, Claire recovers from the lake an identical box, which she unlocks with the matching key; inside, she finds Madisons necklace. Norman changes his story, claiming that Madison killed herself in their home, and that he pushed her car into the lake with her inside. Norman agrees to confess to authorities, calling 911 to explain the situation. Claire redials the phone to discover that he actually dialed 411, faking the conversation. Norman attacks her, paralyzing her with halothane, and finally admits to murdering Madison, preventing her from exposing their affair to the dean of the university.

Norman places Claire in the bathtub, filling it with water and staging a suicide for her. He spots Madisons necklace around Claires neck; as he moves her, her face contorts to that of Madisons corpse; Norman jerks away, and smashes his head on the bathroom sink, rendering him unconscious. Recovering from the paralysis, Claire manages to shut the tap off in time to save herself from drowning. She finds that Norman has left the bathroom and discovers him seemingly unconscious downstairs. She flees in the couples truck, which has their boat hitched to the back. As she is crossing the bridge over Lake Champlain, Norman attacks Claire, who frantically dials 911 on her cell phone and causes the truck to careen down the embankment into the lake and dislodge Madisons car. Disturbed by the debris, Madisons corpse floats toward the couple and avenges her own death, drowning Norman and allowing Claire to swim to the surface. Later in the winter, Claire places a red rose on Madisons grave.


2. Cast

  • Katharine Towne as Caitlin Spencer, Claires daughter and Normans stepdaughter.
  • Wendy Crewson as Elena
  • Harrison Ford as Dr. Norman Spencer, a successful college professor and scientist.
  • Michelle Pfeiffer as Claire Spencer, Normans wife.
  • Miranda Otto as Mary Feur, Norman and Claires neighbor.
  • Joe Morton as Dr. Drayton, a therapist whom Claire visits upon Normans urging.
  • James Remar as Warren Feur, Norman and Claires neighbor and Marys husband.
  • Ray Baker as Dr. Stan Powell
  • Amber Valletta as Madison Elizabeth Frank, a murdered young woman with whom Norman has had an affair.
  • Diana Scarwid as Jody, a mystic and Claires best friend.

3. Production

Documentary filmmaker Sarah Kernochan had adapted a personal experience with the paranormal as a script treatment featuring a retirement aged couple dealing with restless but compassionate spirits. DreamWorks commissioned a rewrite from actor-writer Clark Gregg. This script was later delivered in 1998 by Steven Spielberg himself to his director friend Robert Zemeckis, who had signed a deal for DreamWorks to distribute the films of newly founded production company ImageMovers, and announced interest in doing a thriller film. Harrison Ford then signed to star on the film, even agreeing to clear room in his schedule for the project. Michelle Pfeiffer then followed as DreamWorks started to deal with 20th Century Fox regarding the films distribution. Ford and Pfeiffer were Zemeckis first and only choices for the lead roles. Fox agreed to distribute both What Lies Beneath and Zemeckis other project Cast Away, with the thriller having DreamWorks doing the domestic distribution and Fox the international one.

Zemeckis filmed What Lies Beneath while Cast Away was shut down to allow Tom Hanks to lose weight and grow a beard for his characters development. As Gregg had to remain with production for rewrites, he had to decline Aaron Sorkins offer to read for a major role in Sports Night - though Sorkin would later write for Gregg a minor role in the final episodes of the series.


4.1. Reception Box office

What Lies Beneath opened in 2.813 theaters in North America and grossed $29.702.959 for an average of $10.559 per theater. The film ended up earning $155.464.351 domestically and $135.956.000 internationally for a total of $291.420.351 worldwide, close to triple its production budget of $100 million.


4.2. Reception Critical response

The film received mixed reviews. The film currently holds a rating of 46% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 125 reviews with an average rating of 5.51/10 with the sites consensus stating that "Robert Zemeckis is unable to salvage an uncompelling and unoriginal film." The film received a score of 51 on Metacritic based on 35 reviews. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale.

The New York Times wrote that, "at the start, zaps us with quick, glib scares, just to show he still knows how, but his heart isnt in this kind of material anymore. His reflexes are a little slow." The Los Angeles Times called it "spooky with a polished kind of creepiness added in. What Lies Beneath nevertheless feels more planned than passionate, scary at points but unconvincing overall." The Chicago Sun-Times wrote: "Lacking a smarter screenplay, it milks the genuine skills of its actors and director for more than it deserves, and then runs off the rails in an ending more laughable than scary. Along the way, yes, there are some good moments." Time Out thought that, "after a slow build that at times makes every hair stand on end – Zemeckis rolls out every thriller cliche there is. A pity, because until then its a smart, realistically staged, adult-oriented and extraordinarily effective domestic chiller." Empire wrote: "The biggest surprise is, perhaps, that what emerges is no masterpiece, but a semi-sophisticated shocker, playfully homaging Hitchcock like a mechanical masterclass in doing genre. The first hour is great fun. Its an enjoyably giddy ride, certainly, but once youre back from the edge of your seat, you realise most of the creaks and groans are from the decomposing script."

Michelle Pfeiffer received some positive notice for her performance. Roger Ebert called her "convincing and sympathetic."

In his review, Ebert said that he felt the problem with Zemeckis desire to direct a Hitchcockian film was to involve the supernatural, which he believes to be something Alfred Hitchcock himself would never have done.

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