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WHAT LIES BENEATH

by: Michael Dequina

Hitchcockian psychothrillers sell. Supernatural thrillers sell. Psycho killer horror movies sell. So why not mix all three? Because then you'll end up with a mess like What Lies Beneath, in which the stellar trio of director Robert Zemeckis and stars Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer have pooled their Oscar-winning and -nominated talents to make a classy... slasher film. Sound ridiculous? It should.

What Lies Beneath, scripted by actor Clark Gregg (who most recently delivered an Independent Spirit Award-nominated turn in the underseen indie The Adventures of Sebastian Cole) from a story by Sarah Kernochan (All I Wanna Do!) and himself, can be divided in three discrete acts completely separate in tone. The only element that clearly strings the three parts together is the poster duo for aging impossibly gracefully, Ford and Pfeiffer, who play glamorous Vermont marrieds Norman and Claire Spencer. As the film opens, Claire, the world's most improbably stunning housewife, is distraught over sending her daughter from her first marriage off to college. While hubby Norman, a respected geneticist, spends long workdays in the lab, the lonely and bored Claire notices that their waterfront house is starting to develop a mind of its own.

From this setup spring the film's multiple personalities. Unlike the tell-just-about-all advertising campaign that DreamWorks has inexplicably employed, I will keep plot details to a minimum so as not to spoil whatever surprise thrills the film has to offer.

Act I: Rear Window. Claire thinks that the strange happenings in her house could be a result of some suspicious goings-on with her neighbors (James Remar and Miranda Otto), so she starts poking around where she shouldn't. Every once in a while, things predictably jump into frame accompanied by a stinger chord on Alan Silvestri's score. The only real shock of this section is what a long waste of time it is (if you've seen any of the advertising, you'll know exactly why).

Act II: "I see dead people." The supernatural bent comes to the fore, with Claire trading in amateur sleuthing for novice witchcraft in hopes of contacting whatever apparition is haunting her home. Zemeckis is able to create some moments of tension and creepiness, particularly in one sequence where Claire gets a bit too close to the ghost (again, if you've seen any of the commercials, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about). But as Norman voices his increasing disbelief, so will you.

Act III: Slice and dice. In a turn I was not at all prepared to take, the discovery of the rather down-to-earth truth transforms Claire into a helpless and idiotic B-movie scream queen, paying no attention to common sense and the rules of a horror movie. Again, Zemeckis pulls off some impressive moments and images. The extended Diabolique reference works better than it rightfully should (a blatant Psycho lift, however, far less so), and in one bravura camera move, Zemeckis swoops the camera from regular P.O.V. to right under the floor, as if it had magically become transparent. Still, this is your basic slasher movie climax, with Claire running for her life as evil things have their way of grabbing at her.

Everyone involved in this film is clearly above the material. As I have stated, Zemeckis is able to generate some suspense out of some very silly situations. Ford acquits himself well in a fairly small role. But the one who maintains the most dignity--and rather ironically at that, considering the ridiculous wringer she's put through--is Pfeiffer. Her character undergoes just as many radical shifts as everything else in the film, but Pfeiffer's conviction and innate likability go a long way.

But, ultimately, she and what good there is in What Lies Beneath isn't quite enough to successfully bring together what is essentially three movies in one--and despite the ready-for-a-promo sound of that d

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