WHAT LIES BENEATH. Zemeckis winks at Hitchcock

What Lies Beneath uses music sparingly, trying to create the right mood through silence.

Jakub Piwoński

8 September 2023

Just one look at the names of the people involved in the making of the film What Lies Beneath is enough to realize that it’s a very peculiar production. In front of the camera, we have Harrison Ford, for whom this was the first and only venture into the horror genre. On the other side of the camera, we have Robert Zemeckis, who, although he had previously contributed to horror TV series like Amazing Stories and Tales from the Crypt, presented his first and only full-length horror film with What Lies Beneath. As you can probably guess, these are not the only distinctive features of the 2000 production.

It was supposed to be a dream-like story. The happy couple, Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Norman (Harrison Ford) Spencer, decide to move into a cottage by the lake. Their daughter has gone off to college, so finally, there’s an opportunity to be just the two of them after years of family life. However, instead of joy, this fact gradually fills Claire’s heart with depression and unease. It’s all due to the aura of mystery hanging over the new place and the suspicious behavior of their neighbors. However, it turns out that the voices heard in the protagonist’s head and the reflection of a female figure seen in the water are the least of her problems.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Zemeckis is usually associated with lighter fare. He is one of the leading creators of New Adventure Cinema (Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future), as well as a specialist in human dramas with positive outcomes (Forrest Gump, Flight). At the end of the 1990s, during a break in shooting Cast Away, caused by the need to send Tom Hanks on a forced diet, Zemeckis directed his first full-length horror film. Although he had not shied away from horror elements in his previous work, this time he decided to fully embrace them. This decision was driven by the need to pay homage. What Lies Beneath in many aspects clearly references the work of none other than Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense and horror.

The idea was to show, through What Lies Beneath, what Hitchcock’s work would look like if he had been equipped with a digital camera. While building the film’s story, Zemeckis and screenwriter Clark Gregg created a pretext to incorporate many references to the master’s work. For example, Madison Elizabeth Frank, a girl who went missing years ago, resembles Marion Crane from Psycho both in appearance (blond) and past (having affairs with married men). The main character is named after Norman Bates. Psycho is also referenced through specific shots, especially those in the bathroom (and another detail related to water, which I won’t reveal, involving the lake).

The film also contains references to Rear Window through voyeurism, as the characters engage in spying on their neighbors to see what is happening. Alan Silvestri composed a very intriguing soundtrack, which in many places resembles Bernard Herrmann’s most famous compositions, Herrmann being Hitchcock’s chief composer. This is particularly noticeable during the closing credits because What Lies Beneath uses music sparingly, trying to create the right mood through silence.

Zemeckis successfully realized his idea of paying tribute to the famous director because, in addition to playing with numerous references, he managed to instill the necessary sense of unease typical of Hitchcockian films. It should be noted, however, that while What Lies Beneath has its merits, it suffers from pacing issues, and at a certain point during the viewing, the meticulously constructed intrigue can induce a feeling of fatigue. Still, thanks to refreshing plot twists and very decent jump scares, the director manages to maintain the viewer’s attention.

This is also helped by the above-average performances of the cast. Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer are very convincing. Pfeiffer, in particular, stands out, not only due to her screen time, which is the most significant, but also because she introduces complexity into what initially appears to be a simple character – the naive and withdrawn wife has the opportunity to transform into a rebellious angel. However, Ford does not lag behind his co-star, as in What Lies Beneath, he unexpectedly, but credibly, steps beyond the boundaries of the image he has built up over the years, creating a highly ambiguous character.

Although the film has its merits, in my opinion, Zemeckis got lost in two aspects. I strongly believe that certain elements were overly exaggerated in the story’s finale, casting a shadow on the script’s logic. It also feels like directorial flourishes, such as the “underground” shot of the protagonist lying down or the digital enhancements in some scenes (like the character’s escape across a bridge), were introduced into the film in a senseless and showy manner. However, in this case, they serve as a personal signature of the director, who, while creating a thriller in an old-fashioned style, wanted to enrich it with a large number of innovative narrative and technical elements that were only a dream for old-school horror filmmakers, including Hitchcock himself.

Jakub Piwoński

Jakub Piwoński

Cultural expert, passionate about popular culture, in particular films, series, computer games and comics. He likes to fly away to unknown, fantastic regions, thanks to his fascination with science fiction. Professionally, however, he looks back more often, thanks to his work as a museum promotion specialist, investigating the mysteries of the beginnings of cinematography. His favorite film is "The Matrix", because it combines two areas close to his heart - religion and martial arts.

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