DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
WHAT LIES BENEATH (director: Robert Zemeckis; screenwriters: Clark Gregg/based on a story by Sarah Kernochan & Gregg; cinematographer: Don Burgess; editor: Arthur Schmidt; cast: Harrison Ford (Norman Spencer), Michelle Pfeiffer (Claire Spencer), Diana Scarwid (Jody), Miranda Otto (Mary Feur), James Remar (Warren Feur), Joe Morton (Dr. Drayton), Amber Valletta (Madison Elizabeth Frank), Victoria Birdwell (Beatrice), Katharine Towne (Caitlin Spencer); Runtime: 126; Dreamworks SKG; 2000)

 
"The only thing the film did well, was provide for a lot of schlock."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A mindless psychological thriller set in Vermont that starts out in a promising fashion but ends badly, ruining any credibility it might have generated. It tries very hard to be both a mystery and a supernatural story, but it goes off course on both its aims way before it sinks to its low abyss. It was a film that was all foreplay but couldn't come to a climax. The film started to clear up the mystery mood it created while moving at its snail pace, but the revelations weren't worth waiting for. The only thing the film did well, was provide for a lot of schlock.

The result is a dull film with poorly developed characters, and too many manipulative fright scenes that reminded me of things I have seen before in too many other horror flicks. The only thing this film did really well aside from all its schlock setups, was photograph the lakeside Lake Champlain area and use the Champlain Bridge for some eerie shots. The story seemed to drag from the onset, as the director wasted time taking irrelevant long shots aimed to be frightening and then turning away from those shots without drawing anything out of them; it should have been an eighty minute film like the B-movies of the 1950s, and then it might have been a more tolerable venture.

Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump"/"Contact"/"Back to the Future") directs without fleshing out his characters, they seem more like robots than humans. 

Zemeckis has built a story around a lady-in-peril, one with too much idle time. She talks herself into thinking she sees ghosts. Michelle Pfeiffer is asked to carry this film but without an adequate script even if she is a good casting decision, her task is too difficult to accomplish.

Norman Spencer (Harrison Ford) is a genius in genetics and has moved to Vermont to accept the prestigious Dupont seat at the university. He is doing lab research at the same university his father taught at. Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the beautiful cellist who gave up her career to marry the science genius. She comes with some baggage; she had a daughter (Towne) by another man before she married Ford. Claire is a little unnerved that her daughter has just been enrolled in an away college and that she will be left alone in the house. The couple has just completed the fixing up of their stately manse. The roses in the garden, that Michelle takes such pride in, look wonderful in the early New England autumn. Everything seems blissful between the Spencers, now that she has recovered from the car accident she had a year ago.

Claire is upset that her new neighbors, the Feurs (Miranda Otto & James Remar), are loudly fighting in their driveway where the Spencers can plainly hear them (Jimmy Stewart did that eavesdropping part in "Rear Window"). On one occasion Mary is uncontrollably sobbing in her yard but is unreceptive to Claire's willingness to help, as they converse through a wooden fence. Mary mysteriously blurts out that she believes she will just disappear one day, a statement that frightens Claire into believing that her husband is a killer. Norman checks out Warren Feur to calm his wife's fears and finds out that he's a psychology professor at the university and is completely harmless. These suspicions of hers come to a fruitless conclusion as Claire hysterically lashes out at Warren for murdering his wife when she is not seen for a few days, but when his wife makes her grand entrance at a university function, to the chagrin of Norman and the terrible embarrassment for Claire, the Feurs disappear from the picture as possible suspects to their haunted house.

The film then moves into the supernatural and the typical Hollywood ghost story scenes: doors mysteriously open, a solitaire game on a computer is flashing the initials of the local university coed who has been missing for a year, a stereo system turns on unaided, a bathtub fills up by itself; and, most importantly, visions of the dead girl (Amber Valletta) whom Norman had a secret affair with a year ago, the green-eyed blonde vixen, keep popping up whenever Michelle is home alone.

Pfeiffer in the meantime has turned a ghostly pale color for the remainder of the film and has become hysterically possessed by the ghost she keeps seeing in the house. She starts losing contact with her workaholic hubby, who is more enmeshed in the paper he is to present in New Haven than with her hysterics. So she turns to her divorced girlfriend (Diana Scarwid) for psychic advice, but is given only cynical giggles for help. Upon her husband's request she also sees a dogmatic Freudian shrink (Morton), as the film wastes too much time on these dead-end trails.

The last shocking scene takes place in a bathtub, one that could have been ordered from the Sears catalog before World War 11, and seems to be ready-made for a horror flick. Michelle will lie in the tub drugged and in a paralyzed state awaiting her fate, as the water rises. All the edgy middle-aged lady did, was bring up ghosts from the past and now someone must answer for those buried lies that brought on the ghosts.

Zemeckis has created an unaffecting haunted house thriller with samples from many other films thrown into this derivative stew, but nothing seems to work. This is just a boring movie about a couple who are as unreal as the ghosts in their house.

REVIEWED ON 7/25/2000     GRADE: C

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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