What Lies Beneath is a great big boo! movie involving two great big stars, Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, and an Oscar-winning director, Robert Zemeckis, and doubtless there will be those who see this lineup as some sort of advance in the current screen-horror derby, with its Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer entries and spoofs like Scary Movie. Shock pictures now are almost exclusively low-budget and schlocky, with teens their target audience. By comparison, What Lies Beneath comes on like a class act, even though its sex-and-terror ingredients are not that far removed from the cheapies.
I'm not convinced that a glossier version of the same old entrails is all that classy. There's something to be said for the low-grade approach to horror; at least it makes no bones about what's going on. Whenever a heavyweight director deigns to make a scare movie, we inevitably hear about how the filmmaker intends to anticipate the audience's preconceptions and "reinvent" the genre. This was the mantra when Stanley Kubrick made The Shining. He let it be known that we weren't going to be getting just any old pulp; we would be getting oracular pulp. Kubrick approached the Stephen King material as if he were a pathologist painstakingly dissecting the cadaver of an expired genre, holding each organ up to the light for inspection. Despite all this posturing, parts of The Shining did indeed have oracular power, but Kubrick's lugubriousness killed most of our pleasure in the essential pulpiness of it all.
There was something punishing in Kubrick's attempted makeover of the genre; he was telling audiences that the low-down frights they have come to expect from these films were beneath them -- or, more to the point, beneath him. What he failed to grasp was that if you wish to be a master, you cannot approach the horror genre with such cold calculation; it's far too sensual an animal for that. A great scare movie is a species of ravishment in which you give yourself up to the forbidden. The terror lies not just in the knowing but in the not knowing too -- in the thrill of being unmoored. Hitchcock, for all of his fanatic preplanning and tricks of the trade, always made sure the deadbolts of his narratives were fondled open by the pleasures of the illicit. His best films brought out the erotics of danger.
In What Lies Beneath, Robert Zemeckis appears to have adopted the same I'll show 'em attitude as Kubrick. He wants his new film to be not just a star-studded thrill ride but also the playbook that future scare-movie directors will be drawing on for years to come. But he hasn't rewritten the playbook, just rejiggered it. As you watch What Lies Beneath, you can practically see the frame-by-frame storyboards and digital stopwatches that went into its making; the film is a feat of horror engineering. And on that level, at least, it mostly delivers. The audience, adding its own Sensurround, shrieks in all the intended places, then giggles afterward. Zemeckis includes the standard paraphernalia of the genre: the hand reaching abruptly into frame, the shadows under the door, the family pet that senses something is horribly wrong, the car that won't start, the corpse that bursts alive. But in the end, it's not really such a great achievement to make an audience jump on cue. The horror cheapies are pretty adept at it, if nothing else. What's disappointing about What Lies Beneath is that nothing lies beneath.
Nothing, that is, except Michelle Pfeiffer's performance, which has more depth than this film deserves. Her Claire, the wife of a prominent research scientist, Dr. Norman Spencer (Ford), believes the Vermont home they inherited may be spook-infested, and she has a fragility that makes you afraid for her. Pfeiffer takes you through the paces of her character's mounting terrors and denials, and you feel that, yes, this is how a real human being would react in this situation. Pfeiffer's special gift is that she is both ethereal and supremely down-to-earth. It's the perfect combination for the role. When Claire goes to a psychiatrist (Joe Morton) for help, she tries to frame her anxiety in realistic terms, but you can see that she's enticed by her fearfulness. A former cellist, she is presented as the free-spirited contrast to her cerebral scientist husband, played by Harrison Ford with his usual solid-oak somnolence. Claire is the one who is truly in tune with the cosmos. This classic, corny art-science dichotomy is common to schlock occultism. Pfeiffer gives it a poignancy. Terror turns Claire wraithlike. As the frights heighten, her hair seems to grow munificently scraggly; at times, she resembles a pre-Raphaelite Ophelia. In the film's most clutch-the-arm-of-your-date scene, she sits mute and immobilized in a bathtub as it fills to the drowning point, and her cat's-eyes seem to give off a lasered glow. You can believe this woman might be possessed because, after all, who wouldn't want to possess her?
I've been deliberately discursive in discussing this film because I don't want to give the show away (unlike the film's trailer, or even the print ads). But audiences won't be without a road map. Zemeckis and his screenwriter, Clark Gregg, draw on a whole stable of imperiled-woman warhorses, including Wait Until Dark and Gaslight; they summon up Fatal Attraction and Rear Window and Psycho and The Haunting. So much for reinventing the genre. You won't need to be that smart to figure out what lies beneath. You just need a bit of film history.