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'What Lies Beneath'

Psycho thriller: 'What Lies Beneath' aims for Hitchcock -- and falls a little short

Friday, July 21, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Director Robert Zemeckis sees "What Lies Beneath," his new psychic thriller, as "a pure suspense movie -- perhaps the kind Hitchcock would have done in his day." As born-again Christians ask WWJD -- "What would Jesus do?" -- Zemeckis asks WWHD: "What would Hitchcock do?" Picking up the supernatural signals to answer either question is equally problematic.

'What Lies Beneath'

Rating: PG-13 for vulgar language, brief violence

Players: Michelle Pfeiffer, Harrison Ford

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Web site:

Critic's call: 2 stars


In the paranormal celluloid at hand, Michelle Pfeiffer is vulnerable Claire, who gave up a promising musical career for her daughter and scientist-husband Dr. Norman Spencer, played by the ever craggy and crabby Harrison Ford. He has cheated on her but is back on the fidelity wagon in their new picturesque Vermont country place on Lake Champlain.

It's the perfect home for the perfect psycho-situation: nifty by day, spooky by night, when it turns sinister a la the Amityville horror house. Never mind that most of the horrors could be eliminated if there were something more than a 20-watt bulb in any of the sockets. Hell, a decent Bic lighter would provide better illumination than the lamps in this place. But that's just a symptom, not the source, of the unnerving events and apparitions inside Pfeiffer's house.

Michelle and I have some similar problems: Her bathtub keeps filling itself up with water (I wish mine would). Her front door keeps popping open (I wish mine wouldn't). Her computer keeps telling her things she doesn't understand (mine does this 24 hours a day). Is she delusionary? Am I? Have our imaginations run away with us?

Then there's the mysterious neighbors, a colleague of Ford who just may have murdered his wife, plus the missing girl, whose spirit seems to be trying to communicate and whose deathly reflection that Michelle sees in the bathtub is even more upsetting to her than the unsightly ring I see when peering into mine.

Meanwhile, as the cryptic computer messages increase, so does her ineptitude at interpreting them -- like in the Lassie films when everybody says, "What is it, girl? I think she's trying to tell us something!" Pfeiffer in this film has a big dog named Cooper who is never around when he's needed. Nor is she assisted by her discovery of the proverbial "Witchcraft & Alchemy" oversized textbook. My advice is, never read those things when you find 'em. Return it to the Carnegie, pay the 75-year overdue fine, and take out something blandly soporific like "Walden Pond" or the collected essays of George Will instead.

I found myself obsessing on Michelle's odd nose -- the result of looking up her 6-foot nostrils from the front row at the jam-packed Waterfront screening. As for Harrison Ford, described by the director as a "Rock of Gibraltar" of male strength, he is as dull and mumbly as ever. Somebody needs to chisel a second or third facial expression onto his rocky mug now and then.

Screenwriter Clark Gregg's plot is a mishmash of thriller devices -- a little "Rosemary's Baby" here, a little "Cape Fear" there -- with overall "Psycho"-wannabe aspirations. Zemeckis is a good technician who fashioned "Contact," "Death Becomes Her" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" brilliantly. He won an Oscar for "Forrest Gump."

He will not do so here.

Forgive me, Father, if I sin by revealing that the day is saved not by a dog or a cop but by a corpse.

The film itself should be so lucky.

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