Film Analysis | Film Reviews | Vermont

All Previewed Out

1 Sep , 2000  

Written by Chris Cooke | Posted by:

A review of 'What Lies Beneath'

Is it just me, or are people talking as much about the preview of "What Lies Beneath" as much as the film itself? Set and filmed on the shores of Lake Champlain, Vermont, the movie stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford as Claire and Norman Spencer. When their daughter leaves for college, the happy couple is left alone, free to enjoy each other — or so they think. Instead, a ghost moves in to take the daughter’s place, and the chills begin.

On the whole, "What Lies Beneath" delivers plenty of that you-know-it’s-coming-but-not-exactly-how-or-when feeling that makes a good thriller such a thrill. With the exception of a few awkward spots — including an overdeveloped red herring that is abruptly and unsatisfactorily explained away, plus a few overused horror movie tricks (the ghost knocks the same picture over about five times — duh, maybe that’s a hint) — the movie is quite well made. The events of Claire’s recent past are skillfully unraveled, shown to us only when they rise up from the depths of her unconscious mind. And director Robert Zemeckis effectively uses a variety of camera tricks with mirrors and other reflective surfaces to spice things up. Of course, things are not always as they seem, but that’s just part of the thrill of it all. Yes, I can honestly tell the 10 of 15 people out there who haven’t seen the preview: You are in for quite a scare.

And here we get to the controversy: I’m afraid I’m going to have to jump on the bandwagon and curse the folks behind the now nearly infamous preview, which seems to have gotten almost as much press as the movie itself. That’s right, folks — the preview gives it all away. (For those of you who have seen neither the film not the preview, STOP READING NOW!) Yes, good old Norman has had an affair with a younger woman; yes, he killed her when things got hairy; yes, her vengeful ghost has come back to haunt Claire, and ultimately even possess her. All of this seemed pretty obvious to me after seeing the preview. And these are all the twists and turns of the plot. There are no other major surprises. The only thing we don’t know is how it ends, and we can guess that easily enough. I mean, it’s a Hollywood movie after all — justice will prevail; the good guy (or gal, in this case) is a good bet to come out on top.

But what’s all the fuss about? This certainly isn’t the first preview to show too much. Indeed, for my tastes, more than half the previews I see reveal too much of the storyline, give away too many major plot points, expose too many surprises and other unexpected developments. I’ve heard reports that the people behind "What Lies Beneath" spilled the beans prematurely on purpose. Studies have shown that regular folk like to know what they’re getting into — so much so that the nasty surprises awaiting them here would have been too much to handle without proper warning. This is discouraging news, about both the gutlessness of the establishment and (if the studies are true) the general lack of adventure of the general populace.

Suspense is created by arousing suspicions without letting the truth be known for certain. The preview here is about as damaging as a murder mystery preview that tells you whodunit — in fact, "What Lies Beneath" essentially is a murder mystery, only it’s a haunted murder mystery, with clues supplied by a ghost. The foreknowledge we get from the preview diminishes the most powerful psychological thrust of the movie, the horror that overcomes Claire when she realizes that what (ahem) lies beneath the surface of her comfortable family life it not as placid as she’d always assumed. (Seen in this light, it’s only natural that she would first suspect her neighbors of what she won’t let herself see in her own marriage). What begins as a haunted house tale ends as an exploration of the consequences of marital deceit and murder. And by giving all this away in the preview, the filmmakers assure themselves that what might be truly shocking (Oh, no, we can’t have that!) becomes merely entertaining (Much better!). Thus, the potentially unsettling power of the movie is diffused, making it harmless, palatable.

It’s a shame, really, because "What Lies Beneath," while certainly not a work of daring originality, is one of the better thrillers to come out in quite a while. I can only wish I’d had the chance to be thrilled properly.