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What Lies Beneath? Don't Ask Me

by Jason Comerford

Go here for information on our new John Williams CD, A Guide for the Married Man (1967), announced late last week!

(Beware, Spoilers Ahead!)

Ah, horror. It's such a fun genre, but one so easy to screw up that a thousand imitations have dulled the effect of ten or so truly great efforts. By now it's passe to even mention The Blair Witch Project, but love it or hate it, that film truly took horror in a new and unique direction. It used a microbudget as an asset, and it capitalized upon the foundation of horror: fear of the unknown. What you don't see is the most frightening thing of all, and it was this logic that allowed the film to become as successful as it was. But given its success, there have been the inevitable knock-offs and trendy Hollywood "capitalizations" of similar subjects and techniques; Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows is on its way, and the unforgettable confessional scene from the first film has already been parodied (to hilarious effect) in Scary Movie. Of course, there is also The Sixth Sense, one of the rare films whose popularity, I thought, was deserved. Scary Movie also took its share of potshots at that film (although, to less amusing effect), though, and the upcoming Bless the Child looks to be a hapless Sixth Sense knockoff.

Both Blair Witch and The Sixth Sense had the sense to play with the boundaries of the genre. Blair Witch was as much about fear and isolation as it was about bump-in-the-night scares; it found a way to turn a shot of a log spanning across a stream into an extremely unsettling sight, and the group dynamic that developed through the course of the film spoke volumes about the horror of human nature. And The Sixth Sense was a tangibly emotional tale about alienation disguised as a ghost story; despite some dumb shock moments, it was a story told with care and deliberation, and its emotional peaks were earned honestly.

I bring these films up only as a way to illustrate how the genre has been successfully manipulated in the past year or so. What Lies Beneath, the new film directed by Robert Zemeckis, tries its hand at fusion of genres, but it ends up being such a hodgepodge of everything that it's a total mess. This movie is all over the map, and ultimately it makes almost no sense, moving from Rear Window to Vertigo to Fatal Attraction to The Exorcist to God knows what else. It starts out as a gender-bent take on Rear Window, with bored housewife Michelle Pfeiffer suspecting that one of their squabbling next-door neighbors has met an early end. Pfeiffer's character, Claire, is a good example of how messy this movie is -- there are early indications of a troubled past (a deceased first husband, a calamitous car accident), but none of these indications ever pay off or even add anything to the story. Pfeiffer is reduced to wandering about her house, wondering if she's going crazy, and jumping at every bump in the dark -- she's poorly drawn, and treated like dirt. It's a shame, because Pfeiffer's fragile, feline beauty masks a hell of a good actress; when she's used well (Batman Returns), she has the ability to provide a remarkable amount of empathy for tortured characters. Her character in this film is hardly tortured, but hardly interesting; by the ninth or tenth time she picks up a broken picture frame, I was moaning, "I get it, enough already."

Said picture frame is a good example of Zemeckis' seeming inability to break free from the constraints of the script. The frame, of course, contains a key plot element, but Zemeckis treats it like it's of the utmost importance every time we see it, having his camera push in on it like it's the Holy Grail. At his best, Zemeckis is an intelligent and thoughtful director, a master of visual storytelling, but in What Lies Beneath, his scenes don't have his usual confidence. He favors long, slow, gliding master shots with minimal fuss, but in the case of this film, there isn't always a whole lot going on within the frame to sustain audience interest. In fact, much of What Lies Beneath is simply dull, juiced up by a lot of dumb shock effects that saw coming and but wished I hadn't. Zemeckis is smart enough to know how to use silence and dead space within a frame, but his bag of tricks here is disappointingly shallow -- he runs out of staging tricks early on. After the ninth or tenth time a person "unexpectedly" pops into the frame, it's so redundant a visual trick that I wished he'd watch more bad horror flicks to know what to improve on. Whenever he gives Hitchcock a visual reference, he seems more comfortable -- there are a couple of bravura moves in the film's final third that are like water to a dying man.

Indeed, the specter of Hitchcock hangs heavily over this film. Rear Window is redone here, but it's tossed away, and the plot elements that the first third brings up are practically thrown away and forgotten. (The first half of the movie is more of a teaser than anything else, adding little to the plot or the characters, and going nowhere.) Vertigo gets a retread after that, with Claire becoming oddly obsessed by the story of a missing girl (supermodel Amber Valetta) whom her husband had an affair with. This is the real meat of the story, such as it is, but it takes so damn long for the story to get to this point that it's no wonder that the trailer for the film points it out right away. After this point, though, the film looses its footing again, going into Exorcist territory, and trying to be ambiguous but ending up confusing and muddled. There's a long sequence where Claire is apparently possessed by the dead girl's spirit, slinking around sexily in a red dress, but there's never any explanation of her behavior. There's a lot of vague imagery surrounding a cryptic necklace, but nothing much ever comes of it. There's a lot of juicy old-dark-house bumps and shocks, with something causing doors to slam open and bathtubs to fill, but nothing ever makes much sense, and nothing ever goes anywhere. Gregg's script, more than anything else, seems trendy and calculated, trying to throw so many plot elements in from any given scary movie, that it verges on parody itself. Even the title makes no sense, and has seemingly nothing to do with the movie.

Once the film moves into Fatal Attraction territory, with husband Harrison Ford's infidelities coming into light, the film manages to sputter and wheeze and pick up some momentum. Having his character be named Norman is ostensibly a clever idea (Norman Bates, get it?), and casting Ford, the All-American-Hero, was an even better one. But Ford's performance is oddly subdued, a game attempt at duplicity ruined by the actor's recent penchant for plodding internal torment. It's too bad that his transition from loving husband to bad guy is so abrupt in the story; it's somewhat logical, and Ford tries hard, but he just doesn't seem comfortable being a vicious bastard. But Zemeckis is back on the ball, however, and there's a terrific sequence in the bathroom tub that's the best thing the movie has to offer; it's a smashing setpiece, with an appropriate nod or two to Psycho, and one genuine lighting-bolt of a scare. But then, alas, the film looses its footing again. Zemeckis manages to maintain tension throughout the film, but there's only so much one can do with a confined space, and by the time Pfeiffer ends up in a truck towing a boat, with hammer- wielding bad guy Ford in the back, the game attempt at a rousing chase finale is too little, too late. And again, the film's attempt at ambiguity is not as successful as it should be; leaving open-ended the matter of Valetta's character is complicated by literalizing her physical existence at the end. Having Claire and Norman's final struggle over the drowned body of the dead girl is an appropriate full-circle idea, but it becomes more silly and desperate than it should.

Alan Silvestri, to his credit, doesn't succumb to the trendy kitchen-sink mentality of the film, and his imitation-Herrmann score does what it needs to do. His scores for Zemeckis are always economically spotted, and when his scores come in, they're almost always warranted. Music in a horror film, these days, is mostly reduced to Corigliano brass effects and stinger-stalk-kill cues; Silvestri, unfortunately, is working with Herrmann's idiom without using his dramatic insight. Herrmann's music, at its best, was as much about dramatic subtext as it was about musicality; he wrote masterful scores that actually told us something about the characters. But the Herrmann approach is at odds with Zemeckis' tendencies to tone down; he has Silvestri use Herrmann's shock-chord approach from Psycho, but doesn't give him room to develop interesting musical material. Silvestri is reduced to scoring the big-scare moments with a lot of shrieking brass and string hits, and his own crisp musical personality is evident, but on the whole, the approach comes off as obviously as the film at hand. Silvestri knows how to build an entire score out of the development of something very small (Back to the Future, Predator), but I couldn't shake the feeling that he seemed uncomfortable with the approach here, given the Herrmannesque techniques he was utilizing. I haven't heard the album, but as the score operates in the film, it does what it needs to do, but alas, it does little else.

I really wanted to like this film, because I love Zemeckis' craftsmanship and Silvestri's impeccably crisp musicality, but they're both reined-in by the script at hand. They try so hard to juice up what's ultimately a silly and predictable tale that I hope they didn't exhaust themselves totally. It's pretty bad when the trailers running before the movie are better than the movie itself, and the terrific trailer for CastAway that runs before What Lies Beneath makes me hope fervently that Zemeckis gets to visit dramatic territory that is more rewarding. At least there aren't any kitchen sinks on deserted islands. At least, I hope not.

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