On October 16, 2015

Vermont in Cinema: “What Lies Beneath”

The Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis put forth “What Lies Beneath” in the midst of Hollywood’s end-of-millennium resurgence of interest in ghost stories. This period began in 1999 with “The Sixth Sense,” “Stir of Echoes,” “The Haunting,” and “Sleepy Hollow,” and continued into the 2000s with “The Others” (2001) and “The Ring” (2002). Zemeckis, who also produced “Ghost Ship” in 2002, was one of the major forces behind the craze. “What Lies Beneath” probably wasn’t the worst product of this trend—which also spawned two Zemeckis-produced William Castle remakes, “House on Haunted Hill” (1999) and “Thir13en Ghosts” (2001), whose awfulness I can only imagine—but it definitely wasn’t the best, either.

“What Lies Beneath,” only Zemeckis’s second directorial effort after the mainstream triumph of “Forrest Gump,” is unabashedly schlocky, full of jump scares set to a manipulative Alan Silvestri score, but—unsurprisingly, given the rare industry status of the sci-fi/fantasy maestro—it looks like a prestige picture and boasts an A-list cast. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer as a cellist-turned-housewife named Claire and Harrison Ford as her husband Norman Spencer, a UVM professor and scientist, it takes place largely within the luxury lakeside house where, now that the couple’s daughter has left for college, Claire feels increasingly alone.

She begins to snoop, “Rear Window”-style, on her volatile new neighbors. Soon she comes to suspect the man next door of murdering his wife, who, after mysteriously disappearing, seems to reemerge as a ghostly presence—knocking over picture frames and opening doors—within Claire’s home. When, in fact, the neighbor’s wife returns from a trip, safe and sound, Norman sends Claire to a psychiatrist, and for a while, as Claire continues to see phantoms, the film feels like it could turn into a “Still Alice”-like portrait of a woman whose luxurious lifestyle is tragically unable to halt the disintegration of her mind. But, alas, if it were a movie about illness, it probably wouldn’t be working so hard to startle us every two to five minutes.

This long, ambiguous middle section, in which Zemeckis teases the viewer with a possibility of an unexplained supernatural force as Claire fidgets in her fancy living room, feels like the longest section of a very long movie; Zemeckis lingers over interiors with Ozu-like patience, albeit with less poetic purpose.

When a fictional character begins to see ghosts, I tend to react unsympathetically unless he or she forcefully rejects the illusion and checks immediately into a mental health facility, which is what I believe I would do if I started to see ghosts. (To believe too strongly in one’s one subjective impressions is a sign of bad character.) Movie characters never behave as I would—they may play along as their spouse or best friend tries to explain away the apparition, and they may even briefly question their sanity, but deep down they know that the ghost is real, and since it’s a movie, they usually turn out to be right.

Zemeckis here seems to recognize the basic truth of supernatural fiction, which is that the supernatural element is useful and interesting only insofar as it brings to light hidden aspects of the real: relationships, emotions, memories. “What Lies Beneath,” as it turns out, is really a story about a husband and a wife, insofar as it’s about anything other than cheap thrills—the marital mistakes that can’t be undone, the failed attempts to “move on.” Yet it doesn’t seem truly interested in its characters—not even Claire, whose frivolous attempts with Ouiji boards, candles, and wine, to “commune” with the ghost, are depicted with what almost feels like derision.

The story must, for the sake of its cheesy action-packed finale, ultimately prove all her suspicions right, but in the meantime, “What Lies Beneath” (like “Repulsion” or even “Cries and Whispers”) feels more in line with that particular type of film that depicts the danger of an unoccupied woman—that genre wherein male directors wonder fearfully what their high-strung wives might get into if they don’t have enough to do around the house.

It takes place within a Vermont that feels a lot more like Connecticut—suburbanized countryside for people who wear expensive clothes and like to shop for antiques. The Spencers’ house, a Nantucket-style mansion (with stunning views) that was built specifically for the film and then immediately torn down after shooting, appears to be located beside the Lake Champlain Bridge in Addison, which would make for a rough commute to Burlington for Norman. Claire also takes trips to Waterbury and the village of Adamant, the latter of which the film misrepresents both in location and in character.

“What Lies Beneath” does justice, however, to the beauty and mystery of Lake Champlain, which, as the primary habitat for the film’s waterborne ghost (it also likes bathtubs), becomes almost a character itself in the drama. From “Creature from the Black Lagoon” to “Jaws,” the horror genre has always been attracted to and terrified by bodies of water, forever wondering, indeed, what lies beneath. In “Lake Placid,” it was a monster crocodile; what we encounter here is really no less plausible.

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