Twenty-one years after its release, What Lies Beneath (2000) is finally available on Blu-ray. Long overdue on the format, this spooky chiller from Robert Zemekis stars Michelle Pfeiffer in one of her most underrated performances as former cellist Claire Spencer, whose life might be haunted. It’s also her film, as she’s in almost every scene, acting as our eyes and ears throughout. Harrison Ford provides good support as Michelle’s distracted professor husband Norman, as the two segue into life as empty nesters after Claire’s daughter from a previous relationship goes off to college at the start of the film. That’s when Claire starts noticing strange nocturnal happenings at the neighbor’s house. Soon enough she’s noticing more odd occurences around the house and even thinks she sees a woman’s body in the lake. Norman dismisses her concerns. Is Claire losing her mind, or are supernatural hauntings afoot?
That’s part of what makes What Lies Beneath so intriguing and effective: it plays off the old horror movie tradition of the sensitive woman being dismissed as hysterical by the man (men) in her life. Think Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) or All The Colors of the Dark (1972), only two of countless films, especially from the 1970s, that offer this type of pointed social commentary on the sexes. Michelle thrives in this role doing what she does best: expressing extreme emotional vulnerability through body language and those oceanic eyes, while at the same time displaying great resilience and strength. Ford is quite believable as a husband obsessively dedicated to his academic research at the expense of his marriage. Pfeiffer and Ford are two acting powerhouses and together they make Claire and Norman’s strained relatioinship feel believable. While we see glimpses of the passion they still feel for one another, Norman’s often-perfunctory attitude and Claire’s hurt reactions serve to emphasize how alone she feels in the marriage at times. Ford’s infamously gruff, smirking style works to his advantage as a character we want to like because he’s Harrison Ford, after all. But Ford gives us just enough hints that something is not quite right with Norman. Pfeiffer’s performance is exquisite, often revealing through subtle line readings or facial expressions the regret that Claire feels for giving up her career as one of the finest cellists in the country to move to Vermont for Norman’s work. I only wish Pfeiffer and Ford had made more movies together.
The hauntings and supernatural events in the film are often executed for proper jump-scare effect, while Pfeiffer’s startled, aghast reactions to what she’s seeing convey Claire’s growing unease at what’s going in and around the property. Soon she’s doing her own research, digging into a missing person case that leads to her attempting to conjure the missing girl’s spirit. While few in number, the scenes between Pfeiffer and Joe Morton as her psychotherapist are extraordinarily powerful. In those moments, Morton’s Dr. Drayton teases out some of Claire’s repressed feelings and memories. Pfeiffer is astonishing in these scenes, especially when she holds her body in tense, defensive positioning in her chair, exposing Claire’s vulnerability and natural reluctance to explore that which might be painful. Possession, a near-drowing, and one of the scariest bathtub scenes of all time lead to a satisyingly intense final act, where Michelle gets to play her version of the Final Girl, albeit in a supernatural rather than slasher film. I’ve always thought she would have made a terrific Final Girl back at the beginning of her career, in the Baby Pfeiffer days before superstardom. This is the closest she’s ever come to that type of role.
For Pfeiffer pfans, there’s nothing more satisfying than watching Michelle shine in a lead performance that carries a film, and What Lies Beneath offers that in spades. The film did well at the box office but has sort of receeded from view over the years. It’s good to see it back on a variety of streaming services and now on Blu-ray. It also makes a perfect October watch, with its autumn New England setting and spooky vibes. So get to it and enjoy this underrated gem before the month’s out.