What Lies Beneath are the good bones of Alfred Hitchcock, propping up an unwieldy modern suspense-thriller with the strength of an old champ. No sooner do the opening credits vanish, for instance, than we’re in the pleasurably queasy, voyeuristic neighborhood of Rear Window.
On first introduction, Norman Spencer and his wife, Claire, appear invulnerable to hazard. He’s a prominent scientist who, because he’s played by Harrison Ford, projects middle-aged manliness at its most laconically virile. She’s a former cellist, the mother of a college-aged daughter, and she brims with the melancholy loveliness of Michelle Pfeiffer. The couple live in a Vermont lakefront dream house; those who don’t nurse a crush on Ford or Pfeiffer can covet the furniture.
But Claire is skittish, distrustful of her own instincts, even her sanity, as Hitchcock’s women can be. (Her restless dread can’t only be the result of empty-nest disorientation.) She hears disturbing sounds coming from the house next door where the neighbors (James Remar and Miranda Otto) are seen and heard loudly arguing — or, just as disturbingly, engaging in noisy sex, the sounds of pleasure indistinguishable from those of pain. Closer rear-window peeping with binoculars only unnerves Claire more. First, she observes the man trudging around at odd hours with a heavy, Raymond Burr-like step, suspiciously lugging what appears to be a body bag through the pouring rain and loading it into his car. Then, the man’s wife appears to have disappeared.
Is the husband a murderer? ”He’s harmless. He wouldn’t hurt a flea,” Norman (Norman, get it?) baits Claire (who, in the course of the movie, begins to see clearly). Still, unexplained phenomena in Claire’s own pretty house while her own handsome husband is off at work spook her further. She starts to develop the paranoia of Joan Fontaine in Suspicion; she also starts to develop a sixth sense. Doors open and shut spontaneously, sometimes accompanied by puffs of I-see-dead-people steam wafting from her mysteriously self-filling bathtub; a certain framed photograph falls to the floor, demanding attention. At times, Claire actually does glimpse the face of a ghostly woman hovering behind her, after which even the attentions of a kindly but skeptical anti-Spellbound psychiatrist (Joe Morton) can’t assuage her conviction of foul play.
The cinematic references continue to accrue with even greater, more daring chutzpah: a shower-curtain nod to Psycho; a fetish-object kiss to Vertigo; a preference for anxiety-inducing, low-to-the-ground camera angles; composer Alan Silvestri’s effective imitation of bits of Bernard Herrmann’s famous scores. This is Robert Zemeckis having fun. Throughout his career, from Back to the Future to Forrest Gump to Contact, the director has excelled at creating complete, compelling universes, true to themselves and handsomely composed. Just as importantly, he knows how not to junk up a frame with unnecessary stuff.
With What Lies Beneath, though, what presses down is the weight of too many genres jostling for screen time, a neurosis of the story rather than of the storyteller. Screenwriter and theater-based actor-director Clark Gregg throws equal parts marriage-in-peril thriller, crazy-woman-stalker fantasy, murder mystery, and ghost story into his script. At some unrevealable point, the movie takes a sharp, unrevealable turn, and suddenly the dominant homage is to Fatal Attraction, complete with bathtub trauma. (Water is repeatedly significant.) And Ghost. And Ashley Judd’s car troubles in Double Jeopardy.
And inevitably, this plot restlessness affects the performances of the protagonists. After his corpse-on-corpse chemistry with Kristin Scott Thomas in Random Hearts and Julia Ormond in Sabrina, Ford’s star-on-star alliance with Pfeiffer is a relief, the two Hollywood A-listers a pleasing love match of dignity and sex appeal. But as Norman, Ford has relatively little to do for two thirds of the movie, and what he does do, must do, always feels bent by the screenwriter’s iron whim rather than by psychological inevitability. Meanwhile, Pfeiffer, electrically alive in some scenes, must carry the burden of Claire’s emotional hysteria at a price. Unnaturally forced to toggle between torpor and rising panic, she alternates faces of fragility and determination, that familiar, achingly delicate Pfeifferian tendril of vein always pulsing in her forehead. (She ought to get out and scream more; it suits her.)
The lies buried in What Lies Beneath are, in the end, not very interesting. The rampant sampling and storytelling overload — prevalent movie weaknesses these days — result in parts greater than the sum of the whole. For what rises above, we can thank Zemeckis, and, of course, Hitchcock, who knew that what lies beneath is almost always too frightening to bear. B