In college, I worked as a night supervisor for the Student Housing Department. My job was mostly to walk around a dorm or residence hall between 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. to make sure no doors were propped open and people were keeping themselves at a relatively low volume.
You wouldn’t believe what can happen in residence hall in the wee hours. They were streakers. Drunk were stumbling in. Most of them were “my best friend” as I helped them to their rooms. I even probably saved some kid from alcohol poisoning because his stereo was too loud and he was so gone he was drooling all over himself. If most parents knew how really unsecure a residence hall or dormitory, they’d put their kids in apartments or off-campus housing.
It was a slow tedious job most nights. In the summer of 2000, I was working at Kennedy Hall at Georgia Southern University, which was the only on-campus housing facility opened during those months. Kennedy had suites and apartment-style rooms. There was a courtyard in the center and there was an urban legend the reason it was there because they thought it was a southern plantation graveyard for enslaved people. It’s the south and I’m sure someone could imagine 150 years earlier, a plantation in the area. There were cotton farms all around the area.
There was also a county road outside of town and the campus called Ghost Road which supposedly you could see the spirits of dead enslaved people. I don’t know it it really existed. I went to school there for four years and couldn’t find one person who could tell me where it was. There probably wasn’t any graveyard underneath Kennedy Hall. I’m sure they did a lot to make sure there were nothing buried when they began construction.
Anyway, the courtyard consisting of some trees and vegetation that seemed out of place. Late at night, walking through there, it could get a little eerie. One night I was working when I began my rounds. You had to have a key to get into the courtyard area and a young co-ed was walking next to me as we went to the apartment buildings. She had said she had just got back from watching What Lies Beneath at the movie theater and was a little spooked.
For what it’s worth, the movie wasn’t for the MTV Generation. It’s targeted toward Baby Boomers with Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford in the lead roles as a married couple living in Vermont near Lake Champlain. Pfeiffer plays Claire Spencer, a former cellist, and Ford is her husband, Norman, a well-respected scientist and professor at nearby college.
Claire’s daughter, Caitlin, leaves for college, thus leaving Claire alone for the first time in her adult life. It should be noted that Norman is Claire’s stepfather and the house is actually Norman’s late father’s, who was a more respected person in his field. And you can sense in Ford’s performance that he’s tired of living in his father’s shadow.
Empty nest syndrome kicks in as Claire begins to worry about her new next-door neighbor Mary Fuer (Mirando Otto) who after a brief and uncomfortable meeting leads Claire to think she may in danger from her husband, Warren (brilliant casting of James Remar), who also teaches at the nearby college.
Strange things begin happening at the house as Claire suspects Mary may be in danger. When she offers a welcome basket to Warren, he is abrupt with her. Claire also doesn’t see Mary for several days and begins to suspect the worst after her and a friend, Jody (Diana Scarwid) perform a seance.
What follows is spoilers so if you haven’t seen any, don’t read any further.
It turns out that Mary is alive. Her and Warren had an argument and she went to stay with her mother in Rhode Island. But what Claire doesn’t realize is something closer to home is behind all the strange events.
A year earlier, Claire was involved in a car accident. Her and Norman were going through a rough patch and he had an affair with a student. It just so happens Jody spotted Norman in a nearby town with her and suspected it was a suicide attempt by Claire but didn’t tell her.
So, now, Claire suspects the spirit of the student Madison Elizabeth Frank (Amber Valletta) may be behind all the strange events as she has been reported missing since the time Claire was in the car accident.
What makes this movie work is how it takes its time to introduce us to the characters to make us care about them more or get inside their heads. Pfeifer really does some great work here. It’s a shame that she’s has never really gotten the credit she deserves as an actress. People just see a pretty blonde, but she’s held her own against many well-respected actors and has three Oscar nominations. Her performance here is so convincing and sympathetic.
Ford is also a nice surprise as Norman. It’s obvious early that Norman isn’t that great of a guy. It’s a nice change of pace for Ford. He’s played antagonistic characters before, most notably in American Graffiti. But even his flawed characters seemed to come around in the end.
Here, that’s not the case. The more we see of Norman, the more we don’t like him. Even though he’s never shown very physical until the end, it’s apparent he’s put Claire in an emotional abuse situation for years. He quickly passes her fears off and in complete narcissistic makes things about him. He uses the “Hero Complex” about how he took in a single parent.
What Lies Beneath was directed by Robert Zemeckis who took on the project during a filming hiatus of Cast Away so Tom Hanks could lose about 50 pounds, grow out his hair and a scraggly beard. Zemeckis is more known for sci-fi and fantasy movies like the Back to the Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But he was one of the producers who helped bring Tales from the Crypt to HBO. He even help a then mostly unknown New Zealand director named Peter Jackson make the big-budgeted The Frighteners.
Zemeckis does have a talent for scaring people. This movie is in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock and Zemeckis uses a lot of camera angles and suspenseful scenes that would make the legendary director proud. One scene in particular is when Claire lies paralyzed in a bath tub as if begins to fill up. There’s a lot of tension and suspense.
When it was released, it received mixed reviews. Most criticism was that some of the twists were revealed in the trailer, even though many trailers decades ago used to show a lot themselves. It was a financial success making over $291 million worldwide. Considering the slasher craze had been revived during this time, that’s saying a lot that audiences would sit through a supernatural horror movie that focuses more on tone rather than scares.
So, as Halloween nears and you want to watch a good scary movie that doesn’t resort to a lot of jump scares and blood and gore, check out this movie.