Over the years, some of the most memorable horror films have been made by directors who don’t usually work in the genre. The Exorcist, a film which is arguably the greatest horror film ever produced, is William Friedkin’s only pure horror film. After making Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelow turned her attentions to Oscar-bait war movies. The terrifying Misery was made by Rob “Meathead” Reiner, who came from (and returned to) a comedy background as both an actor and a director. In 2000, Robert Zemeckis, a filmmaker known for such family classics as Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forrest Gump, dipped his foot into the horror pool with the spooky haunted house flick What Lies Beneath.
What Lies Beneath is the story of Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer from Scarface and Dark Shadows), a woman who gave up a successful music career to marry a brilliant genetic researcher named Dr. Norman Spencer (Harrison Ford from the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies). Claire’s daughter goes away to college, leaving Claire with a big empty house and a vivid imagination. When she starts hearing strange noises and seeing weird things around the house, Claire is convinced that the place is haunted. Between the impromptu séance that she holds with her best friend, Jody (Psycho III’s Diana Scarwid), and the puzzling messages that she’s been receiving on her computer, Claire’s suspicions grow stronger. Claire takes it upon herself to figure out who the ghost is and why they are haunting her house.
To be fair, What Lies Beneath technically isn’t Robert Zemeckis’ sole foray into horror; he served as producer for a handful of fright flicks like Ghost Ship and House of Wax, and he even dabbled in directing by doing a few episodes of “Tales from the Crypt” and “Amazing Stories.” So the roots were always there, but, as far as directing feature length horror films goes, What Lies Beneath is (so far) his only output. The screenplay for the film was provided by Clark Gregg (Choke) and Sarah Kernochan (Sommersby, Nine ½ Weeks), and Zemeckis’ clout in the business made it easy to attract big-name stars like Pfeiffer and Ford to the project. Financing from heavyweight studios like DreamWorks and Twentieth Century Fox allowed him to round out the cast with a few more recognizable faces such as Miranda Otto (The Homesman) and James Remar (“Dexter”), and Zemeckis was quickly able to transform What Lies Beneath from a simple ghost story into a big Hollywood production.
There is a huge Alfred Hitchcock influence on What Lies Beneath, both story-wise and photographically. Plot-wise, it’s impossible to say much about the movie without giving away some of its great twists and turns, but Claire’s investigation into her haunting is plagued by tons of red herrings as she tries to figure out who the ghost is, a classic misdirection technique made famous by the Master of Suspense. Photographically, What Lies Beneath was shot by the experienced cinematographer Don Burgess, who, as well as shooting other Zemeckis movies like Cast Away and Forrest Gump, also brings a handy horror pedigree to the picture with a resume that includes films like The Night Stalker and Summer Camp Nightmare. Taking a page right out of Hitchcock’s playbook, Burgess makes effective use of reflections in windows and mirrors to startle and shock the viewer, making them look twice at basically everything onscreen, wondering if they really saw something or not. Most of the iconic images in the film involve water, be it rain, mist, a lake, or a bathtub, and Burgess uses the motif to both mask objects from the viewer’s sight and to provide additional unexpected reflections. Finally, Burgess uses plenty of sneaky POV shots and camera motion tricks to create sudden jolts of fear – more of Hitch’s trademark methodology. What Lies Beneath is more than just a typical ghost story; it includes both human and supernatural elements that keep the audience on their toes throughout the entire movie.
All of the red herrings and antagonist shifting in What Lies Beneath allow Harrison Ford to do something that his career has not let him do often; he gets to play a bad guy for part of the film. It’s a role that he takes to like a duck to water, becoming creepy and sinister at the drop of a dime. Ford’s ability to play both hero and villain is admirable, and it almost appears as if he enjoys tormenting Michelle Pfeiffer a little bit. Anyway, Ford’s performance in What Lies Beneath shows off a different side of the actor, even if it’s only for a small part of the film.
Just as one might expect from a big-budget Hollywood horror film, the music for What Lies Beneath is a slick hybrid of cinematic background music and B-Movie flourish. The score was written by frequent Zemeckis collaborator Alan Silvestri (The Avengers, Cat’s Eye), and the music manages to capture the playful spookiness of a low-budget haunted house movie with the atmospheric tension of a big-studio adventure film. Like Zemeckis does with Hitchcock, Silvestri takes influence from recognizable composers like Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith, but still manages to make the music for What Lies Beneath sound fresh and inventive.
Robert Zemeckis has no trouble finding work in Hollywood, so the only way audiences will get another horror film out of him is if he really and truly wants to make one, and that’s fine. Just as Sidney Lumet gave us Child’s Play and Danny Boyle gave us 28 Days Later…, Zemeckis graced viewers with one amazing horror movie in What Lies Beneath, and that’s enough.