Sun, 01 Oct 2000

Zemeckis' 'What Lies Beneath' raises your utmost curiosity

By Joko E.H. Anwar

JAKARTA (JP): In his horror/suspense film What Lies Beneath, Robert Zemeckis tries to Hitchcock and the cast gives classy performances, but the production is marred by Hollywood's usual perception of horror and the viewer is presented with mixed results.

Thanks to last year's huge hit, low-budget indie film The Blairwitch Project, American filmmakers -- producers of most movies screened here -- took a break from making teen slasher films, then gave us the good Scream, but followed with a series of time wasters such as Disturbing Behavior before making some genuinely frightening horror films.

After The Blairwitch came the big hit The Sixth Sense and the surprisingly good A Stir Of Echoes, continuing the trend of horror films that do not depend on scenes of attractive teenagers being cut into pieces.

The film opens well, showing a seemingly happy family. Harrison Ford plays professor of genetics, Dr. Norman Spencer, who married a widow, Claire Spencer (played incredibly well by Michelle Pfeiffer).

When Claire's daughter, Caitlin (Katherine Towne), leaves for college and Norman has to spend more time in his lab doing research, Claire is often left alone at their big home by a lake.

Having less to do and no one to talk to, Claire becomes curious about her new neighbors, a childless couple whose husband also works at Norman's campus.

Aware that the mysterious couple frequently quarreled, Claire becomes suspicious when the wife disappears shortly after Claire had found her crying, saying that she is very afraid of her husband.

Claire then begins to witness some strange phenomena in her house. A door opens and closes by itself, things fall by themselves, there are frightening noises, and an apparition of a young woman is seen.

Claire tells Norman about her scary experiences and he sends her to see a psychiatrist, believing that the ghost is in Claire's head.

Claire almost believes him, thinking that she may be under stress since her only daughter has moved away.

However, her psychiatrist tells her to try to communicate with the 'spirit' to find out what the ghost wants.

Believing that her neighbor has been murdered by the husband, Claire begins to investigate and finds out more than she suspects.

What Lies Beneath, like The Blairwitch succeeds in creating terror of the unseen.

For those who do know The Blairwitch, it is a mockumentary film about three young filmmakers who went to a wood to make a documentary about a legendary witch and are never heard of again. The film is the filmmakers 'lost' footage produced on a US$20,000 budget and ended up earning more than US$140 million in the U.S. alone. Too bad they haven't shown the movie at theaters here.

Despite the fact that the horror in What Lies Beneath does not reach the same heights of eeriness as in The Sixth Sense, some scenes succeed in making audiences jump from their seats or cover their faces with their hands.

It is also a delight to watch Pfeiffer sharing screen time equally with Ford. Pfeiffer's and Ford's acting are so convincing that audiences are willing to follow the film's deliberate pace.

The duo's highly believable performances make audiences laugh at the beginning of the film and sit tight in their seats when it turns serious.

Zemeckis, who won an Oscar for Forrest Gump, had never made a suspense film but did a good job raising heartbeats in this effort.

The movie does loose momentum in the middle, picks up at a preliminary climax and looks like it is going off the rails. However, it recovers and is back on track building tension toward its ending.

The film's suspense recalls some of Alfred Hitchcock's films from Rear Window (when Claire watches her neighbors with binoculars) to Suspicion.

Unfortunately, the film's script, written by Clark Gregg, offers nothing original and Zemeckis pedantically uses worn-out tricks found in many other horror films. Try not to name aloud in the theater the many movies the film seems to borrow elements from.

It is not like they have not been warned by horror film spoofs such as Scream and the film which spoofs it, Scary Movie.

But how much longer before screenwriters learn not to mess up a horror film with a seemingly dead killer that isn't.

And how many times do we have to listen to the explanation of the motive behind the killing, a la Scooby Doo, when the killer reveals it to the victim just moments before the climactic ending. Ugh!

It is not forbidden to end a suspense film with a violent fight between the killer and the survivor (the thing that The Sixth Sense successfully avoided) but audiences should be convinced that it is the most appropriate thing to do.

In What Lies Beneath, it is acceptable but unnecessary. Too bad, the film could have been much better.