To answer the question implied in the title, “What Lies
Beneath” isn’t very much, but the glossily hollow picture
probably provides enough surface excitement to please a
large segment of the viewing public.

In his conversations with Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock
spoke with his usual elegance about the difference between
“surprise” and “suspense.” A filmmaker uses “surprise,” Hitch
explained, when he delivers a sudden jolt, shocking the
audience into screaming for a few seconds; “suspense,” on
the other hand, gives viewers enough information to keep them
tense over a longer period as they’re led to anticipate with
dread an outcome they think they can foresee. Hitchcock, of
course, was the master of suspense, not of surprise. His
pictures sometimes contained abrupt shocks, to be sure, but
these were rare; he preferred instead to build tension
gradually, drawing the audience into an ever-increasing
crescendo of unease. Robert Zemeckis’ new thriller, about a
couple whose placid existence is threatened by new neighbors,
ghostly apparitions and long-buried personal secrets, aims
to be Hitchcockian, if one goes by the obvious references–a
first act that’s basically a gender-altered reworking of
“Rear Window” in a rustic setting, a scene suggestive of
“Psycho” here and another reminiscent of “Vertigo” there. But
while it’s a slick, savvy frightfest that employs a barrage
of well-worn cinematic tricks to startle viewers into both
shouts of terror and lots of nervous laughter, it’s not truly
suspenseful in the Hitchcockian sense; it’s just a canny but
calculated series of surprises that will keep viewers on edge
and give them a periodic jolt, but doesn’t really build much
tension over the long haul. Nor, it must be said, does the
picture have any of the subtext which gave Hitchcock’s pictures
resonance and depth and made them, rather than mere shockers,
commentaries on the dark places of the human soul. “What Lies
Beneath” is more like a big-budget modernization of the
exploitative but sometimes fun potboilers of William Castle
(think of 1958’s “Macabre,” for example). It’s a scary
roller-coaster ride of a movie, shamelessly derivative,
incessantly manipulative and gaudily absurd; but for many
viewers it will deliver the goods, however empty an exercise
it may be.

The script is extraordinarily complicated, and it would be a
disservice to reveal any of its myriad twists and turns in a
review. Suffice it to say that Clark Gregg, an actor/director
making his writing debut here, is obviously a fellow who’s
seen plenty of movies. The labyrinthine plot he’s constructed
is indebted not only to a slew of Hitchcock’s films (not
merely those mentioned above but “Suspicion” and “Dial M for
Murder” as well), but at other points to such various fare as
“Fatal Attraction,” “Poltergeist,” “Whatever Happened to Baby
Jane?” and “Sorry Wrong Number.” By the finish we’ve even
moved into the territory of “Carrie” and, heaven help us,
“Friday the 13th.” Gregg strives to interject the kind of dark
humor that’s enlivened the best of these “model” works with
an occasional line of sly dialogue (at one point a character
asks “What’s gotten into you?” in a context reminiscent of
Norman Bates’ “Mother’s not quite herself today” from “Psycho”)
or a reference with a double meaning (another character finds
a clue to a hidden past in a shop called “The Sleeping Dog,”
which is precisely the sort of canine she won’t let lie).
Even the title is an elaborate joke, referring both to a lake
which hides an important secret and to the mendacity which
often lurks behind the surface. You have to admire Gregg’s
success in pulling together all the bits of inspiration into
a whole that coheres at all–after all, there are so many
ingredients that the final plot is the cinematic equivalent
of a sausage–but in retrospect you’re likely to notice that
he hasn’t managed to fill many obvious plot holes and that the
implausibility quotient reaches an astronomical level by the

Certainly the script has received deluxe treatment in terms of
execution. Zemeckis has had his share of disappointments,
but he’s a skilled craftsman, and he gauges almost exactly what
he can get by with in this instance. (In lesser hands the
picture would have elicited laughs of derision rather than
appreciation.) The real star, despite her second billing, is
Michelle Pfeiffer; “What Lies Beneath” is basically a damsel-
in-distess story, with the focus constantly on the wife.
Pfeiffer works very hard, and her beauty remains eye-catching,
but it must be said that, largely as a result of the way the
character’s been written, her performance is mostly a one-
note affair, composed primarily of gasps, teary-eyed interludes
and many attacks of quivering lips. It’s a pity that Claire
wasn’t portrayed as a stronger person; that would have given
Pfeiffer an opportunity to expand her repertoire of emotions
in the way that Audrey Hepburn, for example, was able to do
in “Wait Until Dark.” As her husband Norman (the choice of
names is hardly accidental, of course), Harrison Ford at
first seems to be playing, in a purely secondary way, the role
in which he’s recently come to specialize–that of a dour,
middle-aged guy with an extremely bad haircut–but the last act
of the picture brings him more to the fore. The wife has an
obligatory wise-cracking friend, of course, and Diana Scarwid
does reasonably well with the hackneyed role, even if she
appears to be stealing an occasional glance at the camera out
of the corner of her eye. The remainder of the cast have
throwaway parts–this is pretty much a two-character show–but
Micole Mercurio stands out briefly in her single scene as the
mother of a girl who’s disappeared.

Technically the picture has great polish, with rich cinematography
by Don Burgess, crisp editing by Arthur Schmidt (especially
important in a movie like this), and a surprisingly effective
score by Alan Silvestri, whose work is usually pedestrian at
best but here makes a really positive contribution to several
nail-biting sequences.

“What Lies Beneath” is, ultimately, a shallow flick with
little on its mind beyond generating a succession of shocks
that will keep audiences jumping. Gregg and Zemeckis don’t
seem to take the genre to which it belongs very seriously,
aiming for nothing more than jokey chills (should you want to
see how a truly frightening picture can be made from the
sort of ghostly goings-on treated here, check out David Koepp’s
1999 thriller “A Stir of Echoes,” one of the most underrated
films of recent years). But if their aims are pretty low, they
do hit their target; on its own unambitious terms, the sleek
DreamWorks-Twentieth Century Fox co-production will undoubtedly
scare lots of people–and scare up lots of profits in the
process. It’s not really a very good movie, but it’s one slick
piece of work, likely to prove the sort of money-making
crowd-pleaser the studio system–and the summer movie season–
are all about. Anyone seeking even a smidgen of substance
should look elsewhere, but if you just want a mindless
cinematic equivalent of an amusement-park haunted-house tour,
this is the flick for you–and at least it’s preferable to last
year’s abysmal spooky duo, “The Haunting” and “The House on
Haunted Hill.”