For the next seven or so days Moriarty will be examining the paranormal that exists in the world of Hollywood... and will soon be haunting theaters near you. His series begins here with WHAT LIES BENEATH, one major point to note before you read what Moriarty has to say about this is the draft he read is pretty old, and I believe is the 'pre-Zemeckis' coming aboard the project. That being said... Well... It really isn't the greatest 'ghost' or 'haunting' story around. For me... Ghost stories must be able to send shivers when reduced to a ten minute oral presentation around a camp fire. And this really isn't the case here.... But enough of that... this is Moriarty's show.... so here he is....
Hey, Head Geek...
Upon my return to the Moriarty Labs after my recent road trip to Austin, I was distressed to learn that construction had begun on some sort of factory on the surface above the hidden entrance to the Labs. To understand what I’m talking about, you have to realize that I have constructed my entire compound underground. That was to avoid detection from the surface. On the one hand, building some sort of factory on top of the Moriarty Labs provides me with a perfect cover and may make it even harder for the authorities to eventually locate me. On the other hand, that means I have to suffer through however many months of construction are going to occur. Just this one week has been more than enough.
For one thing, there’s been dirt and debris in the air constantly due to the massive concussive blasts going on upstairs as they try and lay a foundation. These blasts have kicked more than debris loose, though, as they seem to have shaken up some ghosts here in the Labs as well. I can already imagine many of you readers saying, “Ghosts, Moriarty? Come on. There are no ghosts. We all know that.” Well, I wish that were true. These have been noisy, active poltergeists from the moment they manifested, and they’re starting to make my life almost unendurable. We’ve had nightly hauntings, the walls have bled, there have been moans, screams, apparitions, things have floated across the room in front of us -- in short, it’s been like Robert Wise’s worst nightmare.
In looking for a solution to this problem, I turned to the one authoritative force that can seemingly answer any question you have. That source, of course, would be Hollywood. You see, right now, they’re infatuated with the supernatural thriller. I must admit, I’m a bit mystified as to why. I understand the SCREAM phenomenon kicking off the new wave of slasher movies, but I don’t understand where the supernatural thrillers are coming from. There really hasn’t been one in a while that’s worked in a big way. Still, that hasn’t prevented everybody in town from getting into the race. I figured we’d use this week to sort through what’s coming out in the next 12 months and see what looks like the best and the worst of the bunch. I’m going to list the projects in my personal order of least promising to most promising. Then I’ll have a very special surprise for you at the end of the week -- a review of what may be the best horror movie of the decade.
When I first heard the news that Robert Zemeckis was going to be making a supernatural thriller starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, my interest was immediately piqued. After all, a powerhouse cast, a powerhouse director, and a genre that none of them has worked in before -- that’s an exciting combination. My excitement was brought to an abrupt end, though, the day I received and read Clark Gregg’s original screenplay WHAT LIES BENEATH. It’s more than just a letdown; it’s a complete mystery as to why any of the creative elements attached to the film would have ever become attached. I understand that what I read was an early draft of the script. Still, unless they’ve done a complete revamping from the ground up -- and I’m talking about at the very concept level -- this is a film that has fundemental flaws that cannot be overcome.
The picture basically plays out as a combination of this year’s IN DREAMS and Harrison Ford’s PRESUMED INNOCENT. Without ruining what little there is to ruin about the film, it’s built as a mystery revolving around a ghost that appears in the life of Claire, a housewife who’s married to a perfect college professor named Norman. These are the Pfeiffer/Ford roles respectively. The film begins with their daughter leaving for college and Claire suffering through what seems at first like a mild case of “empty nest syndrome.” Claire quickly becomes obsessed with what she is sure is a haunting in their home. At first, there’s a nod to REAR WINDOW, with her convinced that the new couple next door has had a massive fight, ending with the husband disposing of his wife’s body in the middle of the night. Even upon first reading, though, this was obviously a narrative dead end. It’s obvious from page one who the ghost is, why the ghosts exists, and who’s responsible for the ghost. That’s a major structural problem. This film is built around the central mystery of whether the ghost exits and who it might be, but there’s really no suspense here. Any reader would see these twists coming 20 to 40 pages before they actually do.
Another major problem is that Clark Gregg’s script only really works when it’s not dealing with the supernatural at all. His use of ouija boards and other conventions of the genre is clumsy, hamhanded, and feels like that’s the part of the script he’s least committed to. The thing that does work about the script is the backstory regarding Claire, Pfeiffer’s character, and some of the simple character moments between her and her daughter or her and her friends.
Perhaps the biggest problem the film faces is that by casting it with major stars of this magnitude, the film becomes radically unbalanced. In order to really work, this film requires a lesser-known cast like David Strathairn and Mary McDonnell that could vanish into the film. Ford, in particular, is destined to overpower his role. There’s no way he’s going to convince the audience that he is Norman, or that he could do any of the things Norman does. At every point, this is going to be a film about Harrison Ford. “Oh, man, can you believe Harrison Ford did that?” “Oh, man, this doesn’t feel like a Harrison Ford movie.” I’m normally all for him stretching, but not when it’s at the expense of the material. The other problem with casting him is that it makes Norman seem more important than he is. He’s basically just a plot device. Norman only exists for his wife to react off of. Everything he brings to the film is plot-oriented. Everything he contributes to the film is plot mechanics. There’s nothing memorable or likable or notable about him aside from the role he plays in the plot.
With Claire, there are at least dimensions to the writing. She’s an interesting character. Her backstory provides her with some real depth and shading. Pfeiffer may do very well in the role. In fact, it’s the kind of role she’s perfectly suited for -- at least, in the first half of the script. Ultimately, she’s left with much the same problem that Annette Bening faced in this year’s IN DREAMS. After a certain point in the film, there’s nothing left for the actress except hysterics. All she does is act upset, out of control, and there’s not much for an actress to do once they’ve reached that place. It makes them far less interesting, and it’s easy for an audience to stop caring.
I’m afraid that this is a case where even an innovative, gifted director like Robert Zemeckis is going to be lost at making this material more than what it is on the page. This is the kind of script where everyone involved probably read it and thought, “Oh, a ghost story. I’d like to do a ghost story. I’ve never done that.” Unfortunately, this isn’t the one they should have held out for. When you consider what the competition has up its sleeve this year, and when you look at how poorly IN DREAMS played, this is the kind of film that should be seriously reconsidered before Fox and DreamWorks move forward on it. If they are indeed determined to move forward with the picture, then they need to decide what kind of film they’re making. Is this a creepy character study in the tradition of DON’T LOOK NOW, or is this a full-on supernatural haunting picture? If it’s the latter, then DreamWorks should take a cue from themselves. Tomorrow we’re going to look at the haunted house movie to beat this year, Jan De Bont’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE.
Right now, I need to go look up Peter Venkman’s phone number and see if I can’t take care of the problems here at the Moriarty Labs. Maybe I can get him to make a house call. Until then...
MORE TOMORROW, HARRY...