Moriarty's Review of WHAT LIES BENEATH (With Opposing POV Included)!!!
Last Friday night, I did something that pains me. I betrayed every instinct I had as a film geek. I paid the ultimate price for it, too, as I'm sure you'll confirm when you all call me a "COMPLETE AND UTTER DICKHEAD!!" in the Talk Back section below. I know it. I knew it when I did it. I was wrong. But I did what I did out of a sense of duty to the site. Turns out, even Harry knew what was the right thing to do, but the bastard was in Prague, and we didn't have a chance to talk about it.
As a result of that choice, I missed finally seeing EVIL DEAD 2 in a theater. Private screening. And I heard Raimi was going to be present. Do you have any idea how much I would have loved to have seen that? Wait... of course you do. You're AICN readers. You know EXACTLY how much I would have loved to have seen that... same amount as you.
But I had already spoken to DreamWorks and set up my participation in the press day for WHAT LIES BENEATH, this Friday's big release. I was set to interview Ford, Pfeiffer, Zemeckis, and a few others. And the media screening for the film was set for Friday night. So I had a choice... blow off one of the summer's remaining big films and a day of press with some huge names for a screening of a 13 year old horror film I've seen four dozen times, or go and be a professional and see the one that is based on the script I hated when I first reviewed it on the site last spring. Hmmmmm...
Like a moron, I went and saw WHAT LIES BENEATH. I make no bones about it... I am mad at this movie. Not only did I lose 130 minutes of my life that I will never get back, but I MISSED EVIL DEAD 2 TO DO IT. The hatred I feel for this film knows no bounds. The contempt I have for every failed scare, every wasted frame, every expensive but masturbatory effect... it's off the charts. Harry hinted at that in an intro for a review the other day, prompting "Kirk" to write in with the following, challenging me to put it up if I was a fair man.
I saw What Lies Beneath last week and and stll dumbfounded at the level of bitterness in the couple of the reviews posted on this site. the audience I
saw it wil could not stop screaming. warning to Ford fans, you might not like the last reel's representation of your favorite film hero (great for
the movie though). BTW, trailer does not give away dick!
The film's first hour and 10 minutes is a lean, focused, set up for its sit-at-the-edge-of-your-seat final reel. Zemeckis efficiently introduces you to
the film's two primary characters and although Ford sits out most of the first half, he more than makes up for it with his jolting presence in the final act (one that left me disturbed-in thrilling way).
Silvistri's score is on target for the mood of this film, I had heard that it evokes Bernard Herman's work on Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much-boy it does and it works great here.
Pfeiffer: Amazing. I have always admired her talent, but she literary carries this film on her shoulder (not a small feat for a film with Harrison Ford in it).
Ford: Great. People keep talking about the fact that they want to see him do something different; it won't get more extreme than this. Jack Ryan he is not (can't talk about this too much without giving away the heart stopping ending).
Overall, the best thriller/horror I have seen in years, Zemeckis is a genius with the camera. I will see it again just to figure out how some of the shots
involving the bath tub were accomplished.
What lies Beneath will be a huge hit for Dreamworks and Fox. The question is how big?
Okay... give me a minute here.
I'm trying to fathom how a review like the one above gets written. Or the one that David Poland ran at Rough Cut, or the one Jeffrey Wells ran at Reel.com. I'm trying to understand how audiences aren't catcalling this thing off the screen. I mean, I've been out of step with other critics before, but normally I can tell you when I walk out, "I'm alone on that one." Not here. This should be an easy call. All I can think is that the name Zemeckis blinds people, or that the Ford/Pfeiffer combo is so irresistable that these people have surrendered their critical abilities completely.
When I first talked about the script, I took a lot of heat from people for reviewing "an early draft." Turns out what I wrote about is exactly what I saw, with the addition of one set piece near the end. We'll get to that set piece later on, after you reach the spoiler section of my review. Oh, yes... there will be spoilers. There will be mighty spoilers, because without them, you might not understand what I'm talking about. You might just hear tale of the "soon-to-be-classic" bathtub scene and think there's something special waiting for you. I'd hate for you to think that, so... get ready.
First, though, let's talk about the film's most basic problem... that script by Clark Gregg. Someone needs to slam this man's fingers in a door repeatedly before allowing him anywhere near another word processor. Everything I said about the script originally holds true in the final execution onscreen:
"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."
Yep. IN DREAMS and PRESUMED INNOCENT are exactly the two films that got stuck in the Brundlechamber to make this mutant script. That REAR WINDOW nod takes up a staggering amount of screen time now. It's amazing. The neighbors might as well be named Mr. and Mrs. Red Herring. The movie I kept thinking of when I saw this material was THE 'BURBS, not REAR WINDOW. The difference? I liked THE 'BURBS. Joe Dante knew that these stories are so done to death that we can't take them seriously anymore. He lampooned the genre mercilessly. Zemeckis, on the other hand, seems to believe that no one has ever seen a movie about a haunted house or a ghost before. It's as if he believes that Hitchcock's entire film legacy is a secret that only he is in on. Of course, that's not the case, and he knows it. He makes bloody sure to mention Hitchcock (no fewer than three times in five pages!!) in the press notes for this film, almost as if hypnotizing us into mentioning it, into believing that this is in some way worthy of being tied to Hitch's legacy. It's not. Not in any way. This is the phoniest kind of filmmaking, all technique and no soul. The attempts at characterization in the beginning of the film are perfunctory, matter of fact, the exposition being ladled on with ham hands. I'm shocked, to be honest, at how badly done this is. Remember, folks... this is Robert Zemeckis, whose Academy Award-nominated screenplay for BACK TO THE FUTURE is one of the most graceful examples I've ever seen of setup and payoff. No detail was wasted, and as a result, the film kept delighting us in scene after scene as we realized just what sort of surprises Zemeckis and his co-author Bob Gale had built into the film for us. There was a willingness to do anything to entertain, a sly wit that made BTTF special and memorable, often imitated but never equalled. Clark Gregg's screenplay collapses at every important turn. When someone makes a phone call just to talk about an experimental drug that paralyzes someone for ten minutes, it's so out of place, so obviously dropped in to set up a later moment, that when it finally happens, it's after an hour or more of knowing it's going to happen. His "clues" regarding the neighbors are so fake, so obviously laid out to fool us, that we sit through that entire half hour of film impatient, waiting for them to finish with the dead end subplot and just start the damn film already.
Zemeckis the director... ah, what do I say here? I guess I have to start by saying that Zemeckis has been a profound influence on me as a filmmaker. Along with the BACK TO THE FUTURE films, I consider USED CARS, I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, ROMANCING THE STONE, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, DEATH BECOMES HER, and CONTACT to all be above average entertainment, executed at an awe-inspiring level of technical mastery. I like this guy. I have major, major, major issues with his Oscar-annointed FORREST GUMP, but it's more with Eric Roth's script than with the work that Zemeckis did. Here, though, I found myself growing more and more annoyed with the work he was doing, until it actually made me ball my fists up, angry. This is the worst kind of jacking off, a total waste of resources. His much-ballyhooed "invisible" effects work in this movie is useless. There's no reason aside from ego and bloat that this film need ever cost $90 million. That's shameful. Sure, Dreamworks has the money to spend, and Imagemovers is Zemeckis' company, so he can do and spend whatever the hell he wants, but WHY IN THE WORLD WOULD HE WANT TO SPEND THAT MUCH!?! Danny Boyle's SHALLOW GRAVE contains more genuine scares in any fifteen minutes of its running time than this film contains in its full interminable 130 minutes, and I'll bet Boyle's whole budget didn't touch the catering bill on WHAT LIES BENEATH. Suspense is not built by using elaborate crane arms to hide your cameras from mirrors. Suspense is not built by gradually lowering the camera, so that as things become "scarier," the perspective becomes lower and lower, looking up at characters instead of looking at them from eye-level. Suspense is not built by color coding your film to go from light to dark to light. Suspense is built with characters and situations we invest in. It's built best when you trust an audience and respect them and play against expectation. And a house isn't scary just because it's haunted. Slamming doors and broken picture frames aren't frightening on their own, no matter how many cows go moo in the theater. All of Zemeckis' tricks feel like tricks in this film. It's the first time I've ever caught him working while watching one of his films. It was jarring, suddenly seeing the guy behind the curtain, pulling levers and twisting knobs to make the Great and Terrible Oz work for me. Once I spotted his hand in the film, once his tricks took center stage, the rest of the film fell flat. It just lay there, inert, never lurching to anything even resembling life. A big part of that is pace. For some reason, Zemeckis seems to have drugged all his actors before they started their scenes. Everyone moves like they're running in very thick tar. Maybe it was just something Zemeckis suggested so that no one would wake Harrison Ford up.
I mean, god forbid Harrison Ford actually be required to engage our interest or give something resembling a performance. After all, "he's, ummmm.... uhhhhh.... ummmmmm.... just a carpenter who, ummmmm.... got, uh, got, ummmmm.... who got lucky," not a real-live professional actor. Or at least, that's the shtick he's stil peddling at every press junket and interview stop. If I hear this old man call me his "customer" one more time, I'm going to demand to see the Suggestions box, and I'm going to ask for my nine dollars back. For every film since 1990. By now, it's old hat to criticize him for backing out of TRAFFIC. It's his loss. Soderbergh's just wrapped shooting on what very well may be this year's Best Picture winner, and Ford is left with this floating turd. What a trade. It used to be a joke about how Ford had stopped acting except for his first finger on each hand. Now it's not so funny. He brings out his greatest trick, THE FINGER OF DOOM, at least five times in the film, and each time, I felt like a seal trainer, like I should throw him a fish. "Good Harrison. You look weally, weally angwy. Here's a tweat!!" His performance is rigged, too, with him making an abrupt change in behavior and demeanor that is so jarring, so false, that it takes him from being a character (even if it is a thinly-drawn, weakly-acted one) to a cartoon monster. More on that below in the spoilers section, though.
If anyone walks away from this one with their dignity intact, it's almost Michelle Pfeiffer. I say almost because I'm not convinced. I mean, come on... backing down the stairs with the killer laying at the bottom of them?! Is she supposed to be playing the single stupidest woman ever born? The only character who has any flesh hanging on the bare bones that Gregg has created is Claire. She's given little hints of a life before the film, before her marriage to Norman. She was evidently a cellist, a great one, who sublimated much of her life to marry Norman, her second husband. She already had her daughter when she got married, and when she sends her little girl to school, it's genuinely traumatic. All of that material is etched memorably by Pfeiffer, but it goes nowhere. It doesn't inform any of the behavior we see from her in the film. Her being a cellist, a musician, has no bearing on anything. Her potential resentment of her life with Norman is never explored with any sort of depth. All these threads suggest a better movie that might have existed if Norman had been written with any of the same maturity. As the film degenerates into a dumb suspense movie, though, Pfeiffer finds herself stranded. She gets to try and take things from the dead (NO, REALLY, HE'S DEAD, SO TOUCH HIM) killer's motionless body. She gets to tamper with "forces she doesn't understand" and play possessed. She gets to go through all seventy-three false endings, screaming and stumbling and weak and ultimately helpless. I understand what would have attracted Pfeiffer to the role, but even her fine work here can't save what was on the page.
I understand that Zemeckis wanted to try and be subtle with the manifestations of the haunting in Claire and Norman's house, but in trying to be subtle, he's gone lifeless. He falls back on the same gags over and over. A door opens without anyone touching it. Someone appears in a mirror behind a main character. It's all based on the JOLT!! and it's dreadfully uninteresting. I've seen every single attempted scare in this film before in other movies. To be fair, I've never seen so many of the same gags done in one film before, so maybe Zemeckis was trying to make some sort of statement on the art of repetition. I don't know... I can't quite get a grip on his gameplan. Admittedly, he was distracted while pumping this out, since he was shooting it right in the middle of his CAST AWAY production schedule. That film's got a beautiful, powerful, human screenplay, and I'm dying to see it. Making a film like that, a film that really demands that you give something of yourself as an artist, I can see how Zemeckis decided that his "vacation" movie would just be a goof, a lark. I think maybe he thought the script was slight, and that was its appeal. The problem is, Zemeckis directs it like it's all deadly important. Despite the fact that it's numbingly predictable, Zemeckis reveals each "secret" to us as if it's going to change our lives. Diana Scarwid, in particular, is saddled with one of the most ridiculous expository scenes of the film, having to cry her way through a painful revelation about the past that finishes the puzzle for her friend Claire. It's supposed to be a bombshell, but the damn poster for the film gives it away. Keep in mind, this is information we're learning almost two hours into the film.
And that brings us to what I warned you about... the spoilers. I'm going to talk about this film's ending now, and I'm going to do so without pulling any punches. If you are masochistic enough to still want to see this thing, then you're done here. Go witness it with your own two eyes, then God have mercy on your soul, and enjoy. For those of you who would like my final thoughts on exactly why you owe it to yourself to skip this mess, then scroll down and read on.
Okay... still with me? Good. Let's start with the poster line. This is why I don't feel bad. Dreamworks made a point of asking us to not give away any of the film's surprises, but they wrote this tag line: "He was the perfect husband until his one mistake followed them home." Ummmmmm... okay. So the ghost is Norman's fault. That would pretty much eliminate all the suspense from the whole next-door-neighbor-did-he-kill-her-or-didn't-he? storyline. It would also eliminate the tension from the hour of unfocused "investigation" that follows that mistaken identity episode. When Norman finally reveals that he was having an affair with the dead girl who is haunting their house, he offers some lame story about her killing herself and sheds a few crocodile tears. For some reason, Michelle Pfeiffer then stays in the same house with him for several more sequences until *gasp* it is revealed that Norman's lying again, and he's actually a killer. I wasn't real clear on why she was staying around. It had something to do with the magic book and the magic hair that she ends up with. Really. I'm not kidding. Anyway, she ends up in a prime Snidley Whiplash/PERILS OF PAULINE position in what should be the film's grand finale, the riveting bathtub scene, Norman's knockout drug in full effect so she's awake but paralyzed. He puts her in the tub and starts to fill it, knowing she'll drown, the drug will wear off, and it will look like an accident. However, for some reason, he has to fall down in the shower and stage an accident first. I'm not sure how this relates to her drowning in the tub, but Norman assures us that it does. He lays out all his evil thoughts and plans for her, as all good villains must, then promptly slips and hits his head, collapsing to the floor. Dead. Really. Well, except for when he pops back up (or at least the Finger of Doom does) from the floor. Except for that, he's dead. And except for when he crawls away. He's dead after that. Sort of. But not really. A few times. AND ON AND ON AND ON AND ON. And what visual panache are we treated to in the bathtub scene? Riveting shots of Michelle Pfeiffer's toe!! Long suspenseful shots of the drain. And during the whole thing, we're supposed to believe that Zemeckis is going to drown the main character and let her evil hissable husband win. Right. Great fear is based on the knowledge that anything can happen to our lead character... anything. And there's not one bit of that here. Because Norman is written so poorly, we know he's just a device, a trick, a boogeyman dressed up in movie star clothes. He's not scary because he's so obvious. Claire has to survive. She has to win. Otherwise there's no reason to sit through the film. Knowing that, Zemeckis doesn't bother creating any sort of new suspense. He relies on the oldest, tiredest tricks possible. Many of the things he does just don't make any sense. There's a big deal made about how a cell phone will only work from the middle of a particular bridge. In the ending, there's a desperate drive to get to the middle of the bridge. The phone starts working, a call is made to 911, and then Claire drives off the bridge for no good reason. The 911 call? Has no bearing at all on the outcome of Claire and Norman's story. All that happens at the bottom of the river, right in the exact spot Norman hid the dead girl's body. Good luck that, eh?
Folks... you're free to go see this film. Many of you will. Some of you might even like it for some reason. But I'm trying to do you a favor here. If you end up seeing this film, it's your own damn fault. I didn't have anyone who was willing to grab me and stop me and say, "Damn it, Moriarty, what are you thinking?! EVIL DEAD 2, man!!" I should have known better, and I still fell for it. You know better, too, now. What you do with it is your call.