Every week for the foreseeable future, Vulture will be selecting one film to watch as part of our Friday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection — the fourth in a special monthlong celebration of horror — comes from Vulture contributor and Disaster Girls podcaster Jordan Crucchiola, who will begin her screening of What Lies Beneath on October 23 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch her live commentary, and look ahead to next week’s movie here.
Sometimes critics are just wrong. Embarrassingly, obviously wrong. “What Lies Beneath glazes over faster than a Krispy Kreme doughnut,” the New York Times wrote in 2000, “and neither is very flavorful.” “Unconvincing,” the Los Angeles Times claimed of Robert Zemeckis’s thriller. A “morass of absurdity,” said Roger Ebert. Twenty years later, I’m left to wonder, What movie did these people watch? Surely not the Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer popcorn delight I saw, which cleaned house at the box office and is warmly remembered by anyone I’ve ever discussed it with.
A second question: Has there ever been another movie quite like it? It was directed by Zemeckis (in between Castaway shoots), as an homage to Hitchcockian suspense at the dawn of a new century, and written by Clark Gregg (most famous for playing Agent Coulson in every corner of the Marvel Universe), and perhaps the instinctual response is to lump What Lies Beneath in with the erotic thrillers that came before it. But that’s not exactly right.
A subgenre that the ’80s and ’90s solidified and that has since been tragically abandoned along with the rest of mid-budget Hollywood, the erotic thriller is most closely aligned with selections like Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction, Disclosure, and Wild Things. They’re movies that make you feel good and tawdry — like you’re carrying on a torrid affair that isn’t hurting anyone. By design, erotic thrillers feel like voyeurism, with extremely attractive celebrities on the other end of your Rear Window spying.
Except for a frisky moment between Pfeiffer’s Claire and Ford’s Norman early on in the movie, Beneath is a story that revolves around a sexual transgression but doesn’t feel all that transgressive. There’s something chaste about its marital tensions as opposed to the Bound-style movies. Yet it does manage to serve up plenty of sex appeal thanks to its stars absolutely soaking the screen with their unquantifiably hot respective presences. It’s a wonder anyone makes it out unscathed when running up against the sheer cliffs of Pfeiffer’s cheekbones and jawline, and Ford is at the zenith of his handsome-disciplinarian middle period, perfectly weaponizing his heroic legacy to charm the audience away from seeing the villainy at his core.
While it may not wear the label on its sleeve, What Lies Beneath can seem more like a genuine haunted-house movie. Claire cannot escape the specter that terrorizes her in the bathroom mirror and the reflective surface of the bathwater, the one that opens doors before she can touch them and turns on the computer for some light browsing. There’s a real-ass ghost filling the movie’s negative space (a dead body reanimates and attacks someone), yet to call What Lies Beneath a supernatural thriller doesn’t feel accurate either. Such a description would conjure a movie like The Others or The Haunting, when it isn’t that at all. The point of What Lies Beneath isn’t to spook you with ghouls, even if it has fun doing so from time to time.
There’s also a significant amount of gaslighting horror going on in What Lies Beneath, as in The Lodge, Unsane, and, of course, Gaslight. As the ghostly presence starts to feel increasingly menacing to Claire, she is waved off as delusional by her husband with increasing hostility. Claire suffered a trauma before the timeline of the film begins, providing an easy excuse for people around her to dismiss her troubles as PTSD. But that classification too feels amiss.
At the end of the day, I tend to plop What Lies Beneath into the hybrid subgenre of adult contemporary horror. This subgenre revolves around unmistakably grown-up problems — the crisis of aging, the terrors of past mistakes, marriage problems, issues of motherhood and domesticity — that are a bit more polite than the woes of your cut-and-dried erotic thrillers. The adult contemporary horror movie still feels like what Nicole Kidman considers a “sexy date-night movie,” with an edge. Maybe it has ghosts, but it’s not about ghosts. Mike Flanagan is presently one of the foremost purveyors of adult contemporary horror, famous for works like his Haunting Of anthology for Netflix, Gerald’s Game, and Before I Wake — almost all of which go heavy on the ghouls. But scattered amid his filmography are other titles, like Dream House and the classic Don’t Look Now. (Truly, the subgenre could alternately be referred to as “adults dealing with shit.”)
Twenty years on, What Lies Beneath still reigns supreme in this category. I’m not saying it’s qualitatively better than, say, one of Nicolas Roeg’s masterworks, but I am saying that, for its combination of entertainment value and breezy watchability, its grasp of intrigue, supernatural spookiness, and domestic drama — plus its audience-friendly PG-13 sexiness and a Hollywood Hall of Fame duo bringing prestige performances to the proceedings — the film deserves a critical setting the record straight.
Today, horror movies are destination events for some of our best thespians looking to go bigger onscreen, their range on display in primal-scream situations. And adult contemporary horror is the perfect subtype in which Serious Actors can play. Boil the bunnies. Deploy a well-placed, aggrieved spirit. Make it feel like a scintillating paperback come to life. We deserve to see class and trash collide once again in mid-tier-budget movies with stars of a certain age giving us their best spurned-spouse meltdowns.
What Lies Beneath is available to stream on Hulu or Prime Video with a Showtime subscription and to rent on Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, and iTunes.
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