A thrilling, chilling, terrifying ride

Friday, July 21st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Michelle Pfeiffer's Claire Spencer doesn't actually say, "I see dead people," in the shuddery What Lies Beneath, but she might as well have.

A ghostly apparition fuels the suspense in this ominously creepy tale, turning What Lies Beneath into this summer's answer to The Sixth Sense.


You bet! And I've got the bruises to prove it.

Director Robert Zemeckis and writer Clark Gregg have invented so many unexpected jolts throughout the story that my movie companion, Rona, kept shrieking and grabbing my arm every time someone would sneak up behind Claire. Rather than giving What Lies Beneath four stars, I should just call it a four-bruise movie.

Sure it's manipulative, especially in the way Zemeckis has characters keep popping up into the corner of a frame. But it's the film's power in creating such an awful sense of dread that even when we expect it, we still jump.

As in many horror films, where the heroine knows she shouldn't go into the basement where certain danger lurks, Claire just can't seem to stay out of her upstairs bathroom. Some unseen hand is forever turning on the faucet, filling the tub with steamy water that wafts ghost-like through nearby rooms and beckons Claire. What will it be this time, we fret, as she opens the door: A face over her shoulder reflected in the water? Maybe some creepy writing etched on a steamed-up mirror?

Yet there's also the nagging question of what part Claire's nervous mental state is playing in her nightmares. Is she really living in a big old haunted house on a Vermont lake, or is she just GOING CRAZY?

Claire is suffering separation pains after her daughter leaves for college, leaving her in the big house with her husband, Norman (Harrison Ford). He's a brilliant research geneticist at the local college who has long been trying to get out from behind the shadow of his even more brilliant late father. Unfortunately for Claire, Norman is away for long stretches, leaving her alone in that house with . . . The Presence. Yikes!

The ghost starts tossing around photos, running water in the bathtub, peering up at Claire from the lake's waters. Is the vision, who bears a very close resemblance to Claire herself, perhaps the ghost of the new next-door neighbor whom Claire heard crying one afternoon on the other side of the fence?

Some of What Lies Beneath plays on these fears and some of its spookiest moments revolve around Claire's attempts to get the goods on the woman's husband, who Claire is certain has killed his wife. With binoculars, she peers at him from across the way in the dark of night. Here, What Lies Beneath plays like Alfred Hitchcock's classic Rear Window, something that provides the chance for more scary twists.

But What Lies Beneath is both deeper and shallower than that. There's much more to the plot and yet the longer it goes on, the more contrived and obviously manipulative it becomes. In several respects it reminded me more of last summer's also-ran ghost story, Stir of Echoes -- in which a young woman reached out from beyond the grave for justice over her murder -- than it did of The Sixth Sense.

Eventually, it turns into mumbo jumbo, with Claire making some terrible discoveries about her own life and getting to play out a perilously wild adventure. Yet even at its most overwrought, What Lies Beneath offers a hang-onto-your-seat wild ride. It makes you shriek, grab someone's arm and feel the adrenaline pumping up over a fear of the unexpected. Few films manage to do that anymore.

Zemeckis has made such crowd pleasers as Forrest Gump, Romancing the Stone, the Back to the Future movies and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. His previous foray into ghostliness was the comedic Death Becomes Her, which failed to ignite, even with the starpower of Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis. In What Lies Beneath, he raises old-fashioned goosebumps with things that go bump in the night . . . and day, too.

While Ford gets top billing, it's really Pfeiffer's show. There's a sweet vulnerability about her that makes her panic and chilling fears very palpable. Less successful, although still creepy, is a sequence in which she uses a lock of the dead woman's hair and an incantation from a witchcraft book to conjure up the dead woman who takes over her body. Pfeiffer wears tartiness uneasily. She's much better as the half-crazed victim, playing junior detective to solve a murder that's way beyond Claire's scope and finding herself in danger for it.

Ford is a stolid straight-arrow as her husband, but one who has his own flaws, which he tries to conceal. As he grows more apprehensive of Claire's snooping, his patience wears thin, the plot thickens and the whirlpool of suspense that Zemeckis and Gregg have concocted threaten to pull everyone down.


What Lies Beneath

Starring : Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Diana Scarwid, Joe Morton, James Remar, Miranda Otto, Amber Valletta.

Producers: A DreamWorks-20th Century Fox production written by Clark Gregg, directed by Robert Zemeckis.

Playing : Apple Valley, Harbour Mall, Mystic, Narragansett, North Dartmouth Mall, Opera House, Providence Place, Showcase North Attleboro, Showcase Seekonk Route 6, Showcase Warwick, Stonington, Tri-Boro and Woonsocket cinemas.

Rated : PG-13, contains violence, adult themes.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.