What Lies Beneath: A Synopsis
What were you doing in the year 2000? Specifically, what were you doing on the weekend of July 21-23, 2000?
Well, if you were living in a small town with nothing better to do on the weekends than go see a movie for $5, and you were about to leave everything you’d known for 20 years and move to Chicago and were in need of a distraction from your oppressive anxiety, you were probably in the air conditioned theater watching Robert Zemeckis’ psychological thriller-horror film What Lies Beneath starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer! And you probably weren’t scared the whole time, either! Not even during the scary parts!!!
It is a stupid movie, full of stupid people with stupid feelings.
We start out in a beautiful waterfront mansion where poor, sad, white Michelle Pfeiffer is knocking about and spying on the neighbors because she is traumatized from a car accident she was in a year ago, which caused her to lose some of her memory. Her daughter leaves for college, and then poor lonely Michelle is even more poor and lonely because her husband Harrison Ford has moved her out here to this gorgeous property and gone straight back to work as a teacher at The Science College. She doesn’t like to garden or anything because you need two hands to do it and most white ladies who live in waterfront mansions only have one free hand (because of the white wine spritzer in the other), so she spends her time practicing Wrinkle-Free Pouting in the mirror and watching her neighbors fight in their yard. Poor lonely Michelle!
The neighbor lady disappears one day after Michelle spies her walking around crying and I guess looking like she’s about to disappear. Then she sees Mr. Neighbor stuffing a body bag into the trunk of his car. She finds a bloody flip flop in the yard and at first she wants to toss it over the fence and yell KEEP YOUR DAMN FLIP FLOPS ON YOUR PROPITTY but she thinks better of it and holds a seance with her BFF instead. She figures if Dead Mrs. Neighbor is anywhere, she’s most likely definitely in Michelle’s beautiful shore house, because PEOPLE ARE DYING TO LIVE THERE AHHAHAHAH no but seriously stuff’s been falling off shelves and shit, so.
BFF is one of those characters that always accompany Nice White Married Ladies. They’re CRAZY because they dyed one strand of their curly hair bright red and probably fucked Mick Jagger and usually have a roach in their bag. They drive some kind of ridiculous car (“I got it in the settlement! Fuck that asshole!”) and they drive it fast. They come to fancy parties and ruffle feathers by making jokes about sex and saying EVERYONE DRINK MORE YES DEBAUCHERY YES and they fling their curly hair around and dance to no music at all and Nice White Married Lady smiles and shakes her head and says something like “That’s Begonia, she’s been this way since we were roommates in college, she’s a free spirit, you know, she’s like the yin to my yang which is something she read in a book from the occult store.” She’s the Manic Pixie Dream Girl they sell in the LL Bean catalog.
Nothing happens during the seance, so Begonia hops into her hot car and speeds down the mountain toward home, which is probably a tiny apartment above a candle store, an apartment she describes as “funky,” which is full of nothing but wine bottle sculptures and prescription medication. No sooner has Begonia roared off to Funkytown than Michelle sees a message in the bathroom mirror because she was dumb enough to shower and leave steam on it for the ghost to use to communicate. “YOU KNOW” it says. You know!!!! She’s like, know WHAT? Seriously, I don’t…ugh! So frustrating.
Scared Michelle runs to Science Doctor Harrison Ford’s office to tell him the house is haunted as a muhfucker and he slams a bunch of papers down and says things like “I have to focus on my science!” and calls her needy and crazy. They’re standing there arguing and Science Doctor Harrison Ford is cramming stuff into his briefcase and DUN DUN DUNNN there’s Mr. Neighbor! Michelle goes ape-shit ham balls on him for killing his wife, who scoots up behind him like “Oh what’s this my ears are ringing?!” Michelle concedes that okay maybe she is a little bit crazy and needs to take a nap. Mrs. Neighbor is like, yeah girl, I’m alive, so blame your haunting on someone else, also I don’t appreciate you taking my flip flop and that crazy friend of yours needs to quit parking on top of my rose bushes.
Everything is all well and good now, and the movie can basically end, except a picture explodes in Science Doctor’s home office and while she’s cleaning it up, Michelle finds a newspaper article about a missing girl who used to attend Science Doctor Harrison Ford’s Science College! WHAT! Naturally she heads on over to Missing And Presumed Dead Girl’s House to chat with her mom and get all the gory details. She also steals a full fucking braid of the girl’s hair out of her grieving mother’s clutches because fuck it, this haunting needs to be solved like yesterday because the property value is going down, which canNOT happen. Begonia lends Michelle a book from the occult store and she’s bookmarked the page with a ghost possession spell, probably with like a cat bookmark or a woven Celtic symbol or something. So Michelle flaps the piece of hair around and invites Missing And Presumed Dead Girl into her bod for the evening. Together, they seduce Science Doctor Harrison Ford and freak him the fuck out by doing this creepy mid-coitus face-swapping thing. He is NOT a fan and tosses Michelle across the room. She hits her head and remembers coming home on the night of her memory-wiping car accident and seeing Science Doctor having sex with Missing And Presumed Dead Girl on his desk. She’s like YOU A-HOLE and runs off to Begonia’s funky shithole, where she tells her the whole story between giant goblets of wine and Begonia is like oh yeah, I totally knew about the cheating all along, sorrrrr-ry.
Science Doctor Harrison Ford promises to be better. He also accidentally drops the hair dryer in the shower with himself and gets slightly electrocuted and needs Michelle to nurse him and listen to all of his bullshit apologies. Michelle comes home when he points out that he could have died! And anyway, none of this was his fault, he just slept with his student and then she totally bitched out on him and threatened to kill Michelle and he couldn’t have that so he told her to hit the bricks, and she straight up killed herself on their porch like a total fucking psycho! So he had no choice but to put her body in her car and push it into the lake. Because bitches be crazy, Michelle gobbles up every word, but tells Science Doctor Harrison Ford that he should prolly let the cops know what happened. He’s like, aw man, okay, fine. She stands there nodding and pursing her plastic lips at him while he tells the cops over the phone they’d better stop by if they wanted to hear a real hum-dinger of a story, oh boy! He says “Yeah okay so definitely talked to the cops just then, I didn’t just dial and then put my thumb on the receiver and say stuff to make you feel better. I’m gonna hop in the shower.”
This is when you can tell the movie expects what’s happening to be a Big Twist! and Shocking! and maybe even Scary! Whaaaa! Guess who’s not even in the shower, at all, but instead is lurking around in the dark with a syringe full of muscle-paralyzing Science fluid?! It’s SCIENCE DOCTOR HARRISON FORD, who is a bad guy!!! He dumps Michelle’s paralyzed bod in the tub and starts filling it up with water to make it look like she drowned. Because that shit happens all the time, you know, women forgetting that they’re in the bath tub and can’t breathe underwater and just go to sleep. Anyway, he’s a man, so the cops will believe it. This is also the part when the villain is like “I have nothing better to do right now, so I might as well tell my entire twisted story and laugh maniacally while our heroine is in this slow-moving life threatening situation.” He spills his guts about murdering Missing And Presumed Dead Girl, who is now Missing and Definitely Dead Ghost Lady. He tries to adjust Michelle in the water so she’ll drown faster but her face magically transforms into zombo-Dead Girl and it freaks him out so he falls and hits his head.
This means that Michelle has exactly 30 seconds or so to Kill Bill-wiggle-your-big-toe herself until she can wrap her foot around the chain and pull the drain stopper out. She’s saved! Then she has to crawl out of the tub and get to the truck outside. She notices that Science Doctor Harrison Ford’s gotten blood all over the floor and not bothered to clean it up before booking it up out of there, where is he anyway? She hits the gas in the truck and runs over the neighbor’s rose bush because she’s staring at her cell phone, which is the size of a VCR, waiting to get a single dot on the screen so she can call 911. Things are never that easy, of course, and Science Doctor was hiding in the back of the truck under a tarp, of course. He’s grabbing at Michelle and she’s trying to drive through the fog and then HOLY SHIT THERE’S A PERSON IN THE FOG IT’S A LADY WHO LOOKS SORT OF FAMILIAR because of course ghosts can only show up in misty, foggy areas that look like ghost-y places anyway. Michelle swerves to avoid hitting her because she doesn’t realize you can drive right through a ghost and they don’t care. The whole shebang goes off the side of the same bridge where Doctor Science threw Missing And Definitely Dead Ghost Lady’s body and now all of them are together at the bottom of the lake. Science Doctor is pulling at Michelle’s J. Crew chino pants to try and drown her again, but whoa buddy. The truck slamming into the the bottom of the lake awaaaaaakened the spiiiiirit of the ghooooost and also knocked her decayed old dead body loose. It floats up the side of the truck and lays some major side eye on Science Doctor Harrison Ford because she is NOT happy with him. She grabs his ass and drags him down with her, then looks up and tells Michelle to shoo fly on outta there.
Michelle hightails it to the surface where the whole entire world is waiting for her and they all believe her story, even though she recently had a very crazy outburst in public and there is zero evidence supporting any of her claims, but whatever. The final scene shows her leaving roses on Missing and Definitely Dead Girl’s grave, presumably to apologize for stealing shit from her mom, but mostly probably so there can be a scene where she walks away through the cemetery in her finely tailored wool trench from Banana Republic. Missing and Definitely Dead Girl’s face shows up in the snow. She winks and goes WHATUP Y’ALL and the credits roll because there is literally nothing else they could possibly think of to make this movie scary.
A Detailed Analysis Of Why This Movie Isn’t Scary
Ugh. Michelle’s problems bore me. OF COURSE she’s bored and lonely, she lives out in the middle of fucking nowhere and has never had a real job, aside from Musician. I mean, I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t go after it as a job, because I knew I’d end up someday more like Begonia than Michelle, just drinking a lot and living in a crap apartment, selling soaps at the farmer’s market every weekend and pretending that a Fun Personality! makes up for total unhappiness. The loneliness part is, I guess, a little bit scary, maybe. It is sort of tied in with the idea of isolation and rejection. She keeps trying to talk to people about stuff and they look at her like she’s nuts, and she IS nuts, because she’s had something happen to her and it was awful and scary, but you’re not supposed to talk about those things because they’re not polite and would you just GET OVER IT already.
If they really wanted to make this movie scary, they’d have focused on that rejection shit. That stuff will keep you up at night, creeping around the corners of the door frame and floating above your bed, moaning at you YOU’RE A FAIIILLUUUUUURE and NOBODY LIIIIKES YOUUUU and stuff. You lie there and swallow and turn on the TV to drown it out and if you do end up getting some sleep, you wake up in the morning wanting more of it and you’re mean to the dog and late for work and just sit in your office and watch other people Move Around and Do Things all day. It’s exhausting to think that people somehow have the ability to ignore how awful everything is.
A truly scary movie would be about Michelle Pfeiffer applying and interviewing for various jobs like crazy, just spending 4 hours a day revising cover letters and plonking through phone interviews and answering the same questions over and over again, fielding laughably low offers and zero-dollar relocation assistance and banging her head on the wall. It would be really scary if she was very excited about one particular opportunity, and put all of her hopes into it, and got a second interview, and thought everything was going really well–then DUN DUN DUNNNN got the thank-you-but-no-thank-you phone call!
It would be really scary if she just sort of walked around for an entire day with a prickly feeling in her mouth and confused tears in her eyes and a kind of tired, disconnect-y feeling with her body. I guess they call this Shock, and she’d be like, why do I feel shock over this? I should have known it would go this way. Stupid, stupid dumb and stupid Michelle, hello? This is the universe calling! You are mediocre, and aiming for anything above-average will be a misfire every time! Hahaha! Don’t you know that yet, dummy? Don’t act like you’re surprised that you failed, because of course you did.
Zemeckis could have added an extra super bone-chilling thread to this yarn if Michelle had been job searching and simultaneously submitting pieces of her writing, like, I don’t know, personal essays and shit, because everybody is like “your blog is good, don’t give away your work for free!” but now she’s getting constantly rejected at every turn, when it used to be fun to write because it was only for her blog which felt good and free. Maybe she could join this group of lady essayists who all comment on each other’s posts and encourage each other in their essays about dogs with PTSD and struggles with cloth diapers, maybe she could start to feel a little bit comfortable with trying to be part of a community, then she totally fucks it up by pitching an idea for an essay about racist remarks about slavery, which she has NO RIGHT to do because she’s white and her ancestors owned slaves. They could put in the cricket sound right there, a tumbleweed could roll across the Internet, right across her post which has one single comment from the lady who comments on everything, and is ignored by all the rest. She could feel bad about it all day, and rejected, and pushed out of a community for being weird/doing something wrong/looking stupid. It would be like two million layers of failure. You can’t do any of the things you like to do! Also, people hate you and think you’re stupid! YIIIIIIKES. That would scare the hell out of me.
What if Science Doctor Harrison Ford had come out of the bathroom and confessed the whole terrible tale and then said, “You know what’s going to happen now? Nothing. Nothing is going to happen.” That would have been way scary. I mean, I spend about 90% of my time in the tub these days, whether or not there is water in it, so don’t give me that I’m-going-to-slowly-drown-you bullshit. I ain’t afraid of no tub, I’m afraid of being out of the tub! Hahahaha! What I am afraid of is, I don’t know, what if there was this giant clock on the wall and it counted down over and over again to absolutely nothing happening, all of the things and situations staying exactly the same? Michelle had to sit there and watch, paralyzed, while the clock just started over and over again, and the longer she was unable to move and the more things stayed exactly the same, she kind of hated herself a little more? Maybe they could do a really close-up shot of her hairs turning gray one at a time, or the second hand of the clock slooooowly ticking forward with a really loud TOOSH, TOOSH, TOOSH sound every time?! They could really drive it home if Michelle is sitting there watching nothing happen to herself while everyone around her succeeds at things and focuses on what they want to do and lets disappointments roll off their backs like normal people instead of crying about it for a week? Then it would be this whole layer of “everyone else is normal and you are not” and THAT shit, my friend, is fucking creepy.
These are just things I’ve been thinking about. About how sixteen years ago I watched this movie and it was maybe a little bit scary then, but how these days, things that are supposed to be scary are kind of dumb when you have real stuff to worry about. It’s not until you get out into the world and try to take steps forward and get knocked down and start to hear yourself telling yourself that you’re a horrible disappointment that shit gets really fucking terrifying. Don’t give me that goddamn ghost-in-the-fog shit, okay? Try walking down the street in broad daylight feeling like everyone is looking at you and thinks you’re dumb. Don’t come at me with your syringe full of paralyzing science drugs, dude. I’ve been trying to get out of bed for a straight month, so it’s not the inability to move that scares me, it’s the Getting Up And Doing Stuff thing that freaks me out. I’m not even a little bit scared of you, Science Doctor Harrison Ford. But I’m terrified of everything else.