That Moment In ‘What Lies Beneath’ When Claire Is Up To Her Neck
What Lies Beneath is a 2000 horror/drama about the wife of a university research scientist who believes that her lakeside Vermont home is haunted by a ghost – or that she is losing her mind.
I got to thinking about Michelle Pfeiffer recently, which surprisingly, isn’t all that uncommon, and how she’s really one of my all time favorites. I, like so many, fell utterly weak in the knees under her spells early, with the likes of Ladyhawke and Into the Night, before she really won me over with Dangerous Liaisons, The Fabulous Baker Brothers and of course, Batman Returns. She’s a very subdued celebrity, always out of the spotlight but always sort of present, her famed beauty keeping her a mainstay for decades while her roles have earned praise but never the larger accolades.
Thumbing through her films again, I ended up on Robert Zemeckis‘ curious 2000 chiller What Lies Beneath, a movie he put together in the months between shooting the Tom Hanks survival film Cast Away as Hanks dropped weight for the second half of the story. I was never much of a fan of What Lies Beneath, ghost movies and such always kind of goofy in my mind, never able to really settle into any film that tries to sell me on spirits. I laugh more than cry through Ghost. But with she and Harrison Ford in the cast, I sort of gave it a break, not too mention it was filmed on locations near where I once lived. With that in mind, I cued it up for another look, just to see how it aged, and while it’s loaded with all kinds of silly, there is one really great moment.
Pfeiffer is Claire Spencer, a wife and mother whose daughter has just gone off to college. Her husband is Norman (Ford), a prestigious professor of science at the nearby university, leaves Claire alone in their big house on the Vermont shores of Lake Champlain quite often. She takes to noticing some oddities in the neighbors, married couple Warren and Mary, particularly a violent pattern that is worrisome. When Claire doesn’t see Mary for a few days, she suspects foul play and so with a friend, conducts a séance to try and find Mary’s spirit. Naturally, they have no success. However, later that evening, Claire goes upstairs to find the bathtub full of water and a handwritten message scrawled in the mirror mist: “You Know”. What’s more, her computer is typing out the letters “MEF” over and over on the monitor … by itself.
Claire becomes convinced it is Mary, even though Norman can’t bring himself to buy into the haunting, and when Mary does eventually show up unscathed, Claire grows even more shaken by what’s happening. Thing is though, these strange events escalate, and she soon realizes that she is being contacted by the ghost of a young woman whose name is a match for the initials in the mirror. But who is she? There some terrible secrets in this house, and the truth is almost as horrifying as the revenge a lost soul has planned for the man who killed her.
While the whole thing is really preposterous, Zemeckis knows how to set up and deliver a worthy jump scare, with both Ford and especially Pfeiffer delivering some genuinely good work. The larger problem with it all though is the supernatural element, as it, for me, would have been far better if it was more a grounded murder mystery than a trope-ish ghost story. Still, depending on your willingness to dive into the quasi-horror aspect of it, the film could be satisfying, even as it jumps well off the cliff.
Despite my criticisms, I really love what Pfeiffer is doing here. She sells the incredulity of it all with plenty of gusto, making Claire a fun watch. Where it all comes together best though is a sensational moment late in the story when Claire finds herself literally up to her neck in trouble. Obviously, there are some spoilers here, so be warned.
If you saw the trailer for this, then you know Norman isn’t a saint, and in fact, is revealed to be the catalyst for what is going on (Zemeckis is a firm believer that audiences what to know what they’re getting into before heading to the theater). I won’t say anything beyond that, but suffice to say, he and Claire come to be at odds over the spirit haunting the house, a ghost with some honest motivations. Claire has good reason to suspect something bad of her husband, and even when he makes attempts to confess and reset their marriage, she discovers he’s not quite on the up and up. In fact, she ends up in the tub, paralyzed by an anesthesia medication.
With her limp but very conscious body laid out in the basin, Norman plugs the drain and flips on the water, letting it slowly fill. Unable to move or speak, she lies in terror, eyes open, as he casually plots what should look like a suicide, and a believable one considering the way she’s been acting, even in public. He then calls a friend of Claire’s and admits to a fight and that he is going to spend the night elsewhere and could she come check on Claire in the morning, thereby getting someone else to find her body and give it the appearance she killed herself. Genius.
He then talks to Claire for a bit, menacing, dark, and with a calculated tone that is more than a little chilling. It’s murderous. He then leaves her to die, the water ever so slowly climbing upwards. We then join Claire in the tub and watch as certain death inches closer, closing in around her face. Ain’t no getting out of this …
Of course, I won’t say what happens, rather directing your attention to how well Zemeckis stages this highly effective moment of fear. With our expectations already shattered, having Ford play a bad guy, he goes about crafting a carefully executed sequence that begins with the sudden injection of succinylcholine. This is a temporary agent, but the does is large, just enough to keep her immobilized while she succumbs to the water. As he carries her up the stairs and into the bathroom he continually talks to her, at one point, just before laying her in the tub, that all he wanted was to spend the rest of his life with her, and yet there is a terrible emptiness about it, his cold rejection of her now making it all the more easy to side with Claire. This is a purposeful bit of dialogue that really helps to shape our sympathies going forward.
Then we get this excellent overhead shot of Claire in the tub, her limp frame getting soaked from the already running showerhead, and it has this vulnerability to it, the walls of the porcelain wrapped around her, seemingly drawing tight, with Ford leaning in. It has this coffin-like quality to it that is compounded greatly by the corpse-ish appearance of Pfieffer. It’s a jarringly disconcerting image.
Zemeckis then, ending this magnificent long shot, brings us down into the tub, to Claire’s point of view, where it then shifts to show us what she sees, that of Norman resting on the edge, he chewing on his thumb as if considering his actions, then adjusting the water so it’s warm (how thoughtful). Ford does really well here playing a man clearly detached from reality, trapped by his actions and forced, in his mind, to take matters even further. There is a deadly casualness to his words, and a sickening coldness to how he strings together a plan that is being spun as he goes. There is no panic, no conscience ebbing his thoughts, just determination. It’s great stuff.
The moment then becomes a unique game of survival for Claire, and Zemeckis employs some twists in ramping up the already convincing tension (curse you, chain). The thing that makes this so good (and a little frustrating) is how it’s one of the only scenes in the movie that isn’t tainted by the ghost per se. This is just Norman and Claire, completely free of supernatural overtones, a man in the throes of a desperation and his wife suffering for it, having learned too much. I can’t help but imagine how much better it all would have been if that’s what the entirety of the movie was, populated with figurative ghosts other than literal ones.
Still, for what it is, What Lies Beneath has some genuine frights and if you dive in, plenty of good moments to warrant this a watch. Pfeiffer is the whole deal, smart, sexy, authentic … she makes this easy to believe. Look for the always terrific (and one of my favorites) Joe Morton as well, having a small part that – like he does so regularly – commits to so well. A pretty standard horror thriller, nonetheless, a terrifying scene in a bathtub makes for a great cinematic moment.