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Robert Zemeckis' WHAT LIES BENEATH is an Underrated Gem and Here's Why

The psychological thriller tackles mental and emotional abuse and, most importantly, how to escape them.

By Kelly Krause, Friday 6 November 2020

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***Spoilers Ahead***

***Trigger Warning: Mental & Emotional Abuse***

Spooky Season may be over, but while the vibes continue to linger for some of us (and also as a hopefully welcome distraction from what has been a trying election week), I’d like to give some overdue attention to Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 supernatural horror feature WHAT LIES BENEATH (WLB).

Admittedly, this is a favorite of mine, and if you were to be so unfortunate as to quarantine with me, you’d find me curled up on the couch, lights dimmed, watching it several times throughout the year. The film is also one of the few movie-going experiences in my life that I can recall vividly because there was such a visceral communal reaction to it in the theater—audience members regularly gasped and screamed aloud.

Personal bias now fully acknowledged, I am still in awe of the poor reviews the film has received over the years and continues to receive (it currently holds an audience score of 58% on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 51% on Metacritic).  Nevertheless, WLB has stuck with me 20 years later because it has aged well and remains relevant … But why?

If you are unfamiliar with the premise—and remember that spoilers will abound if that is the case—WLB follows Claire Spencer (Michelle Pfeiffer), a housewife and stay-at-home mom who, upon her daughter’s departure for college, begins to believe that her Vermont home is haunted by a ghost.

What feels like a basic haunted house story proves to be a smart (and scary!) psychological thriller centered around mental abuse, emotional manipulation and, most importantly, how to escape them. On the surface, our heroine appears to have it all: a big, beautiful house, complete with lakeside property; a close relationship with her teenage daughter; and a loving husband, Norman (Harrison Ford), who works as a genetics research scientist at a local university.

But as our title suggests, there’s more than meets the eye to the perfect facade that Claire maintains in her life. She was in a terrible car accident a year ago and nearly lost her life (yet brushes it aside in conversation as if it were nothing more than a paper cut). She used to be a phenomenal concert cellist, but no longer plays, even though she’s kept her precious instrument safely tucked away for the past eighteen years. She was previously married to a fellow musician, Michael, who tragically died and whom she appears to still very much miss. Trauma, folx. Lots and lots of suppressed trauma.

The common denominator in all of it is current husband Norman. Over the course of the story, the layers of Claire and Norman’s marriage are peeled back, gradually revealing the latter’s inherent misogyny, and what makes it so goddamn terrifying and sinister is the subtlety with which it manifests. Dismissive remarks, patronizing tones and looks, self-centered demands, lecturing, gaslighting, trivializing Claire’s feelings and shaming her behavior and reactions—all classic signs of mental and emotional abuse by the way—are delivered so tactfully that they largely go unnoticed. That is the real horror of WLB—we trick ourselves, just as Claire has, into believing that Norman comes from a place of genuine concern and love for his wife; we let our insecurities get the better of us, just as she has.

Eventually, we learn that the ghost in the couple’s house is in fact real, not a figment of Claire’s imagination or, as she puts it in a moment of self-doubt, an “empty nest episode”. Our ghost is Madison Frank (Amber Valleta), a young, brilliant graduate student who had an affair with Norman just before Claire’s car accident and whom he murdered in his own house when she threatened to take their relationship to the Dean.

Claire’s discovery of the relationship served as the indirect cause of her accident and, in turn, her suppression of the affair until Madison’s ghost compels her to remember it. Years of restrained anger and frustration with her marriage finally erupt and we learn how Claire gave up her music career for Norman, how she forced herself to play “the perfect wife”, how she never felt she was given the choice not to. Claire never directs her rage at Madison, though. Rather, she seems to feel a kinship with the unfortunate graduate student.

The words “crazy”, “delusional”, “overreactive” or variations thereof are used to describe Claire’s mental state throughout and the whole thing is a terrible, painful reminder of how little progress we’ve made when it comes to believing women and our experiences; it’s a major reason why WLB remains relevant. But Claire’s affinity with other women and vice-versa (including Madison) is the game-changer here and another reason why the film continues to resonate.

Elena, a friend from her old life as a concert cellist, believes Claire’s supernatural experiences unquestionably and never doubts her. Best friend Jody is an even more active supporter, willingly performing a séance with Claire—at this point, they believe the ghost to be next door neighbor Mary (Miranda Otto)—and later gifting Claire a book on the paranormal which she uses to channel Madison’s spirit. Even when it’s revealed that Mary is alive, she never judges Claire for the murder accusation she publicly makes against Mary’s husband. Instead, she empathizes with Claire, implying that she would have come to the same conclusion and done the same thing in her position. Later, when Claire journeys to the home of Madison’s mother, a simple exchange that ends in an offer to show Claire Madison’s room serves as an unspoken acknowledgement between the two women: “You believe something terrible happened to my daughter,” Mrs. Frank seems to say. “You know, like I do, that she didn’t run away—I believe you.”

In the end, this sisterhood saves Claire. Most survivors of abuse, whether physical, mental and/or emotional, do not escape their abusers single-handedly. Somewhere along the way, help is required, and it often comes from a trusted friend or relative. Think of Jody’s gift to Claire, the book that indirectly leads her to remember Norman’s affair and thus acknowledge her toxic marriage and the danger that she lives with every day. Help can also come from other survivors. That is exactly what Madison is. Though her corporeal being is gone, her spirit lingers, pushing Claire to recognize the reality of her marriage with Norman and finally escape: “Learn from my story and find a way out—I’m here to help you.” Come the climax, it is Madison who saves Claire from Norman’s violence, not once but twice, freeing her from her abusive marriage. The final scene of the film in turn is a quiet, beautiful expression of Claire’s gratitude, fading out into an almost imperceptible yet poignant image of Madison’s face carved into the freshly fallen snow.

Production design considerations like this also deserve to be acknowledged—the detailed attention given to WLB’s CGI, lighting, and score and shot compositions consistently builds upon the broader story. Within the Spencer house, lights are dimmed, if not off entirely. Even during daylight hours, the interior is bathed in shadow, and we often follow Claire’s movements so closely that the whole effect makes the massive home feel squat and claustrophobic, like a prison. Contrast this with the wide exterior shots that allow both Claire and the audience to finally breath, though notably when she remains on her property, the house is almost always in the backdrop, sprawling and looming over her, reminding her that she’ll eventually have to return to the confines of its walls. Indeed, the only room in the house ever bathed in light, often pristinely so, is the bathroom—the very room where Norman murdered Madison. The film’s score is equally thoughtful and effective, where jump scares are preceded by a building composition of string instruments, but genuine scares are preceded by complete silence—the film trusts the audience to pick up on this nuance. Two decades on, the CGI also holds up remarkably well. Watch the moment where Claire’s face morphs into Madison’s and tell me otherwise—it remains absolutely seamless.

I would be remiss if I did not also mention the film’s script, written by Clark Gregg (yes, that Clark Gregg, of Agent Coulson fame). I am deeply appreciative of the sensitivity and intelligence that he brought to this story and hope he’ll get the recognition he deserves for it one of these days.

So, what are you waiting for? WLB is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime and Showtime Anytime. Grab the popcorn, sit back, press play and decide for yourself … You know where I clearly stand.

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