powered by AFI
Concurrent with the success of M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense (1999) was the emergence of a ghost movie subset populated by mature characters who find themselves enmeshed in extraordinary circumstances that upset all expectations of midlife equanimity. If not quite the pensioners of The Changeling (1980) or Ghost Story (1981), the beleaguered protagonists of Stir of Echoes (1999), The Others (2001), and Dragonfly (2002) were solid, professional people... homeowners, tax payers, wage earners, and parents of growing children. These mature figureheads represented a narrative sea change within a genre that had aligned itself for a quarter century with teenagers, from Carrie (1976) through the thematic variations of Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), as well as their sundry sequels (all of which had guttered in ignominy by the mid-90s). By the new millennium, horror fans that had come of age with slasher films were approaching middle age and a sizeable percentage of that demographic sought a new flavor of fear that drew not from the struggle simply to make it through the night but from the struggle to make a living in the shadow of death.
When Robert Zemeckis formed his own production company, ImageMovers, in 1998, at the top of his To Do list was to make a suspense film patterned after the instruction of Alfred Hitchcock. A protg of Steven Spielberg, Zemeckis had a long-term commitment to genre, from an early teleplay for the short-lived Kolchak: The Night Stalker series to producer status for Peter Jackson's The Frighteners (1996) and William Malone's House on Haunted Hill (1999), and as a guiding hand of the HBO horror anthology series Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996). Best known for the souffl-light Back to the Future trilogy (1985-1991), Zemeckis also helmed the horror-infused satire Death Becomes Her (1992). What Lies Beneath (2000) had come to ImageMovers via Spielberg's DreamWorks, for whom Oscar®-winning documentary filmmaker Sarah Kernochan had adapted a personal experience with the paranormal as the lyrical tale of a retirement aged couple dealing with restless but compassionate spirits. DreamWorks commissioned a rewrite from start-up scribe Clark Gregg (now better known as an actor and a recurring player in the Marvel Comics Iron Man and Avenger films), who respun the tale as a suspenseful tale of mystery, murder, and retribution from beyond the grave.
Zemeckis sandwiched production of What Lies Beneath within a planned year-long interruption in the filming of Cast Away (2000), starring Tom Hanks as a plane crash survivor forced to hack out a primitive existence on a Pacific island. To allow Hanks to lose the requisite weight for his role, principal photography for Cast Away was suspended in April of 1999, allowing Zemeckis and his crew to shift focus to the smaller gauge project. Location shooting for What Lies Beneath commenced in collegiate Burlington, Vermont, and in and around such adjacent landmarks as Vermont's Daughters of the American Revolution State Park, New York State's Lake Champlain, and the soon-to-be demolished Crown Point Bridge. The film's main setting, a sprawling, 3,500 square foot Nantucket-style lakefront home - the newly empty nest of long-time academic marrieds Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford - was constructed exclusively for use in the film and torn down at the conclusion of location photography. Conceiving What Lies Beneath as a Hitchcock-style thriller, Zemeckis and director-of-photography Don Burgess (whose career had begun with work as a camera operator on the 1981 Canadian slasher Happy Birthday to Me) tricked the film out with perspective-warping angles, the most memorable of which required the use of a glass floor, to which floorboards were added in postproduction by dint CGI.
What Lies Beneath presented a change of pace for Harrison Ford, who had by 2000 not played a supporting character since he reprised his peripheral American Graffiti (1973) part of Bob Falfa for More American Graffiti in 1979. With Ford shunted to the periphery until the film's climax, the narrative's heavy lifting fell to top-billed Michelle Pfeiffer, Zemeckis' take on the classic Hitchcock blonde. As the sole recipient of What Lies Beneath's paranormal visitations, Pfeiffer was asked to reach a (to her) untapped level of fear; in press interviews conducting during postproduction, Pfeiffer credited Drew Barrymore's cameo performance in Wes Craven's Scream (1996) as her inspiration for reaching a guttural, bedrock place of total terror. The actress had no difficulty registering her claustrophobia and discomfort during underwater sequences, which genuinely left her spooked even after professional SCUBA lessons. Cast in the minor role of Pfeiffer's friend and confidante, actress Diana Scarwid grew uneasy with the use of a Ouija board in the film and took it upon herself to bless the set as a bulwark against the influence of negative spirits.
Budgeted at $100,000,000, What Lies Beneath earned back its investment through the summer of 2000, grossing nearly $300,000,000 worldwide, and emerging as a modest success for distributor 20th Century Fox (after allowing for publicity and exhibition costs). Bracketed between Forrest Gump (1994) and Cast Away, the film drifted into a measure of obscurity over the ensuing years, overshadowed in the minds of the Zemeckis fan base by his more comforting and upbeat titles. The film took a bit of a drubbing from the major critics, with Roger Ebert sniping that it was pointless to attempt a Hitchcock-style supernatural thriller when Hitchcock had abjured the supernatural. British writer Kim Newman took a different view of What Lies Beneath in his landmark genre study Nightmare Movies (published 1988, revised 2011), calling it a transitional American horror film that employed stylistic motifs then more popular in the Far East than in the West and bridged the gap between Hideo Nakata's landmark J-horror opus Ring (1998) and the subsequent vogue in the United States for English-language remakes of Japanese ghost movies.
Producer: Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: Clark Gregg
Cinematography: Don Burgess
Production Design: Rick Carter, William James Teegarden
Music: Alan Silvestri
Film Editing: Arthur Schmidt
Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer (Claire Spencer), Katharine Towne (Caitlin Spencer), Harrison Ford (Norman Spencer), Miranda Otto (Mary Feur), James Remar (Warren Feur), Victoria Bidewell (Beatrice), Diana Scarwid (Jody)
By Richard Harland Smith
What Lies Beneath production notes
Press conference interviews with Robert Zemeckis, Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer and Diana Scarwid by Ross Anthony, July 2000
Interview with Robert Zemeckis by Judy Sloane, Starburst No. 268, December 2000
Interview with Alan Silvestri by Rudy Koppl, Soundtrack, Vol. 19, No. 75, 2000
Nightmare Movies by Kim Newman (Bloomsbury Publishing, 1988/2011)