I’m constantly being surprised by What Lies Beneath. On first viewing it surprised me that Robert Zemeckis, the Spielberg acolyte behind feel-good romps like Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, would direct this self-contained horror flick. Years later, I was surprised to learn that Clark Gregg — Agent Coulson himself — wrote the screenplay. When I revisited Beneath a few months ago, the thing that surprised me was how good it was, how it does a lot with fairly little, how the straightforward nature of the plot obscures nuances that you wouldn’t catch the first time through. And then, of course, I was surprised a final time to learn that I am not in a majority here, that the film received mixed reviews upon release and currently has a dismal 47% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and that the Pantheon of Horror Flicks may not hail What Lies Beneath as a genre masterpiece after all.
Doubtful, of course, that Beneath would ever really slip down the precipice into the Abyss of Forgotten Horror Flicks. It’s got Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford, and they and Zemeckis secured their places in film history long before 2000. And no, it’s not an outright masterpiece; it probably does little that Hitchcock didn’t do decades earlier. But one feels the need to defend it all the same, no? If not to reinstall it in the Pantheon or rescue it from the Abyss, perhaps just to feel better about being so endeared to it, as I am. We could touch on the film as a whole or dig into some of those criticisms from the mixed-review crowd…or we could sorta just talk about one single scene.
This scene — in which Claire and Norman Spencer (Pfeiffer and Ford) dine out with their friends Stan and Elena (Ray Baker and Wendy Crewson) at an upscale restaurant — is tragically nowhere to be found on the internet (though Beneath is streaming on Starz). That’s inconvenient for our present purposes, but not really surprising: nothing in this particular scene is trailer-worthy, nor is much of the dialogue quotable, nor is it even apparent from this sequence that you’re watching a horror movie at all. A brief expository exchange regarding Claire’s hallucinations is, on the surface, the only real reason for its inclusion in the final cut of the film.
The conversation we’re dropped into at the start of the scene is one of the most impressive and realistic examples of cross-talk you’re likely to find. Two distinct conversations — one between the men and one between the women — happen simultaneously, literally crossing each other over the table, and yet somehow it’s not difficult to follow both. Eventually the dueling convos meld, and we glean some background information about both Claire and Norman. She was a gifted cellist, but gave up her musical pursuits to marry Norman and start a family. Norman, meanwhile, clearly brings home the bacon via his prestigious post at a genetics lab, the same lab where his father gained substantial fame before Norman came along. Talk finally turns to Claire’s hallucinations, which sets in motion her visits to a psychiatrist later in the movie.
That’s all surface-level, first-time viewing stuff — but the frickin’ movie is called What Lies Beneath, and in this case what lies beneath is a series of glaring warnings that Norman is a villain for the ages. His half of the cross-talk bit has him gossiping about a colleague who slept with one of his students, and the hypocritical ring of this chitchat is deafening once you know Norman’s done the exact same thing with a student of his own. The seemingly-innocuous background details on the Spencers also take on new meaning in a second viewing, underscoring Norman’s controlling nature (in forcing Claire to choose between him and her music) and his deep insecurity (living in his famous father’s shadow).
Norman’s treatment of his wife could be called the hidden focus of this scene, though. Casual eye-rolls, gentle corrections, small slights and minor criticisms — you likely don’t bat an eye at these at first because everyone knows a couple like that: they dole out challenges to each other as a unique kind of love language, maybe even “arguing” in a playful way for the benefit of other parties. But Norman exhibits this behavior throughout the film, and Claire never really returns fire. His belittling of her has become such a commonplace characteristic of their marriage that it doesn’t even register. Once you’re beneath the surface of this relationship, though, it’s impossible not to notice its one-sidedness.
Casting Harrison Ford is a huge part of that, too. He’d probably be America’s Dad if Tom Hanks wasn’t already America’s Dad, and in fact Zemeckis shot What Lies Beneath while Hanks lost weight and grew a beard for Cast Away. Hanks — whose only true “bad guy” role came in 2017’s snoozefest The Circle — has explained his reticence to ever play a villain by saying that he doesn’t believe himself to have any “malevolence” in him, and that “bad guys, by and large, require some degree of malevolence” in order to be believable. Ford’s mere presence in What Lies Beneath proves that logic faulty, though, because the genial lack of malice is exactly what makes his villainous twist so effective. “Hey Coop!” he says to the family pooch as he casually attempts to murder his wife. “Let’s go get your ball.” Norman twisting his mustache malevolently wouldn’t be half as disconcerting as the bubbly matter-of-factness in Ford’s demeanor, Dad-bod and all. He and Hanks may have broken bad once apiece, but only Ford nailed it.
The theatrical trailer for the film quite literally gives you the entire plot, including Norman’s true nature, so part of the tepid critical reaction at the time might be chalked up to a spoilt twist. But barring that, What Lies Beneath is true to its name in sneaking substantial subtext into nearly every scene involving its undercover villain. So next time you double-date at the fancy Italian joint downtown, pay attention to exactly what that really nice scientist dude is actually saying. It could save your life!