It is interesting to revisit the archived reviews available at EbertandRoeper.tv and listen to their comments regarding this film and their perception of its ability to frighten, its technical construction, and its characters’ success in aiding the narrative. Each of the respective critics dislike What Lies Beneath in both its construction (camerawork and plot development) and its effectiveness in creating suspense. While this movie is enjoyable regardless of whether it was viewed on opening weekend or whether it is the third or fourth viewing on television, it is more understandable that Ebert and Roeper had some issues with the film during its theatrical release (whether they have altered their views upon its DVD release, I do not know). The true beauty of this film is the manner in which it holds up over time and how it DOES splice all of the great filmmaking techniques together into a nice homage to classic suspense films.
The plot, including the incremental revelations of paranormal activities within the newly gone-off-to-college childless home of Pfeiffer and Ford, is not really what drives this movie. Ebert and Roeper complained in their critiques that there are too many red herrings that serve no purpose but to mislead the audience; thus, when they are exposed as mere ruses, much of their existence within the film is superfluous. But that is the fun of the movie. That is the fun of many classic suspense films, even numerous Hitchcock films. There are situations that are added because they lend a hand in the build-up fear, not the characters’ fears, but the viewers’ fears. In Psycho, the image of the cop’s face outside Leigh’s car window, masked by sunglasses, expressionless, and looming over the camera is scary to viewers. Yes it fits into the script because she is frightened as a result of her thievery. But ultimately, it is the viewers’ own fear of cops’ intimidation tactics that makes the scene effective. In What Lies Beneath, hearing cries of distress through a fence that offers no real visibility of the cause of such pangs is very similar. Who cares if it is mainly a device to build uneasiness?
To be fair, Ebert and Roeper really seemed more irritated that too much of the plot and its elements of mystery were revealed in the marketing of the film . The true cause of the haunting that Pfeiffer’s characters is terrorized by was apparently revealed rather blatantly in the trailers and television spots used to promote the film. Therefore, Ebert and Roeper seemed more angry that they were not even given the chance to enjoy the unfolding of the plot and the subsequent suspense. However, it is only know that their argument seems to be more fallacious in its use of logic. I understand that each person has a reaction to a film based on the uniqueness of their own likes, dislikes, and inclinations to genre, but there is an established set of framing techniques, camera movements, and lighting designs that reliably cause an emotional reaction by the viewers. It is very hard to find Ebert and Roeper’s critiques impervious to default when this film does not tend to lose much of its emotional effects upon repeat viewings.
To elaborate, the unknown ghost, its motivation, and its history and relevance to Claire (Pfieffer) are plot points for the basic construction of a three act narrative; and, a three act narrative is a contrivance proved to be effective for the assimilation of information by means of tapping into the inherent way humans use logic to invent concepts from raw data (if a, then b, and if b, then c: therefore if a, then c). Subsequently, the artist now has a template on which to attach the expressions of humanity that create the emotional impact of the film (or play, etc.). In a sense, the structure of What Lies Beneath is very simple and only attempts to create a large enough template to succeed in allowing the viewer to follow the basic arc of the narrative. The strength of the film exists in the the technical construction and how precisely orchestrated it is to get the most emotional impact from the various moments in the film. Watching the film for the third or fourth time, the plot isn’t new or exciting, the characters aren’t complex, yet the film is still suspenseful. It is not the unfolding of the story creating all the suspense; rather, it is Zemeckis’s camera use, his choices for sound and light design, and his ability to precisely coordinate a myriad of elements that enables the film to work as a whole. This is not a film that would survive on its script. This is not a film that would survive by its stars alone. This film succeeds because of the choices in direction.
Finally, to counter Ebert and Roeper’s unsound critiques of this film, attention should be paid to their mention of films that they found parallel to What Lies Beneath, whether thematic or visually reminiscent in some way. Roeper states that the movie has too many cliches and that the ending is reminiscent of Carrie, Cape Fear, and even Gone with the Wind. On the other side of the aisle, Ebert compares the film to Ghostbusters because of moments he found comedic that were not intended to be so (although I don’t find any scene unintentionally comedic). The odd aspect of their critiques is the absence of any mention of the numerous shots Zemeckis directly lifted from several of Welles’ films and a litany of shot selections that pay homage to Hitchcock. While this movie isn’t groundbreaking, it is a great exercise in technique that results in a fun, effective film.