Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:06 - Released 7/21/00

A good thriller's success rests primarily on three factors: the plausibility of its plot, the effectiveness of its special effects, and its star's ability to scream. What Lies Beneath, the new ghost-torments-married-couple story written by Sarah Kernochan and Clark Gregg and directed by Robert Zemeckis (Contact), has two of the three elements covered pretty well. The effects are good and Michelle Pfeiffer's screams are passable. From the standpoint of plausibility, it maintains a good rating until the final reel, which is when most horror/thrillers lose it, and it loses it with reckless abandon. Harrison Ford's character in particular is terribly conflicted and, toward the end, patently unbelievable.

The action takes place in a small Vermont town where noted physicist Norman Spencer (Ford) and his formerly famous cellist wife Claire (Pfeiffer) live, having just sent their only daughter off to college. Alone during the day in an empty house, Claire starts having strange experiences. She thinks she witnesses a murder at the new neighbors' house, she thinks she sees a body floating in the lake, she keeps forgetting to tell Norman to fix the front door. She tries everything from witchcraft to Ouija boards to confront the spirit that plagues her, and finally discovers the whole truth and her husband's involvement in it.

Besides Ford's character being inconsistent, the story is irritatingly full of red herrings, one of which is so monumental and badly explained it practically derails the suspension of disbelief. It doesn't help that this story is none too subtly similar to last year's Kevin Bacon film Stir of Echoes, which handled the material much better. But faults in the script are partially overcome by Zemeckis's skillful directing, slowly, subtly raising the tension and therefore the hairs on the back of our collective necks. Pfeiffer, who is on screen for practically the entire film, is suitably buggy, although neither she nor the script adequately brings out the terrible experience in her past that is supposed to account for her pre-existing psychotic condition. In addition to hers, there are also a couple of really enjoyable supporting performances by Joe Morton as the psychiatrist and Diana Scarwid as Claire's best friend.

But toward the end of the film, the script goes over the top and Ford, Pfeiffer, and Zemeckis go right over with it. All the old trite horror hallmarks come to bear, including the killer-not-staying-dead routine, the victim intentionally going into unwise places, and a ridiculous, heavy-action finale. Despite its promising start, I left this film with one impression: never engage in underwater fist fights with dead women. ***½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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