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Saturday, Dec. 16, 2000

'WHAT LIES BENEATH'

Relax, it's a classic thriller


Alfred Hitchcock once said that what a director needs most in order to make a scary movie is a beautiful face and lots of screaming. As we all know, generations of directors snapped their fingers ("That's it!") and followed this dictum faithfully, which was fine. Then time went byand scare standards changed. Beautiful faces screamed, but they also wound up mutilated, dead and lavishly displayed by one serial killer after another. This threw people like myself into a state of mild apoplexy. I mean, it's OK to be frightened. But frightened and manipulated and temporarily cut off from an oxygen supply to the brain -- this is an experience I try to avoid.

Which is why I recommend "What Lies Beneath" to all the viewers out there who couldn't take "Seven." It is a good-old horror story executed with appropriate elegance, directed by Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump"), a man with a rep for being able to do anything. Here, he dons a black suit and out-Hitchcocks old Alfred at his own game.

Yes, "What Lies Beneath" is scary, but it's scary in a girls-cuddling-up-to-their-boyfriends-in-the-theater kind of way. And when the screaming starts you can relax with this knowledge: This is as bad as it's going to get.

"What Lies Beneath" pairs Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford as the perfect middle-aged couple in a perfect marriage. Claire (Pfeiffer) has just sent her only daughter off to college and is suffering from empty-nest syndrome. To keep herself occupied, she submerges herself in an idyllic Martha Stewart lifestyle: caring for roses and sitting down to cozy dinners with hubby Norman (Ford) in their beautiful, newly renovated home. But when she's alone, she hears and witnesses strange, Poltergeist-like events (doors opening and shutting, voices in the bathroom). Soon, she suspects that her next-door neighbor (James Remar) has murdered his wife (Miranda Otto).

In a sequence that's rather an obvious homage to "Rear Window," Claire turns out all the lights and spies on her neighbor with a pair of binoculars. She tries to rope in Norman, but he proves uncooperative. He persuades her to see a doctor and she agrees, but to no avail. Claire wants real answers, especially since at this point, she's seeing ghosts, mainly in and around the bathtub. Who will believe her? What does the ghost want? And who can she really trust?

While Claire agonizes, you begin to realize that it's the house and not Harrison Ford that's Pfeiffer's real co-star. And what a house. A six-bedroom Colonial affair that production designer Rick Carter and his crew actually built on the shores of Lake Champlain.

The visual clash between a wild-eyed Pfeiffer trying to commune with dead people and this pristine backdrop is extremely effective, adding to the chill and mystery. Claire and the house seem to feed off each other's moods -- as she grows progressively more nervous, the place starts to look weirdly sinister.

Speaking of which, you'll love the bathroom: the focal point of Claire's fears and suspicions. It's about the size of a 12 tatami-mat apartment, and at the far end is a huge, claw-footed tub that takes ages to fill (note that the ad posters show a pale hand clutching onto the rim and nothing else). The film spends so much time in here you start memorizing all the little details, and idly wonder who keeps the place clean. Despite all the ghostly goings-on and the number of long baths Claire takes, the bathroom is always as spotless and pristine as a showroom display.

"What Lies Beneath" has plenty of opportunities for speculation, because it's long (130 minutes) and creeps toward the climax at a slow and kindly pace. Zemeckis holds back the surprise and horror spots until the last half hour. This means you can stay comfortably scared for pretty much the entire movie, reminding you of a time when it was possible to sit with dates and munch on popcorn while beautiful women screamed onscreen (elegantly, so as not to ruin their makeup). What really lies beneath "What Lies Beneath" is, perhaps, Hitchcock nostalgia.

"What Lies Beneath" is playing at the Nihon Gekijo and other theaters.


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