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What Lies Beneath

by Ealasaid Haas

Once upon a time, there were censors in Hollywood. Anything too sexy or too violent wouldn't get by them, so directors and writers had to find ways to frighten and titillate their audiences that would get past the board. As a result, films from that era create suspense without gore, fright without digusting effects, and sexiness without nudity.

Now, I am against censorship, myself, and think it's great that we have the ratings system now instead of a panel with proverbial scissors (although there are those who would argue that the ratings are just another form of censorship) but I can't help missing the creativity that the censorship board necessitated.

Fortunately, there are still filmmakers with that light touch around. Consider What Lies Beneath, the tale of Claire and Norman Spencer, whose home is being haunted by a malevolent ghost. With stunning plot twists and a wonderfully claustrophobic atmosphere, it keeps the audience clutching their armrests in terror while still deserving its PG-13 rating. Sure, it's a strong PG-13, but it lacks the in-your-face horrific effects of most modern scary movies. In What Lies Beneath, it's what you can't see that's frightening, what you expect to find around the corner that twists the knot in your gut.

Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer are phenomenal as the Spencers, and it's nice to see a middle-aged female character in a Hollywood film be beautiful and strong. Indeed, Claire Spencer holds up better under the haunting of her home than I suspect many audience members would.

The special effects are brilliant, from the brief views we get of the dead woman trying to communicate with the Spencers to the little otherworldly things that keep happening in the house. This isn't a special effects film, but the effects are sewn into the events so seamlessly that you have to remind yourself they're not real.

Oddly enough, the predictability laced through the film (there are a couple of twists which come straight out of left field, but lots of scenes where you know what is going to happen) serve to heighten the suspense. You know darn well that when the monster seems incapacitated or dead it will come back, it's just a question of when.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about What Lies Beneath is how tightly-woven it is. The family cellphone's inability to work until a certain point on the road is established early on, for example, so when it comes up in a moment of crisis near the end, it doesn't seem forced. There aren't any plot threads left unresolved, either. Everything is taken care of.

The one flaw What Lies Beneath has lies not in the film itself, but in the trailers. Like The Sixth Sense, the previews give away a plot element that's not until over a third of the way into the film. As a result, the careful building of a red herring haunting (Claire becomes convinced that their next door neighbor has killed his wife, and she is the ghost) is useless because those who have seen the previews already know who the ghost is. As a result, the suspense of the red herring is lessened substantially.

The bottom line on What Lies Beneath is that it's a great, scary film. If you want to have the bejeesus scared out of you without feeling nauseous from exposed guts, go get a couple tickets. Just make sure you keep a firm grip on your popcorn.