WHAT LIES BENEATH is about stripping away the layers of lies to find the truth beneath a picture perfect world.
-Review by Annette Wierstra


This page was created on July 19, 2000
and was updated on May 29, 2005

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Norman Spenser
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Claire Spenser
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Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Writing credits: Sarah Kernochan (story) and Clark Gregg (story) Clark Gregg (screenplay)

Harrison Ford .... Norman Spenser
Michelle Pfeiffer .... Claire Spenser
Diana Scarwid ... Jody
Brandy .... Band Member 1
Dan Block
J.C. Mark
Patrick Costello
Wendy Crewson
Tom Dahlgren
Joe Morton
Miranda Otto
James Remar
Rachel Singer
Katharine Towne
Amber Valletta

Produced by Steven J. Boyd (associate), Joan Bradshaw (executive), Mark Johnson (executive), Cherylanne Martin (associate), Jack Rapke, Steven Spielberg (uncredited) (executive), Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis
Original music by Alan Silvestri
Cinematography by Don Burgess
Film Editing by Arthur Schmidt

Rated PG-13 for terror/violence, sensuality and brief language.

He was the perfect husband
until his one mistake followed them home.

A year ago, Dr. Norman Spencer (Harrison Ford) betrayed his beautiful wife Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer). But the affair is over and Claire's oblivious to the truth; Norman's life and marriage seem perfect--so perfect that when Claire tells him she's hearing mysterious voices and seeing a young woman's wraithlike image in their home, he dismisses her mounting terror as delusion. However, as Claire moves closer to the trut
h, it becomes clear that this apparition will not be dismissed, and has come back for Dr. Norman Spencer... and his beautiful wife.

A spellbinding supernatural thriller, What Lies Beneath marks the first pairing of superstars Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford, teaming them with Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump). This taut tale, which takes a number of surprising twists and turns, recalls such paranoia-fueled thrillers as Rosemary's Baby and puzzle mysteries like Diabolique, with a dash of sensual voyeurism à la Rear Window thrown in for good measure. Surrounding Ford and Pfeiffer is an ensemble of actors, each of whom plays a pivotal role. Diana Scarwid is Jody, Claire's best friend and confidante, who might know more about the truth than even she realizes; Joe Morton as Dr. Drayton, Claire's psychiatrist, may or may not believe her; supermodel Amber Valletta is a mysterious girl who may hold the key to unlocking the mystery; and James Remar and Miranda Otto are Mr. and Mrs. Feur, the mysterious couple next door who first raise Claire's suspicions.

"I think suspense and cinema are really made for each other," says Zemeckis. "I mean, there are certainly very suspenseful books and stage plays, but I don't think anything can manipulate time and place and storytelling techniques the way a movie can. So I've always wanted to try my hand at directing something really terrifying and mysterious."

Filming on What Lies Beneath extended from the late summer into the autumn months in New England. The change of seasons worked perfectly for the style of the film, as the bright days of summer gave way to the deepening shadows and darker colors of the fall. Zemeckis comments, "When you see the house in the sunlight it looks like the perfect dream home. But then you start to make the shadows long and drop the camera to a lower angle, and the house is suddenly ominous and uninviting. Everything in the movie had to work on two layers. Depending on how you look at something, it can be beautiful or an instrument of terror, which is one of the great devices for a scary movie."

Review by Annette Wierstra
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WHAT LIES BENEATH is about stripping away the layers of lies to find the truth beneath a picture perfect world..

Warning: This is a spoiler review

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Dr. Norman Spenser (Harrison Ford) and his wife Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) have it all. A loving comradery in their marriage, a level headed daughter, a gorgeous house on the lake . . . and a ghost.

It all starts with the Spenser's daughter, Caitlin, leaving for college. Claire suffers from empty nest syndrome. With her daughter gone and dreams of a career as a concert cellist long distant, Claire is depressed.
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Her depression makes her see things. Doors open and slam, picture frames smash, the nieghbour's wife mysteriously disappears after Claire finds her weeping in the garden.

Norman believes Claire is simply depressed and send Claire to a counselor. When Claire finds out that her imagined murder mystery in the nieghbour's back yard is all an overreaction she is inclined to believe her husband.

But the ghost doesn't disappear. Instead the ghost becomes more persistent, leading Claire to a key in a floor grate and a name. The suspense thriller What Lies Beneath is about stripping away the layers of lies to find the truth beneath a picture perfect world. What appears to be the ideal marriage and family, is revealed as less than perfect.

Norman confesses to having an affair with the young woman, Madison Elizabeth Frank (Amber Valletta), his student. He says she disappeared after he tried to break it off with her, promising to kill herself. Slowly Norman's lies are stripped away, revealing a man desperate to keep a facade of a perfect marriage and career alive. The key the ghost showed Claire is the final key to the truth, opening a Pandora's Box, so to speak, and putting Claire's own life in danger.
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Water is an important symbol in this movie. Norman. He uses water to cover his murder of Madison, pushing the car into the lake. He tries to fake a near fatal accident to convince Claire that he is still on her side. When he finally realizes that Claire won't believe his lies he tries to kill her repeatedly by drowning her, first in the tub then in the lake.

Norman believes that he can wash away the past and make himself clean. Unfortunately he discovers that the truth will catch up to him through his wife and supernaturally through Madison. Both are instrumental in his ultimate demise.
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In Claire's situation water is freeing. Several times she sees Madison's face reflected in the water. Every time she throws her self into the water she comes closer to the truth. First she realizes the key to contacting Madison, then she retrieves the locked box that we glimpse in her first dive. Finally she finds the submerged car in the lake. When Claire comes out the river she is washed clean of all the lies in her life and she knows the truth. Dr. Norman Spenser believes he can earn forgiveness or better yet justify murder with the perfect lie. The theme of What Lies Beneath is similar to Fatal Attraction (Michael Douglas & Glenn Close). Norman tries to brush aside his infidelity but discovers that a simple flirtation could destroy his marriage and career. Above all Norman wants to emulate his father and have the perfect life and career. He is willing to sacrifice his morality.

He tries to absolve himself of his crimes but they end up compounding and catching up to him. Unfortunately the absolution Norman Spenser is looking for can't come from a human source. At the moment when Norman realizes that Claire has pieced together the truth he is on his knees begging for desperately to repiece their former life together. At that moment Claire is a God/Judge figure with the ability to forgive and wipe everything clean or let Norman pay for his mistakes.

Unfortunately, along with Claire, you sense that he isn't truly sorry, he's only sorry that he got caught. A point driven home when he dials 411 to "confess" instead of 911. If Claire is the Savior figure the ghoulish Madison is the reincarnation of the lies, which literally pull and weigh Norman down to a watery grave. Between Claire and the ghostly Madison, Norman is brought down by his lies and his unrepentance.


Thursday July 27, 2000

Why are 'What Lies Beneath' and 'Scary Movie' doing so well?

There really is something going on in our culture. Movies that deal with Things Spiritual are attracting big audiences. There are two current films that underscore this fascination. 'What Lies Beneath' and 'Scary Movie.'

Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford in the spiritually provocative and frightening' What Lies Beneath' came in at the number 1 box office spot with over $30 million on its opening weekend . This is incredible.

And believe it or not, 'The Perfect Storm' by its 4th week fell below the low budget not-so 'Scary Movie'! 'Scary Movie' is a spoof on spiritually-oriented films like 'Sixth Sense' and 'Blair Witch Project'. By it's third week it had grossed $116 million (compare this to 'The Patriot' at 92 million in it's 4th week).

Movies about Things Spiritual do well.

Actually, this box office interest in Things Spiritual is a universal trend happening all over the world. For example, in 1999 'Sixth Sense' grossed an astonishing $293,501,675 world wide. Second only to 'Star Wars Episode I' ($431,065,444), which many consider a profoundly mythical and spiritual tale. Another spiritually provocative film 'The Matrix' came in at 5th place with a very respectable $171,383,253. This year in the DVD format it held the #1 sells position for weeks and the miraculous 'Green Mile' was been a video store rental sensation.

So it is little wonder that 'What Lies Beneath' opened to such a big box-office. And that, 'Scary Movie,' despite the bad reviews, poor script, and gross content, has done so well. Youth love scary films with a spiritual dimension.

Did I say "youth?" Did you see all of those kids lined up by the thousands to watch the magical spiritual Pokemon 2000? It opened with over $19 million in the #3 position. And this was at the discounted children's ticket price!

Movie houses are full and churches are not.

This past Sunday morning I drove passed a number of churches with near empty parking lots and then later that afternoon I passed a cineplex with a packed parking lot. More people saw a movie last Sunday than went to church. What are the churches missing here that Hollywood is exploiting for hugh profit?

By the way, I did not notice any church sign that mentioned Jesus, spirituality, miracles, new birth, hell, heaven, or any other Spiritual Thing.

One church I drove by was called "The Family Life Center" and their sign announced a message entitled: "How to Make Your Marriage Work." Hmmm. I was wondering why this church avoided a name such as "The Christ Life Center" and a message entitled "How Your Spiritual Gifts Work"?

I tend think that too many churches have replaced Jesus with a sort of pop psychology that is couched in a Family centered (not Christ centered) perspective.

And with that last paragraph I suppose I'll will get a dozen cancellations to the HJ newsletter. Oh well...! But I speak truth here. In the midst of this great cultural spiritual curiosity you would expect the churches to be benefiting. But they are not. Leonard Sweet in his book Soul Tsunami says God is hot everywhere, except in the church.

As I am writing these words, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. (NYSE: MGM) today reported its fourth consecutive quarter of year-over-year profitability. Revenues for the quarter were up 39% to $295.4 million. You might wonder, what movies are currently in the works to maintain such profitability? Well, here are some titles:
'Original Sin' with Angelina Jolie and Antonio Banderas.
'Hannibal' starring Anthony Hopkins and Julianne Moore.
'Windtalkers' starring Nicholas Cage and directed by John Woo.
'Ghost World' based on the cult comic strip with Thora Birch

So, MGM names a movie 'Original Sin' and churches seem to avoid such language and topics.

What is going on?

I would like your feed back on this matter:
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mailto: Newsletter16_E-mail

To post comments about this film click here:


Date: Sun, 11 Feb 2001
From: Butson

WLB is a movie I've got to watch several more times. We just watched it on video last night (gotta get a DVD for letterbox format though!). There is SO much to watch for in this movie that plays on those ideas of lying beneath, water, being covered, forgotten yet being brought to light. I know I've got a lot of friends that would strongly object to watching a "ghost story" when this is more a morality play, a "your sin will find you out" story, with the character of Madison playing the "deus ex machina", the god from outside the story who steps in to set everything right. What was so great about this move? A few things...

1) The neighbors who seem so opposite, yet you come to find out they appear so messed up but are actually quite in love. Meanwhile, Norman and Clair look so perfect, but everything is going right down the tubes.

2) The store sign that perhaps tells Claire that she should leave well enough alone, but Claire finds the key to the problem at the store.

3) The psychiatrist's office below street level.

4) And to top it off (THIS IS GREAT), she nearly just drowned in the tub as the water slowly rose over her face. But how do you know she's going to be OK during the climax? SHE'S BROUGHT A BOAT WITH HER!!!!

This is a great movie and I'd recommend it to anyone who can handle the suspense. Nothing gross, nothing crude or crass, but a definite thrill with an interesting message.

Subject: Comments on newsletter
Hollywood Jesus Newsletter #16
Date: Fri, 04 Aug 2000
From: Nick

Hello. Allow me to play Devil's simpleton. The reason why "Scary Movie" has been so successful is because the previews show it being funny, and word-of-mouth says that there's more raucus bits behind the previews. The fact that Scary Movie parodies horror films (what you term spiritual) is incidental.

The reason why "What Lies Beneath" has been so successful is the Hitchcockian premise with big budget stars and a good director, in a field with no other thrillers of this sort resides. The preview was also effective and eerie, and Michelle Pfieffer drew a big women's market. This film has a spiritual undertone, but plays it for chills. Like the former has a spiritual undertone, but plays it for gross-out humor. (Response: Actually the two big stars did not do well in their previous movies and this is why the movie posters for What Lies Beaneth did not feature their pictures. The studio played to the mysterious -David).

Suppose a church goes through its service plan but plays it for chills. Or gross-out humor. It goes without saying that it just wouldn't work (remember I'm playing simpleton here). Further, and this is the real point, people go to the film, but don't expect to greet the strangers around them, aren't expected to be challenged, aren't expected to participate in some foreign way. People can be intimidated by churches with a structure that can different from their upbringing. But with cinema, you pay for your ticket, you have the option of popcorn and soda, and you sit and watch.

You say people are flocking to the movies because of the lure of mystery. I couldn't disagree more. (Response: Actually my point is the explotation of "spirituality" by Hollywood and the lack of it in many churches -David). There's nothing mysterious about that routine. There's something far more mysterious in the goings on in church, like at a baptism, or at communion, or at an altar call, than at a multiplex. (Response: You are right about this!) Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast. Therefore let us keep the mystery in church, and not reduce it to the entertainment level of a thriller or comedy. THEREFORE, let us somehow use cinema to draw attention to the deeper mysteries. As you at HollywoodJesus have done so well.

Date: Tue, 1 Aug 2000
From: Amy

Just read your comments/responses for MI2 and What Lies Beneath. WOW! All I've got to say is PREACH IT BROTHER! The question has been raised, "Why are our churches emptying as our movie houses (cultural centers) are filling?" (see Hollywood Jesus Newsletter #16) Because our churches are losing touch with the reality of our world. We need to find out what our culture is doing and take the message to them instead of the typical church reaction - batton down the hatches and clutch our comfort zone close to our chest....and if anyone threatens what is comfortable then well, they're just plain wrong and we'll prove it by throwing scripture at it, while the organ plays all 975 verses of Just As I Am. I would suggest that after everyone looks up fidelity and monogamy, they spend some time reading the gospels and see just how Jesus did it. He didn't sit in a building and wait for society to figure out it needed him.... he took his show on the road. Leonard Sweet also writes of a young man who states "I wouldn't be a christian if it weren't for Jesus." A rather sad statement on his local church. Keep up the good work!

Hollywood Jesus Newsletter 16
Date: Fri, 28 Jul 2000
From: Eric Bramlett, Creative Arts Pastor,
Community Christian Church in Naperville, IL

David, you wrote: By the way, I did not notice any church sign that mentioned Jesus, spirituality, miracles, new birth, hell, heaven, or any other Spiritual Thing. One church I drove by was called "The Family Life Center" and their sign announced a message entitled: "How to Make Your Marriage Work." Hmmm. I was wondering why the church avoided a name such as "The Christ Life Center" and a message entitled "How Your Spiritual Gifts Work"? I tend think that too many churches have replaced Jesus with a sort of pop psychology that is couched in a Family centered (not Christ centered) perspective.

I think that moving towards the future, you may be right, and there may be a need to move towards a more deliberately, unabashed challenge to the spirituality. But such a statement grossly underestimates how our current culture is also completely swept away by the "self-help" industry, as evidenced by the constant weekly visits of such self-help gurus on Oprah Winfrey (who, ironically, seems to have tapped into both the self-help and the spiritual without truly finding Jesus in either!) Regardless, to say that a marriage-help talk and strategy is completely not speaking to a felt need in our culture is unfair at the very least. I saw "What Lies Beneath" last night, and it really just seemed like a morphing of the films "Ghost" and "Fatal Attraction", both 80s heavyweights. Not all that different, really. So I am not sure that such a film automatically speaks to a brand new wave of spirituality in our culture. Though I do think the postmodern culture is more in tune with spirituality. They are no longer asking "Does God Exist?" They think he does - they are know asking "How can you show me through experience that Jesus is the only way to God?" Since there are so many options, and Jesus is merely one to choose from.
Them's my thoughts...
Eric Bramlett, Creative Arts Pastor,
Community Christian Church in Naperville, IL

Subject: well said
Hollywood Jesus Newsletter 16
Date: Thu, 27 Jul 2000
From: Sherri

David, I very much understood that point you were making about the cinemas being full but not the churches. True, something is missing - other than the people I mean. :) I think our churches sometimes walk a fine line between pop culture and feeding the spirit of man. A hard way to walk.

As one who was part of the "opening weekend" statistics for "What Lies Beneath" I can say it was an excellent movie on many levels. Especially in what if left *unanswered* - what it was that was making the door open, the photo fall, etc. in the house. I just wonder if the average consumer is too blind to see it or if they only see the entertainment and not look at what lies beneath. I can say that people do not think of attending church in terms of entertainment. Maybe churches with excellent choirs or music need to point out that it is not only praise music, but it is entertaining to hear and join in with the music. Just a thought. Certainly big churches have drama ministries and seek to entertain as well as enlighten. But small churches often don't have the resources for that. Okay - that is my two cents worth.
Sherri, Milwaukee, WI

What Lies Beneath © 2000 Dreamworks SKG. All Rights Reserved.