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Michelle Pfeiffer fears What Lies Beneath

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: As The Conjuring creeps into theaters, we look back on some of our favorite old-dark-house movies.

What Lies Beneath (2000)
As his recent movies make painfully clear, Robert Zemeckis is a director fascinated by technology in the abstract as well as its practical uses: His prolonged, ill-advised journey into the uncanny valley of motion-capture animation may go down in history as a tragic waste of a major talent. But before he took the polar express to dead-eyeville, Zemeckis turned his technical facility to more productive ends with What Lies Beneath, a supernatural thriller that moves with the precision of a well-oiled infernal machine.


Essentially a haunted-house spin on Gaslight, the movie plonks Michelle Pfeiffer in the middle of a creaky Vermont house, where she’s mostly left alone by her scientist husband, Harrison Ford. It’s not long before her mind begins to play tricks on her: The couple next door’s spats, as well as the ecstatic cries of their lovemaking, seem to be coming from a neighboring room; doors unlatch and picture frames shatter unbidden. Ford, pointedly cast against type, coldly dismisses her concerns with the brusque hostility he normally saves for the talk-show couch.

As a housewife whose only child has recently fled the nest, Pfeiffer knocks about the house as if it’s three sizes too big, feeling like a ghost in her own life. The way that tension pays off is unfair to divulge—though DreamWorks’ trailers were notoriously free with a critical reveal—but suffice it to say that her unease has its roots in both the otherworldly and the entirely tangible. Zemeckis is as shameless as Hitchcock in his deployment of cinematic tricks; the way to love the movie is to give into the sensation of being pleasurably led by the nose. But few have led so expertly and with such terrifying command. It’s scary how good he is at it.


Availability: DVD but no Blu-ray, rental or purchase from the major digital outlets, and disc delivery from Netflix.