Film / What Lies Beneath

What Lies Beneath is a 2000 American supernatural horror-thriller film directed by Robert Zemeckis. It stars Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer as Norman and Claire Spencer, a couple with a seemingly perfect marriage who experience a strange and terrifying haunting that uncovers secrets about their past and seems to threaten their lives.

Zemeckis made the film during a hiatus for Cast Away, waiting for Tom Hanks to lose enough weight to play a man stranded on an island for four years.

Some unmarked spoilers ahead.

This film contains examples of:

  • Adult Fear: Imagine learning that the person you love is an unrepentant murderer.
  • And I Must Scream: During the climax, Norman drugs Claire with a paralysing agent, leaving her completely unable to move a muscle but fully aware of everything going on around her. He then places her in the bathtub in an attempt to drown her and make it look like suicide.
  • Ax-Crazy: Norman, once everything is out in the open.
  • Big Bad: Norman.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing:: Norman, after The Reveal of why Madison haunts the Spencers.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Madison gets her vengeance by killing Norman and is able to finally move on. Claire is undoubtedly left mentally scarred from everything that's happened, but her visit to Madison's grave seems to imply that she's making steps towards getting on with her life.
  • Body Horror: Madison's decomposing corpse.
  • Broken Bird: Claire has shades of this after her oft-mentioned car accident, and there is no possible way she makes it through the rest of the film unbroken.
  • Dog Scare: How the seance ends.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Early ghostly activity causes Claire to find a key hidden in Norman's study. The key eventually leads Claire to evidence that Norman killed Madison.
    • Throw-away dialogue between Norman and Claire mentions how they can't get cell phone reception until they reach the center of a bridge. This becomes a plot point when Claire tries to escape from Norman.
    • Early on when Claire visits Norman at work, she overhears a discussion about a paralysing agent and witnesses it being tested on a rat. Norman drugs Claire with the same agent in the climax.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Madison is painted as one by Norman, although it's very likely another lie.
  • Creepy Souvenir: One of Madison Elizabeth Frank's hair braids.
  • Dangerous Key Fumble: Claire fumbles with the keys when escaping from the house towards the end, giving Norman just enough time to hitch a ride without her noticing.
  • Dark Secret: Norman isn't quite the perfect husband Claire thinks he is...
  • Deadpan Snarker: Norman has a tendency to snark a lot, as does Claire's friend Jody (particularly during the seance). Claire also gets at least one good snark in:
    Claire: Oh, great. 'Could you check in on my wife? She’s hearing voices.' Yeah, wait until that gets around.
  • Decoy Protagonist: At first, much like the revelation of Emma Roberts' role in Scream 4, it seems Norman was just another heroic male lead for Harrison Ford to play opposite Michelle Pfeiffer's female lead as Claire, but then, it's revealed Norman is the Big Bad, while Claire is the sole main protagonist.
  • Demonic Possession: Claire allows herself to be possessed by Madison, which allows her to find out the truth about the affair. She later inadvertently allows another possession as Norman attempts to drown her.
  • Domestic Abuser: Subverted. Warren Feur initially comes across like this, but it's all a misunderstanding.
  • Driven to Suicide: Subverted. Norman claims Madison killed herself when he tried to break off their affair. He's lying. He also intends to make Claire's death look like this as well.
  • Environmental Symbolism: The film takes place from Summer to Winter, and the seasons gradually change as the story becomes darker. This is confirmed as a deliberate choice in the director's commentary.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Played with. Cooper doesn't seem to detect ghosts or see any wrongdoing (aside from the scene where he barks at the lake instead of jumping in to get his ball). Even when Norman is revealed to be the killer, he doesn't attack him. However when he sees Claire lying motionless in the tub, he refuses to leave her, prompting Norman to drag the dog out of the bathroom.
  • Eye Awaken: Unconscious Norman's eyes fly open as Claire makes her escape from the house during the climax.
  • Fade to White: After avenging her own murder, Madison floats through the lake, now at peace, and as she closes her eyes the scene fades to white before transitioning to the final graveyard scene, symbolising that she's now passed into the afterlife.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Norman, thanks to his actor Harrison Ford's natural acting charm.
  • Finger Twitching Revival: Norman's fingers twitch as he's lying unconscious at the bottom of the stairs.
  • Foreshadowing: Claire having a car accident prior to the events of the film is mentioned a few times. It turns out she had the accident after driving off in a heartbroken rage after discovering Norman's affair, and the accident left her unable to remember the affair — until Madison makes her remember.
    • During the dinner party, Norman converses with a friend about a fellow instructor who has been caught sleeping with his student. Norman himself had an affair with Madison, one of his students, and is revealed to have murdered her to keep their fling a secret.
    • Early on, Claire tells Norman that he has a tendency to overreact. This turns out to be a massive understatement - he murders Madison after she threatens to go to university authorities about their affair, and then tries to murder Claire when she figures out the truth.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: Madison is briefly seen reflected in the bath water for a second time (during the "YOU KNOW") scene. She only appears for about a second. Another example occurs at the very end of the film: as the camera pans down and the screen fades to black, an image of Madison's face can be seen in the snow.
  • Get Out: Claire yells this at Norman after remembering his affair with Madison.
  • Ghostly Goals: A combination of both Type A and a little bit of Type B: Madison wants to exact revenge on Norman, but also leaves clues for Claire to lead her towards the truth.
  • Go Out with a Smile: Madison's spirit, having avenged her own death, gives a small, peaceful smile as she floats through the lake.
  • Happily Married: Deconstructed. Claire and Norman appear to be this on the surface, but as the film goes on it becomes clear that they have some marital issues, past and present. For one, Norman doesn't treat Claire's suspicions of the Feurs and her claims of supernatural events seriously and dismisses her concerns at virtually every turn (although he does turn out to be correct in the case of the former). It is also implied that Norman made Claire choose between him and her career as a cellist, which she holds some resentment for. Then there's the fact that Norman cheated on Claire a year prior to the events of the film... and that he murdered Madison and then tries to do the same to Claire.
  • Haunted Heroine: Claire.
  • He Knows Too Much: Norman killed Madison when she threatened to go to university authorities about their relationship, which would have likely gotten him fired and ruined his reputation, and he tries to kill Claire when she figures everything out.
  • Homage: Some scenes are an homage to Psycho and Rear Window.
  • Identical Stranger: Madison is physically very similar looking to Claire, which is acknowledged in-universe, and may be one of the reasons why Norman had an affair with Madison. According to the director's commentary, Michelle Pfeiffer was extremely surprised when she first met Amber Valletta, as it was like looking at a younger version of herself.
  • The Immodest Orgasm: The Feurs' "Sexual Olympics", as described by Norman.
  • Irony: Claire is terrified that their neighbor murdered his wife, never realizing, until the end, that her own husband is a killer and will try to kill her as well.
  • It's All About Me: Norman acts like something of a Jerkass towards Claire's haunting claims at first, apparently believing that she's inventing the claims for attention because of all the work he's been doing. He also tries to justify his affair with Madison by blaming it on his and Claire's marital issues. His entire motivation for killing Madison was to try and preserve his reputation/not get fired from his job, and when Claire figures everything out, he tries to murder her as well.
  • Jump Scare: Several, but perhaps the best example is Madison's first appearance, reflected in the bath water.
    • The first time Claire's face morphs into that of Madison's is jarring enough. The second time it happens — when Claire's face suddenly morphs into Madison's very dead, very decomposing face — is downright horrifying.
  • Karmic Death: Norman is killed in the same way he murdered Madison — via drowning. Not only that, but he dies in the same lake in which he disposed of her body.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Norman first attempts to invoke this trope by claiming that Madison killed herself after he broke off the relationship. Then when he admits that he killed her, he still tried to invoke it by placing her body into her car and rolling it into the lake. He intends to make Claire's death look like a suicide as well.
  • Mirror Scare: Several. This film will probably make you paranoid about looking into water or bathroom mirrors for a long time.
  • Mistaken for Murderer: Warren Feur.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Norman's determination to kill Claire in the climax results in Madison's corpse being freed from her car at the bottom of the lake, allowing Madison to possess her own corpse to exact her revenge on Norman.
  • Nightmare Face: Claire's face morphing into Madison's dead, blue face.
  • Nosy Neighbor: Claire to the Feurs, though not entirely without good reason.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Much of the film runs on this, particularly the first half.
  • Oh Crap!: A particularly chilling version happens towards the end, when Claire realizes that Norman most certainly did not dial 911. Later, during the climax, Norman has one when the very dead Madison tilts her head towards him.
  • The Oner: There are multiple, unbroken shots used throughout the film to increase the tension.
  • Rear Window Investigation: Claire towards the Feurs.
  • Red Herring: The couple next door are perfectly nice — if a bit intense — and neither is dead or a murderer.
  • The Reveal: Several, but none are more shocking than the fact that Norman is the killer.
  • Rewatch Bonus: On a repeat viewing, Norman's stunned reaction when Claire hands him Madison's "missing person" poster takes on a whole new meaning.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Snow Means Death: The film's final scene is of Claire placing a rose on Madison's tombstone, in the midst of a snowy winter day.
  • Spooky Seance: Claire and Jody use a Ouija board to try and contact the ghost.
  • Supernatural-Proof Father: Norman plays this annoyingly straight throughout much of the film, but then comes to believe Claire's claims. Then when it is revealed that he is Madison's killer, he says that he believed her "ghost story" was an attempt to catch him.
  • Tap on the Head: Averted. Madison possessing the paralysed Claire startles Norman so badly he falls and smacks his head on the sink, resulting in his concussion and knocking him out cold. When he wakes up, he manages to make it downstairs before passing out again.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: Do not watch the trailer until you've seen the film. It completely spoils the fact that Norman had an affair with Madison, and by extension also spoils that the subplot involving the couple next door is a Red Herring, therefore sapping much of the movie of its suspense. The final twist, however, is thankfully not spoiled.
  • Trauma Conga Line: The entire movie - as well as the events preceding it - is a long one of these for Claire. Her first husband and father of her daughter passed away some years prior to the film, then she has a car accident which leaves her with a spotty memory after learning of Norman having an affair. Then her daughter Caitlin goes off to college, and given how close they are, this greatly upsets her. Then she starts experiencing supernatural events and becomes convinced that her neighbour is the ghost, and was murdered by her husband, only to be proven wrong - in public - utterly humiliating her. Then she finds out who the ghost really is, and, following said ghost possessing her, remembers Norman's affair with Madison. Then she finds out that Norman, the man she loves, murdered Madison, and nearly gets murdered by him herself before managing to escape. The poor woman has it rough.
  • Wham Shot: Towards the end, Claire is still suspicious of Norman, so she redials the last number called on the telephone... and sees that he dialled 411 instead of 911. This is immediately followed up by Norman suddenly appearing behind her and attacking her.
    • Halfway through the film, Claire spots Warren Feur in a crowd and angrily confronts him over murdering his wife. Cue Mary Feur emerging from the toilet, very much alive and well.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The Spencer's dog, Cooper, completely disappears from the film after Norman takes him out of the bathroom while he's trying to drown Claire. It's plausible that Norman shut him in a room out of the way.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: When Claire returns home the morning after storming out on Norman, she finds him unconscious in the bathtub, having apparently electrocuted himself. As it turns out, he's faking it.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Norman cheating on Claire with Madison is the driving force behind the plot.

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