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Film / What Lies Beneath

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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.

WARNING: This movie relies heavily on plot twists, so be prepared for unmarked spoilers ahead.


This film contains examples of:

  • Anachronism Stew: Minor example, you eventually discover Madison was born in 1974 on her gravestone. However, until the 1984 release of Splash popularized the name, it was practically unheard of for girls to be given the name Madison.
  • And I Must Scream: During the climax, Norman drugs Claire with halothane, 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.
  • Arc Words: “You Know”
  • Ax-Crazy: Norman, once everything is out in the open.
  • Bedroom Adultery Scene: When Claire finally remembers Norman's affair, she recalls walking in on the two of them in his study.
  • Big Bad: Norman.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Norman, after The Reveal of why Madison haunts the Spencers.
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  • 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.
  • Cat 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.
    • In the next scene, Norman and a friend discuss a colleague who's gotten in trouble for being involved with a student. The big reveal is that Claire is being haunted by a student Norman slept with.
    • Early in the film, 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.
    • The couple go out for a sail. The boat is hitched to the truck Claire escapes in and the mast breaks the windshield, dislodging Madison's corpse and allowing Claire to escape.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Madison is painted as one by Norman, although it's very likely another lie.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Claire starts off wearing bright clothing - whites and pastels. The more involved she becomes with the ghost, however, the darker her clothing becomes - grays, the red dress, black sweaters, etc. - until she eventually dresses in all black. Once the murderer is revealed, however, she returns to wearing all white while the murderer dresses in dark clothes.
  • Creepy Souvenir: One of Madison Elizabeth Frank's hair braids.
  • Dangerous Key Fumble: Twice. Claire picks up the wrong set of keys in the run-up to the climax, forcing her to take the pickup truck with the boat attached, giving Norman a means of hitching a ride (as opposed to her more secure Volvo station wagon). Then, at the center of the bridge, Claire fumbles with the phone when she tries to call the police, giving Norman an opportunity to shatter the rear window of the pickup.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Madison's ghost doesn't intend to harm Claire - she's merely trying to warn her of her husband's true nature.
  • Dark Secret: Norman isn't quite the perfect husband Claire thinks he is...
  • A Deadly Affair: Norman murders Madison when she threatens to tell university officials about their relationship, then tries to kill Claire when she figures out everything.
  • 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 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.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Norman's clearly gone completely mad by the film's end, because it never occurred to him that his plans to stage Claire's suicide won't work—there are signs of a struggle, he's drugged her, etc.
  • Domestic Abuse: 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.
  • Empty Nest: Claire isn't handling sending Caitlin off to college very well, which is initially why she, Norman, and her shrink assume she's having the symptoms she is, to the point of Norman thinking she's deliberately doing it to get his attention.
  • 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, Cooper 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 Harrison Ford's natural charm.
  • Finally Found the Body: Madison.
  • Finger-Twitching Revival: Norman's fingers twitch as he's lying unconscious at the bottom of the stairs.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The film's opening sequence of underwater scenery and plants that suddenly change into tendrils of hair and a woman's face that abruptly morphs into Claire's. (a) When Norman tries to drown Claire in the bathtub, this time, her face changes into Madison's, and the audience realizes that's who we saw at the beginning. (b) The bathtub was likely the place where Norman murdered Madison as well. (c) When he tries to drown her in the lake and Madison's corpse comes to the rescue, we also realize that what we first saw was essentially her grave.
    • 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.
    • In one early conversation, 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.
    • The film begins with Claire abruptly sitting up in the bath, coughing and choking. This is exactly what happens to her towards the end. And Madison's spirit briefly possesses her both times.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: Madison is briefly seen reflected in the mirror and then 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 or 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, for which she harbors some resentment. 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—Claire collapses over the bathtub almost exactly as Marion Crane did, with the same camera angle.
  • 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.
  • Idiot Ball: Claire goes out in the middle of the night to find evidence that Norman killed Madison and confronts him about it right then and there instead of waiting till he's at work. Of course he tries to kill her too.
  • 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 and job, and when Claire figures everything out, he tries to murder her as well.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Jerk: Norman is initially dismissive of of Claire's claims, but still seems to be a loving husband towards her, then comes The Reveal of him being the actual Big Bad.
  • 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 claims that Madison killed herself after he broke off the relationship. Then when he admits that he killed her, he still tried to do 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.
  • Match Cut: Claire hugs Caitlin as they're packing up the car and can't bring herself to let go. The next shot is of them hugging in Caitlin's dorm room.
  • 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.
  • Not That Kind of Doctor: Norman's a researcher, not a physician, though it appears his work is still related to medicine.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Much of the film runs on this, particularly the first half.
  • Offing the Offspring: The look on Claire's face when Norman states that he intends to use Claire's "suicide" as a way to get closer to Caitlin. It's strongly implied that he intends to get "closer" to his stepdaughter in a far more intimate way than simple parental bonding.
  • 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.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: Madison repossesses her own corpse and briefly becomes a Revenant Zombie to exact her revenge on Norman.
  • The Oner: There are multiple, unbroken shots used throughout the film to increase the tension.
  • Parental Incest: Norman hopes that Claire's death will bring him and Caitlin, who resembles her mother Claire, closer... and due to his psychotic nature, it could be more-than-friendly feelings.
  • Passive-Aggressive Kombat: As he prepares to kill Claire, Norman admits that he thought that Claire had figured everything out and was using her ghost story to gaslight him into confessing. He's genuinely surprised to realize that she hadn't.
  • Phoney Call: Norman claims to be calling 911 to confess to what happened to Madison. Claire gets suspicious and checks the phone to see that he called 411 (directory assistance).
  • Rear Window Investigation: Claire towards the Feurs.
  • Reality Has No Soundtrack: There's no music during the bathtub sequence, just the sound of running water. The sound itself is even muted as the water comes up over Claire's ears, as would happen in Real Life.
  • Red Herring: The couple next door are perfectly nice — if a bit intense — and neither is dead or a murderer. Also, while Madison's spirit is vengeful, her anger is directed solely at Norman. She has no desire to hurt Claire. If anything, she's trying to warn her.
  • 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.
  • Rising Water, Rising Tension: Twice. Once in something as mundane as a bathtub, the other in a car.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Robert Zemekis consciously shot the film in the style of Alfred Hitchcock, if he had access to digital technology. Also, there are many references to Hitchcock films, such as Psycho the supposed nice guy who turns out to be a killer is named "Norman", the way Claire falls over the bathtub is almost identical to how Marion Crane does, Rear Window, Vertigo—the near-identical love interests, Rebecca and Spellbound.
    • The neighbor's truthful protest of "I didn't kill my wife!", precisely what Harrison Ford said in The Fugitive.
  • 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 Séance: 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.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: After she's found out about Norman's affair with Madison, Claire's friend Jodie admits that she saw them in a café in an "artsy hippie village" called Adamant. Later, during their sail, Claire suggests that they go to Adamant for lunch, only for Norman to deny ever hearing about the village. This raises Claire's suspicions enough that she starts pursuing evidence that Norman killed Madison.
  • Taking You with Me: Norman is trapped in the car and can't get out, but grabs on to Claire to prevent her escape.
  • Tap on the Head: Averted. Madison possessing the paralyzed 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.
  • Trapped in a Sinking Car: Norman and Claire at the climax. Claire almost gets out, but Norman grabs on to her and tries to pull a Taking You with Me before Madison's corpse comes to the rescue.
  • 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.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: It is mentioned a few times that Norman's deceased father was also a successful scientist, and Norman is working hard to follow in his footsteps. It's implied that a desire to live up to his dad's reputation is the root cause of Norman's homicidal tendencies.
  • 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 Spencers' 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, or a much darker theory is that Norman, due to his reserved Ax-Crazy nature, kills the dog somehow after Cooper witnesses him trying to drown Claire.
  • 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. Later, when staging Claire's suicide, he calls Jody and leaves a hysterical message, claiming that they had a huge fight and that she threw him out, clearly setting her up to come over and find her body.
  • You Look Like You've Seen a Ghost: Mrs. Templeton says this to Claire when discussing an incident at the DuPont party the year before.
    Mrs. Templeton: You went completely pale. You couldn’t catch your breath. It was as if you had seen a ghost.