What Lies Beneath

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What Lies Beneath
What lies beneath (poster).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRobert Zemeckis
Screenplay byClark Gregg
Story by
Produced by
CinematographyDon Burgess
Edited byArthur Schmidt
Music byAlan Silvestri
Distributed by
  • DreamWorks Pictures (North America)
  • 20th Century Fox (International)
Release date
  • July 21, 2000 (2000-07-21)
Running time
130 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$100 million[1]
Box office$291.4 million[1]

What Lies Beneath is a 2000 American supernatural horror thriller film directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer as a couple who live in a haunted house. It was the first film by Zemeckis' production company ImageMovers. The film opened in 2,813 theaters in North America, and grossed $291 million at the worldwide box office, becoming the tenth-highest-grossing film of the year. It received mixed reviews, but was nominated for three Saturn Awards.


Former cellist Claire Spencer and her husband Norman, an accomplished scientist and professor, live a quiet life in Vermont. Their relationship seems slightly strained, particularly after Claire's daughter, Caitlin, leaves for college. Claire notices the new neighbors, Mary and Warren Feur, appear to have a volatile relationship. After Mary is unseen for several days, Claire suspects Warren may have killed her.

While by the lake next to their house, Claire believes she sees a woman's body in the water. She later discovers an odd key inside a heater vent. After unusual occurrences and sensing a presence in the house, Claire and her mystic friend, Jody, hold a failed séance. Claire later finds the bathtub filled with hot water and, "You know," written on the steamy mirror. Claire's computer inexplicably types "MEF" repeatedly. Claire becomes convinced it is the missing Mary's spirit, but Norman discounts this. Several days later, Mary returns home alive and well, explaining she went to her mother's in Providence after a fight with Warren.

A framed newspaper article about Norman mysteriously falls off his desk and shatters. On the article's reverse side, Claire reads a piece about a missing woman named Madison Elizabeth Frank. Madison's initials are "MEF." Claire tracks down and visits Madison's mother, who shows her Madison's bedroom. While there, Claire steals a lock of Madison's hair, and notices a photo of her wearing an unusual necklace.

Later that night, Claire, holding Madison's hair, performs a ritual from a book. She conjures Madison, whose spirit possesses her. While still possessed, Claire aggressively seduces Norman. Madison, speaking through Claire, shocks Norman. Claire, dropping the locket of hair, immediately becomes herself again. She then recalls a repressed memory about Norman's affair with a student. Norman admits it happened during a rough patch in their marriage. Claire leaves and spends the night with Jody, who reveals that a year earlier, she saw Norman arguing with a blonde woman at a cafe in Adamant, a nearby town.

Claire returns home and finds Norman unconscious in the tub. He seemingly recovers and claims it was an accident and not suicide attempt. He denies killing Madison. Norman later finds Claire standing on the lake dock. Claire, holding Madison's hair lock, is pulled into the water by an unseen force. Dragged to the bottom, she sees a jewelry box with the same symbol as Madison's necklace. Before she can grab it, Norman has jumped in and pulls her to the surface. They then burn the lock of hair.

Claire later visits a shop in Adamant. Claire sees a jewelry box with the same design as the one in the lake. Claire recovers the box from the lake and unlocks it with the key she previously found. Inside is Madison's necklace. Norman changes his story, claiming Madison killed herself in their house. He says he pushed her car into the lake with her body inside. Norman agrees to confess to authorities, but Claire discovers he dialed 411, and faked the conversation. Norman paralyzes Claire with halothane, and admits he murdered Madison when she threatened to expose their affair to the dean.

Norman places Claire in the bathtub, filling it with water to stage her suicide. He spots Madison's necklace around Claire's neck. When Claire's face seems to contort into Madison's corpse, Norman jerks back and smashes his head on the bathroom sink, rendering him unconscious. As the water level rises, Claire recovers enough from the paralysis to partially close the tap and then dislodge the stopper, barely surviving drowning. Norman has left the bathroom and she finds him seemingly unconscious downstairs. She flees in the couple's truck. As she crosses the bridge over Lake Champlain, Norman, hiding in the truck bed, attacks Claire, who frantically dials 911 on her cell phone. The truck careens down the embankment into the lake. As it sinks, it dislodges Madison's car. Madison's corpse floats toward the couple as Norman tries to drown Claire. Madison grabs Norman's arm, shocking him, which allows Claire to escape. Norman drowns and Madison's corpse drifts away. Later that winter, Claire places a red rose on Madison's grave.


  • Harrison Ford as Dr. Norman Spencer, a successful college professor and scientist.
  • Michelle Pfeiffer as Claire Spencer, Norman's wife.
  • Diana Scarwid as Jody, a mystic and Claire's best friend.
  • Miranda Otto as Mary Feur, Norman and Claire's neighbor.
  • James Remar as Warren Feur, Norman and Claire's neighbor and Mary's husband.
  • Katharine Towne as Caitlin Spencer, Claire's daughter and Norman's stepdaughter.
  • Ray Baker as Dr. Stan Powell
  • Joe Morton as Dr. Drayton, a therapist whom Claire visits upon Norman's urging.
  • Amber Valletta as Madison Elizabeth Frank, a murdered young woman with whom Norman has had an affair.
  • Wendy Crewson as Elena


Documentary filmmaker Sarah Kernochan had adapted a personal experience with the paranormal as a script treatment featuring a retirement aged couple dealing with restless but compassionate spirits. DreamWorks commissioned a rewrite from actor-writer Clark Gregg. This script was later delivered in 1998 by Steven Spielberg himself to his director friend Robert Zemeckis,[2] who had signed a deal for DreamWorks to distribute the films of newly founded production company ImageMovers, and announced interest in doing a thriller film.[3] Harrison Ford then signed to star on the film, even agreeing to clear room in his schedule for the project.[4] Michelle Pfeiffer then followed as DreamWorks started to deal with 20th Century Fox regarding the film's distribution.[5] Ford and Pfeiffer were Zemeckis' first and only choices for the lead roles.[3] Fox agreed to distribute both What Lies Beneath and Zemeckis' other project Cast Away, with the thriller having DreamWorks doing the domestic distribution and Fox the international one.[6]

Zemeckis filmed What Lies Beneath while Cast Away was shut down to allow Tom Hanks to lose weight and grow a beard for his character's development.[7] As Gregg had to remain with production for rewrites, he had to decline Aaron Sorkin's offer to read for a major role in Sports Night - though Sorkin would later write for Gregg a minor role in the final episodes of the series.[8]


Box office[edit]

What Lies Beneath opened in 2,813 theaters in North America and grossed $29,702,959 for an average of $10,559 per theater. It reached the number one spot at the box office upon opening, beating X-Men.[9] The film ended up earning $155,464,351 domestically and $135,956,000 internationally for a total of $291,420,351 worldwide, close to triple its production budget of $100 million.[1]

Critical response[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes the film holds an approval rating of 47% based on 126 reviews, with an average rating of 5.50/10. The site's critics consensus reads: "Robert Zemeckis is unable to salvage an uncompelling and unoriginal film."[10] Metacritic assigned the film a weighted average score of 51 out of 100, based on 35 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[11] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale.[12]

The New York Times wrote that, "at the start, [Zemeckis] zaps us with quick, glib scares, just to show he still knows how, but his heart isn't in this kind of material anymore. His reflexes are a little slow."[13] The Los Angeles Times called it "spooky with a polished kind of creepiness added in... What Lies Beneath nevertheless feels more planned than passionate, scary at points but unconvincing overall."[14] Roger Ebert awarded the film 2 out of 4 stars, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times: "Lacking a smarter screenplay, it milks the genuine skills of its actors and director for more than it deserves, and then runs off the rails in an ending more laughable than scary. Along the way, yes, there are some good moments."[15][16] Time Out thought that, "after a slow build that at times makes every hair stand on end – Zemeckis rolls out every thriller cliché there is. A pity, because until then it's a smart, realistically staged, adult-oriented and extraordinarily effective domestic chiller."[17] Empire wrote: "The biggest surprise is, perhaps, that what emerges is no masterpiece, but a semi-sophisticated shocker, playfully homaging Hitchcock like a mechanical masterclass in doing 'genre'. The first hour is great fun... It's an enjoyably giddy ride, certainly, but once you're back from the edge of your seat, you realise most of the creaks and groans are from the decomposing script."[18]

Michelle Pfeiffer received some positive notice for her performance. Roger Ebert called her "convincing and sympathetic."[15]

In his review, Ebert said that he felt the problem with Zemeckis' desire to direct a Hitchcockian film (What Lies Beneath contains several musical, visual and plot references to Psycho and Vertigo, among other Hitchcock films) was Zemeckis' decision to involve the supernatural, a device Ebert felt Alfred Hitchcock himself would never have done.[15]


Award Category Subject Result
ASCAP Award Top Box Office Films Alan Silvestri Won
Blockbuster Entertainment Awards[19] Favorite Actor - Suspense Harrison Ford Won
Favorite Actress - Suspense Michelle Pfeiffer Won
Favorite Supporting Actress - Suspense Diana Scarwid Nominated
Golden Trailer Award Best Horror/Thriller Nominated
Nastro d'Argento Silver Ribbon for Best Male Dubbing Michele Gammino Won
Saturn Award[19] Best Horror Film Jack Rapke Nominated
Steve Starkey Nominated
Robert Zemeckis Nominated
Best Director Nominated
Best Actress Michelle Pfeiffer Nominated

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "What Lies Beneath (2000) - Box Office Mojo". www.boxofficemojo.com.
  2. ^ "Starburst magazine issue 268, What Lies Beneath director interview". www.visimag.com.
  3. ^ a b "What Lies Beneath (2000) – Production Notes" (Press release). 20th Century Fox. 2000.
  4. ^ ‘Beneath’ pairs Ford, Zemeckis; D’Onofrio nabs ‘Abbie”, Variety, June 4, 1998. Accessed November 26, 2016
  5. ^ Fleming, Michael. Pfeiffer joins Ford in ‘What’, Variety, October 16, 1998. Accessed November 26, 2016.
  6. ^ Petrikin, Chris. Pairing for Zemeckis, Variety, October 14, 1998. Accessed November 26, 2016.
  7. ^ Kehr, Dave. 'Cast Away' Director Defies Categorizing, The New York Times, December 17, 2000. Accessed November 26, 2016.
  8. ^ Adams, Erik. "Clark Gregg". avclub.com.
  9. ^ Harrigan, Tom (July 26, 2000). "'What Lies Beneath' opens in top spot; 'X-men' drops to second". The Associated Press. The News and Observer. p. 49. Archived from the original on September 21, 2022. Retrieved September 21, 2022 – via Newspapers.com. open access
  10. ^ "What Lies Beneath". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved April 5, 2019.
  11. ^ "What Lies Beneath reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved December 26, 2009.
  12. ^ "CinemaScore". cinemascore.com.
  13. ^ Mitchell, Elvis (July 21, 2000). "'What Lies Beneath': If Only Her Husband Hadn't Made That Horrible Mistake". New York Times.
  14. ^ Turan, Kenneth (July 21, 2000). "What Lies Beneath – MOVIE REVIEW". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on July 27, 2010.
  15. ^ a b c Ebert, Roger (July 21, 2000). "What Lies Beneath :: rogerebert.com :: Reviews". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on March 28, 2013. Retrieved December 25, 2021.
  16. ^ Ebert, Roger (2000-07-21). "What Lies Beneath". RogerEbert.com. Archived from the original on 2021-11-11. Retrieved 2022-04-15.
  17. ^ "What Lies Beneath Review – Film". Time Out. Retrieved December 26, 2009.
  18. ^ "Review of What Lies Beneath". Empire. Archived from the original on October 15, 2012. Retrieved December 26, 2009.
  19. ^ a b "What Lies Beneath (2000) – Awards". IMDb. Retrieved December 26, 2009.

External links[edit]