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This year marks the twentieth anniversary of What Lies Beneath, a frightening thriller that is dripping in nerd cred. Long before he led Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Clark Gregg wrote the original screenplay. After making such marvelous genre movies as Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Death Becomes Her, director Robert Zemeckis paired Star Wars icon Harrison Ford with Batman Returns' unforgettable Catwoman, Michelle Pfeiffer. With their powers combined, they'd tell the scary story of a haunted lady who must take many roles of womanhood, for better or murderous.
Over a sensational and storied career, Pfeiffer has played sultry mob molls, smirking witches, a tough-talking teacher, love-struck ladies, a shrinking scientist, and a vengeance-seeking vixen. But in What Lies Beneath, she explores some of the more homespun roles women may take on in a lifetime, revealing how the patriarchy pigeonholes us.
This thriller begins with Claire Spencer (Pfeiffer) sending her only child, Caitlin (Katharine Towne), off to college. It's a major moment of accomplishment for Claire, who was a widowed working mom when she met her second husband, Norman (Ford). Once they married, Claire quit her job as a professional cellist to focus on her family. This is a choice a lot of women make, some because — like Claire — they take a deep pleasure and pride in being a full-time parent. Still, there is also a societal pressure that puts the dominant weight of parenting on the mother. In the film, we hardly see Norman interact with the stepdaughter he's been a father to since she was a toddler.
Now, with Caitlin out of the house, the Empty Nest chapter of Claire's life begins. This means much of the time and energy she has put into parenting is her own to reclaim. It also means she has time to ponder over the other pressures that have guided her choices.
When Claire and Norman met, both were ambitious. She was a musician playing the illustrious Carnegie Hall; he was a scientist striving to create medical breakthroughs that'd outshine his famous mathematician father. Claire left her career behind to be the best supporter to her husband she could, by caring for the home and kid, while being the beaming arm candy at whatever posh work functions he required.
She took on the role many wives have, sacrificing her professional dreams for those of her family. This is not a compromise that husbands are typically expected to make. As the film unfurls, Norman won't even sacrifice his carnal curiosity for the well-being of his wife. Meanwhile, Mrs. Feur next door has an emotional meltdown because her identity is so tied to her husband's that she falls to pieces when he's not around. Claire fears becoming like her neighbor, which is a threat to Norman, who is dangerously sensitive to any form of rejection.
She tells him, "To tell you the truth, I'm excited to get my life back, have some time for myself, some time for us." He notices that he comes in second here, and it's a slight he will sling at her later as proof she is not the wife he deserves.
In her quest to reclaim herself, Claire tries on various new roles like an amateur sleuth as she spies on the fighting couple next door. When she's convinced the wailing Mrs. Feur has been killed by her cold husband, Claire becomes a spiritualist and newbie witch, dealing in Ouija boards, tokens, and seances to reach out to the ghost that haunts her bathroom. Thus, she uncovers the missing persons case of Madison Elizabeth Frank, a college student Claire realizes was her husband's mistress.
When Claire goes to Norman with her fears about the neighbors or her suspicions that Madison is dead (and haunting them), he dismisses her. He instructs her to mind her own business. Essentially, he berates her for being nosy.
Nosiness is a concept that often protects abusers under the guise of civility. Women are defamed for creating "whisper networks" about alleged abusers, but for many women, this is a crucial communal safety tool. Women know all too well how hard it is to topple a bad man in power. It can take a whole movement or literally dozens of accusers, costing them their privacy, safety, and jobs along the way. So many choose quieter methods to warn others, only to be besmirched as "drama queens," "pot stirrers," and "gossips."
Often, the mistress is a character presented as gold-digging, vicious, and stupid. But What Lies Beneath rejects this depiction of the homewrecker by having Claire visit Madison's grieving mother, who remembers the young woman as smart, hard-working, and a total bookworm with big ambitions. The film refuses to judge Madison solely by her biggest mistake: trusting Norman. After all, this is a mistake Claire and Madison have in common, which the former learns when the latter possesses her body.
Zemeckis gives stark visual cues to signal this is no longer Claire. The pastel cardigans and white nightgowns are abandoned for a slinky red dress with matching bombshell lipstick. For her part, Pfeiffer offers a completely different physicality and attitude. No longer gentle, she speaks with a crooked grin, taunting Norman even as she seduces him. Madison has unapologetically aggressive sexuality, which the movie has titillating fun with. However, her body-snatched foreplay is also an eye opener for Claire, revealing a side to her husband, both treacherous and violent, that she can no longer ignore.
"We were having troubles … I slipped, Claire … When I tried to break it off, she became unstable … There are no ghosts … She killed herself in this house to destroy me."
No matter what Claire uncovers, Norman has a story. When cornered, he confesses to the affair but implies it was Claire's fault for being frigid. When she rejects this, he insists he'd tried to end things. He shifts the blame to a woman half their age, saying she was crazy just as he said Claire was crazy for seeing ghosts. For much of What Lies Beneath, his influence had her doubting her self, her instincts, her perspective, and even her memories.
Gaslighting is a term that gets thrown around a lot nowadays. Its origins date back to the 1944 film Gaslight, a thriller about a woman whose husband maliciously convinces her she's insane. It speaks to the gendered attack against women where a man's confidence is used against her to get her to doubt her own mind. What Lies Beneath explores this by having the audience trust in Norman for a solid chunk of the film, believing that he only has his wife's best interests at heart when he urges her away from spooky speculations and calls a doctor to confirm she's mental, not a medium. Zemeckis even cast Harrison Ford in the role because the cultural context of his persona, which includes rugged but lovable heroes like Han Solo and Indiana Jones, pushes us to trust him the moment he strides onscreen. This allows us to relate to Claire's shock and heartbreak when the truth comes out.
The way to break free from the power of a gaslighter is to find someone who can reflect the world back as you see it. This is what Madison does for Claire, proving a vital ally.
By the final act, all of Norman's lies have come out: he cheated with Madison, then killed her so she wouldn't go to the Dean and destroy his career, the thing he truly cares about most. When Claire resolutely declares the truth must come to light ("that girl must be brought up") Norman tries to kill her, and in each step, he drags her down the path of Madison.
He blames her for this, saying, "I begged you. I pleaded with you. But you wouldn't let it go." He drugs her and tries to drown her in the tub, where Madison died. But the bond these two women share saves Claire, as Madison appears to throw Norman violently off his plan. The battle continues as Claire escapes the house, driving away in the couple's truck. Norman climbs onto the back and lunges at Claire, causing her to drive off the road and into the lake, where he dumped Madison's body. But Madison won't let Claire join her in this watery grave. Instead, she delivers poetic justice, drowning Norman as he did her.
With her vengeance complete and trust that Claire will tell her story, Madison's spectral form is restored. No longer a rotted horror, she is once more beautiful and finally at peace.
We know Claire delivers on this promise because the final scene is her before Madison's grave, laying down a rose to show appreciation. In the end, the film shows us how these women weren't as different as the sexist stereotypes that define them might suggest.
Madison was more than a mistress. Like Claire, she was smart, ambitious, loved to read, and loved a man she couldn't trust. While Norman — and the patriarchy he represents — would have us believe they should be enemies, Madison's ghost wasn't out to hurt Claire. She was calling on her for help based on their connection. Together, they fought for the truth and the justice that their abuser would deny them. In this, What Lies Beneath becomes a subtle story of the sisterhood of the Silence Breakers.