Deep within the hushed recesses of our psyches, nestled like a sleeping serpent behind the heavy curtain that cloaks our most terrifying childhood fears and nightmares, lies a trembling secret that only the bravest of us dare to contemplate: Sometimes it's as fun as hell to have our buttons pushed. Robert Zemeckis' shamelessly manipulative supernatural (or is it psychological?) thriller "What Lies Beneath" pushes every obvious button and then fumbles around for some of the more recessed ones -- it's a beast with so many tentacles that, at times, it gets itself tangled up. But by the movie's end, you feel you've been both a little creeped out and vigorously entertained. Its showmanship comes through in the clutch.
"What Lies Beneath" contains elements of stories you've probably seen dozens of times before, but even if you know where it's headed next, you're never entirely sure how it's going to get there. Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer, in a role that may not be worthy of the great talents she displayed in "Batman Returns" and "Love Field," but one she digs into with great relish) is a fragile housewife whose chief projects seem to be puttering around her gorgeous, newly renovated lakeside house and bringing welcome baskets to the new neighbors. But her college-age daughter, her friends and especially her concerned but disgruntled academic-scientist husband, Norman (Harrison Ford, looking suitably uptight and sullen), tend to pussyfoot around her: Something in her past makes them wonder if she isn't close to crumbling. Only as the picture wends its way forward do we find out what her secret is, and what she needs to do to free herself from the pain it has inflicted.
There are times when it seems as if "What Lies Beneath" is trying to be several different movies at once, and you're not sure where it's going to settle. It feels slightly confused, as if Zemeckis and screenwriter Clark Gregg (working from a story conceived by him and Sarah Kernochan) weren't sure whether they wanted to make a genuinely creepy meditation on the human dark side or bring out the ghosties for an all-out scarefest. The movie's first hour or so is a gently hued portrait of paranoia, and it has a creepy sheen. You're given brief glimpses of the dank undercurrents in an ostensibly happy and comfortable upper-class marriage, but there seem to be even deeper, more significant troubles brewing.
And sure enough, eventually those troubles come to the fore, bumping their way through Claire and Norman's possibly haunted house and insinuating their way into the couple's lives -- and turning "What Lies Beneath" into a more conventional story in the process.
But even if the picture becomes slightly awkward as it shifts gears, Zemeckis doesn't lose our interest. If you don't count TV work like individual episodes of "Tales From the Crypt" or "Amazing Stories," "What Lies Beneath" is Zemeckis' first proper thriller, and he approaches it with the zeal you might expect. Zemeckis has never been afraid of special effects: In pictures as wildly different as, say, the deliciously nasty "Death Becomes Her" and the far more heavy-handed "Forrest Gump," he shows a knack for weaving them seamlessly into a narrative, and he revels in them here. Secret messages appear out of nowhere in unexpected places; half-glimpsed images lurk just outside of doorways.
There are several less subtle (and less effective) visual effects, but for the most part Zemeckis knows exactly what to put where. (And he isn't above using a good old-fashioned sound effect to make you jump out of your seat -- William Castle isn't dead after all!) With the help of cinematographer Don Burgess (who gives the movie a gorgeously dewy look), Zemeckis takes an almost Hitchcockian amount of care with even his simplest visuals: At one point the most expressive part of Pfeiffer's face is reflected in an icicle-shaped shard of broken mirror.
But his deliberateness is so straightforward that it almost seems to wink at us, and that's what keeps "What Lies Beneath" from feeling oppressively arty. Zemeckis has fun with the movie's details (some of which are red herrings): a house slipper with a drop of blood on it, a serum that renders lab mice temporarily immobile, a locked jewel box at the bottom of a lake. You can't help being curious to find out how they all fit into the puzzle.
The actors also do their part to keep the movie ticking. Diana Scarwid, as Claire's kooky New Age friend Jody, brings a breezy touch of humor to the movie without turning her role into a tiresome stereotype. Nudging Claire into a better mood with her wisecracking, or tooling around in her glossy black roadster, she represents a hopeful kind of freedom that the movie's other characters don't have in their lives.
Ford is a tough case. He's still capable of being a sex symbol when he lets himself go (he was charming with Anne Heche in "Six Days, Seven Nights"), but in pictures like "Random Hearts," he more often acts like a dignified piece of mahogany furniture. Here, though, he plays his character just right: He's a stressed-out, insecure scientist, and he doesn't ask us to buy him as anything more noble or desirable than that.
But the movie belongs to Pfeiffer. It isn't the role of a lifetime, but maybe that's why it seems exactly right for her just now. Judging purely by her looks, Pfeiffer fits the role of fragile housewife: Her delicate features make her seem crushable, like a baby bird whose heart practically beats right out of its chest when you hold it in your hand.
The role demands more and more of her as the story progresses, and she rises gamely. When events force Claire to toughen up, Pfeiffer suddenly looks less birdlike and more feline -- and as we all know, cats do very well at taking care of themselves. Pfeiffer is a remarkable actress, one who can't be judged solely by the translucence of her skin. It's so fine, you can sense traces of gently thrumming blood vessels beneath it. But the only way you can begin to fathom the life inside her is by looking into her eyes.