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Star power fuels the creepy fun in this shallow damsel-in-distress thriller.

'What Lies Beneath?' — Not Much


About halfway through this slick rip-off of Hitchcock's more famous psycho frights, it hits you: The reason you're sitting on the edge of your seat isn't because of the eerie happenings on-screen. No, you're creeped-out because it's happening to Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford.

But once the frightfully overlong climax begins, even their star power can't keep "What Lies Beneath" from drowning in its disregard for credibility. In a split second, the movie seems to forget the caliber of its stars and descends into a near-parody of the horror flicks other movies love to mock.

Despite an intriguing premise — Is a ghost really haunting unfulfilled housewife Claire Spencer (Pfeiffer) or are those things going bump in the night manifestations of her empty-nest syndrome? — director Robert ("Forrest Gump") Zemeckis and screenwriter Clark Gregg can't leave well enough alone.

For a while, "What Lies Beneath" delivers on the promise of that premise as Pfeiffer draws us into her safe, secure Vermont world where hubby Norman (Ford) is the local university's top genetics researcher. Though she appears happy with her roses and her renovated lakeside manse, there are whispered concerns about her emotional stability. Friends ask how she's handling her daughter's departure for college. Then there's that horrible automobile accident she suffered a year ago.

Adding to Pfeiffer's character's emotional fragility is her husband's preoccupation with his work. He's finalizing research for a paper he'll deliver at a major scientific conference, so she's left alone night after night to play solitaire on the family PC. That's when the strangest things start happening. She hears someone whispering. A door begins to open before she unlocks it. A framed photograph keeps falling and breaking.

But Zemeckis and Gregg aren't satisfied with letting Pfeiffer work her vulnerable magic. Instead, they add a touch of "Rear Window," here; lots of "Psycho," there. They even wander into "Fatal Attraction" and "Rosemary's Baby" territory. The result is that the movie loses touch with the characters, and so do we.

Which is a shame, because Pfeiffer and Ford are the best thing about "What Lies Beneath." Pfeiffer is completely believable as a woman who appears to have it all. We love watching her amateur attempts at sleuthing when she believes that her new neighbor has killed his wife and carted off her body. We can't help holding our breath as she snoops around the possible scene of the crime. Spying from her darkened bedroom window, we jump when she jumps, fearful she's been spotted.

Ford seems somewhat miscast here, although it's enjoyable watching him playing against his usual ruggedly handsome heroic types. Sporting yet another unfortunate haircut, he's more than credible as a man with ghosts of his own to battle. He believes the house is haunted by its original owner, his father. Norman has issues with his dad, a famous, Nobel-type geneticist he's always being mistaken for.

But the real frights begin when the truth slowly starts coming out. When the murdered wife shows up at a faculty reception, Claire's really spooked. If it's not the ghost of the murdered next-door neighbor trying to contact her, whose spirit is haunting her?

Enter the specter of a missing coed known for both her brains and her sexy beauty. A former student and lover of Norman's, she bears an uncanny physical — though younger — resemblance to Claire. As Claire begins to unravel this latest mystery, she finds herself dangerously close to the real murderer.

The minute the wheels are set in motion, the final confrontation between good and evil snowballs to its overblown conclusion. As has become mandatory in these modern damsel-in-distress thrillers, our heroine doesn't just have to outsmart her evil nemesis — she's got to outlast her killer as well. Equally de rigeuer, that killer has as more lives than Morris the cat.

Despite its frustrating overabundance of red herrings and a killer who just won't die dammit, "What Lies Beneath" remains wholly watchable with enough chills and thrills to keep you on the edge of your seat.

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