Don't look down! You'll get Vertigo

What Lies Beneath (15) | Director: Robert Zemeckis | Starring: Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Diana Scarwid | 130 Mins
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The Big Picture

The Big Picture

No director should be answerable to his imitators, but it's nevertheless true that there are few directorial styles more vulnerable to pastiche and parody than Alfred Hitchock's. To take the kind view, What Lies Beneath could be regarded as a high-definition hommage to the master, a respectful salute to the classic Hitchcockian play of mood, pace and meaning. Those feeling less well-disposed may see it as an opportunistic rehash of old tricks whose enamel has been chipped away through overuse.

Even when Robert Zemeckis's thriller is at its strongest, the insistent problem of our own knowingness keeps on breaking through. The first hour, for example, creates a very plausible atmosphere of unease, in spite of the rather distracting perfection of the lakeside house in which most of the action unfolds.

Claire Spencer (Michelle Pfeiffer) seems happy enough with life in rural Vermont, even if she's a little teary after seeing her daughter leave the family nest for college. Her husband Norman is a research scientist, but as played by Harrison Ford he's the sexy, granitic type of scientist - even his spectacles look rugged.

Then things start happening that distress Claire and revive unwelcome memories of the car accident she suffered a year ago. She hears from over the fence her new next-door neighbour (Miranda Otto) weeping hysterically; she's also seen the woman arguing violently with her husband, a sinister-looking cove (James Remar) who has already rebuffed Claire's neighbourly overtures. So when she catches sight of him dragging what looks like a bodybag into the boot of his car - in the dead of night, mind - and the wife doesn't show the next day, her suspicions are thoroughly aroused.

Later, from her window she tracks her murder suspect through binoculars until the moment he looks up and - aaaagh! - catches her spying on him. When she communicates all this to Norman, the one thing he (and we) would say is, "You remember Rear Window, right?", because it's an almost exact reprise of Jimmy Stewart spying on Raymond Burr. But Norman can't say that, because to do so would not only introduce an unstable element of comedy but also betray its old-hat status.

We have no sooner let that pass, however, than Zemeckis starts moving in on Vertigo, with occasional nods to The Sixth Sense. Claire finds that her dream home may have taken in a revenant: doors open without a push, the electricity mysteriously shuts off, the bath-tub fills of its own accord and, in the reflection of the water, Claire sees the face of a dead blonde girl.

Who is she? A vital element in the plot, as it turns out, but I'll leave that for you to discover - which, I gather, is not a courtesy that the film's trailer has bothered to observe. Audiences who have seen it apparently know the whole plot from soup to nuts, which is unfortunate given the film's efforts to be, you know, a suspense story. (One perk of press screenings is that you almost never get to see trailers.) In any case, Claire is now so thoroughly spooked that she consults a therapist (Joe Morton) and enlists her flaky New Age pal (Diana Scarwid) in a ouija board experiment to contact the ghost.

Pfeiffer, whose intense, open features seem stretched taut, plays this martyr to anxiety very truthfully; it's as if she didn't know which was worse, questioning her own sanity or facing up to the certainty that she's getting messages from the beyond. Ford, beginning the film very quietly, is sceptical and then exasperated by what he takes to be his wife's neurotic feyness, though once again he must be a heartbeat away from asking her if she hasn't been overdoing the Hitchcock videos lately. The moment he sees Pfeiffer looking glazed and ethereal on the edge of a jetty, you know instantly she's going to do Kim Novak's half-jump, half-faint into the Bay from Vertigo. While one doesn't doubt the sincerity of the tribute to Hitch, the familiarity of the set-pieces keeps undercutting the integrity of the story.

The problem gradually infects the whole movie. Zemeckis and his writer Clark Gregg have also taken on board Hitchock's obsession with the way common objects become emblematic. So we have a key, a lock of hair, a necklace, a framed photograph; all of them radiating significance and all of them just a bit too neatly incriminating.

Zemeckis, who made possibly the most pompous and overwrought movie of the last decade in Contact, has relaxed a good deal since then; he does a few things really well, expertly nailing the moment when Claire finally does realise what peril she's in, and then following it up with a sequence in a drowning bath-tub that teases us with close-ups of plug-holes and toes scrabbling for purchase.

Ironically, supernatural possession, a gimmick Hitchcock never relied on (except as a red herring), comes to the fore in a pronounced and rather clumsy fashion towards the close, extending the denouement way beyond an effective length. Certain moments give you a fright, of course, but rather in the way that someone creeping up behind you on tiptoe and then bursting a balloon gives you a fright. Alan Silvestri's score practically bursts a blood vessel in its attempts to heighten the mood - not very subtle, and not very original, either, if you've ever listened to Bernard Herrmann's majestic, dizzying music for Vertigo.

The general over-eagerness finally undoes it. At the very moment Zemeckis had worked the tension up to the top of the dial, the friend sitting next to me happened to catch my eye, and, like schoolboys, we both exploded into laughter. This isn't to say that the film fails utterly; it's a competent, well-organized entertainment. But our reaction perhaps underlined a difference between the art of Hitchcock and the artifice of What Lies Beneath. You laugh at the first, and it sounds nervous; you laugh at the second, and it sounds more like: come off it.