In 1990, when What Lies Beneath was released, I was 14 years old. I don’t think I would have had any interest in it at the time and probably filed it away under “something that boring middle-aged people watch.” [EDIT: this film was released in 2000 and I don’t know how I came up with 1990! But it’s kinda funny that I got it mixed up. SO…I was 24 in 2000…and I still don’t think I would have had an interest in it.]

I don’t know that my snap judgments are any more informed now that I am myself a boring, middle-aged person, but I saw this show up on HBOMax, and I thought, eh, maybe now’s the time.

I consider myself a life-long horror fan, but the type of horror I am interested in is always changing. When I was a teenager, it was the ridiculous, over-the-top spectacle of things like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive. In my twenties, I dropped the ball. I was trying to be too many things to too many people; very cool, almost scarily TOO COOL new friends who I thought had absolutely no interest in horror, boyfriends with weirdly-timed-and-usually-when-it-most-suited-them Christian streaks. I was distracted and didn’t have a lot of time to pursue any of my interests, save a standing Friday night date with a family friend, and sometimes horror was on the docket (but of course, that was very mainstream, in the theatre horror.)

I then moved to New Jersey. This, in many respects, was a huge mistake. I’ve told the story on this blog countless times but the short version is that I moved away from friends and family and everything I knew to pursue a very unhealthy and very doomed relationship. The good thing that came out of this is that in my profound loneliness, many of my former interests blossomed. And in 2004 and over the next few years, there was so much horror to discover…especially now that I had a Netflix subscription! Japanese and Korean horror, The New French Extreme, all of the torture porn–no matter how transgressive, subversive, or obscure, I wanted to devour all of it.

Now, I think I’m a little pickier about what’s on the menu, but the one type of horror story that I’ve never really watched a lot of are these …well, let’s call them “domestic thrillers.” I don’t love that term, it makes me huff in annoyance and roll my eyes, but I’ve seen it used to describe a subgenre of books I have been reading a lot of lately. One article explains this psychological horror subgenre as “When Home Is Where the Harm Is,” and another fills in the details thusly: “the plot lines for domestic thrillers are set within homes, families and spousal relations and delve into the dynamics of trust, mistrust, and suspicion. They deal with dark themes and use infidelity, money trouble, deception, mental illness, or untold family secrets as the medium through which often shocking, if not outright provoking, experiences are portrayed.”

And let me tell you when it comes to the books I am reading in the past year? I have been INHALING these stories. I don’t know why, and I don’t know what switch has been flipped in my brain, but these twisty tales of suspicious wives and shifty husbands and neighborhood noir have been a balm and comfort food for me. Somehow though, that comfort food vibe does not translate to film-adaptations of these types of stories. And I think I have pinpointed a piece of it, one that is so much more apparent on the big screen.

These movies/stories have very, very white lady energy. Like rich white Karen or Carol or whoever wearing chinos and boat shoes and going quietly nuts in the family lake house white lady energy. To star in one of these stories, you’ve gotta have a lot of privilege, is what I am saying. I don’t know that I have the language to write about this in a coherent and nuanced way, and this became clear to me when I brought it up to my youngest sister and she started asking questions about it, for which I did not have coherent or nuanced responses. So let’s just call it an observation for now.

So: What Lies Beneath. Michelle Pfeiffer is suffering from a bit of empty nest syndrome as she sends her daughter off to college. She is a former cellist, but she gave up her career when she married her (doctor? scientist?) husband, Harrison Ford, and they live in his late father’s enormous lake house on which they have recently completed renovations. New neighbors move in and have noisy fights; and after a particularly nasty one, Michelle Pfeiffer sees the wife through a slat in the fence that next afternoon muttering and mumbling in a terrified way. That evening, Michelle Pfeiffer sees the husband dragging a body-shaped bundle into their car and driving off. She soon begins seeing and hearing creepy things, and believes that the dead neighbor wife is attempting to communicate with her.

The story unfurls from there and we learn what we always learn in these instances and what every fictional detective always tells us about spouses. But if you have not seen it, I will say no more.

What Lies Beneath was not the comfort food of my books, even though it was mostly the same kind of story. But I did get to see Michelle Pfeiffer in a perfectly perfect green space-dyed funnel-necked sweater in a scene where she was talking to her therapist (our beloved Henry Deacon from Eureka!) AND the wife from next door was none other than Eowyn!

You can be a boring middle-aged person and find What Lies Beneath on HBOMax.


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Rebecca says

I basically came here to say that I, too, have been devouring "domestic thriller" novels and am, guiltily, a fan of such movies as well. I like to blame it on my grandma who was super into true crime and Lifetime but I just always feel drawn to it. And you're totally right about the privilege aspect! Even in the little synopses they write on book jackets, the set up is always "in this wealthy neighborhood where everyone smiles with shining white teeth, danger lurks" etc.. Sometimes it feels problematic and I question my desire to read it but here we are.

S. Elizabeth says

Hee hee, my grandmother loved true crime, as well! (And weirdly, in her later years, she loved South Park and Futurama!) And I don't know what it is, or when it happened, but man oh man, if you look at my recently read list in the past year, I would say it's 80% domestic noir or whatever we want to call it!

Hayley says

Yeah, this movie is OK. I think I saw it once and only ever on regular cable. I am a fan of the cast, as well. Also, it came out in 2000, not 1990!

S. Elizabeth says

OMG! Where did I get 1990 from?!?! I swear I read that on IMDB but my horror-addled eyeballs deceived me! Thank you so much, I will correct this now!

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