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What Lies Below

Why would you name your horror movie “What Lies Below” when you could just as accurately call it “Lovecraftian Himbo”? We are, after all, currently enjoying a rare moment where “weird fiction” godfather H.P. Lovecraft’s damp, xenophobic, cosmic brand of horror has re-surfaced in the pop culture mainstream thanks mostly to “Lovecraft Country,” but also, to a lesser extent, “Color Out of Space.” Then again, maybe “What Lies Below” is a more fitting title given how meandering and weirdly dour the movie is, in spite of its fantastically silly premise: 16-year-old archaeologist Liberty (Ema Horvath) finds herself mysteriously drawn to beefy ecologist John Smith (Trey Tucker), her mother’s frequently topless new beau. 

Liberty—or “Libby,” whenever she’s not “baby girl,” according to her doting mother Michelle (Mena Suvari)—isn’t nearly as interesting as whatever the hell’s going on with John, a topless and very fit man who sleepwalks—he insists on calling it “somnambulism”—has a mood-lit science lab in Michelle’s basement, and is very serious about salt-water fish, as well as venomous and “really rare” species of centipedes. “You’re kind of a weird dude,” Libby tells John. He laughs from his solar plexus. “I guess I am. But, I mean, weird is cool, right?” Well, about that ... 

“What Lies Below” begins with some promise thanks to Suvari and Horvath’s easy, credible mother/daughter chemistry. Michelle picks up Libby from science camp, and is as giddy to see her (and to show off John) as Libby is to be left alone. Some good-natured, but canned discomfort ensues, with Libby turning off the car radio as fast as Michelle can put it on. And while preliminary discussions about John aren’t exactly inspired—they have sex, but it’s also a serious relationship!—the look of heedless joy on Suvari’s face nicely compliments Horvath’s sulking. 

With that said, “What Lies Below” mostly coasts on its never-fully exploited main scenario: what would you do if an attractive eccentric tried to be your stepfather? Tucker’s arch, halting tone of voice presumably suggests to viewers that John’s not all there—imagine “Legally Blonde,” only now it’s a horror movie about a smart and attractive man—as is his character’s interest in fertility stones, and his unusual habit of sniffing his own balled-up tee-shirts. John also haunts Libby’s dreams, where she sees him wading into a shallow pool of psychedelic, orangish-pink light. He also gets a little too familiar with Libby when she gets her period; “you have a little red in your hair” he tells her without much lust or excitement in his voice. This, too, is ultimately revealing.

John is apparently peculiar, but he could always stand to be a little more off. On the one hand, writer/director Braden R. Duemmler never over-stresses the inherent absurdity of being menaced by a good-looking pedant. On the other hand, if your movie is a coming-of-age horror story featuring a handsome stalker who may or may not be motivated by a brain parasite—why not run a little farther with the sheer campiness of that set-up? John’s lab isn’t that much to look at since it generally looks like was taken piecemeal from a nearby high school, despite some aquariums and multi-colored lighting. More importantly, John’s interactions with Libby aren’t gross or strange enough to warrant the movie’s whiplash-inducing hard stop finale (though there is one memorably creepy and atypically patient shower scene). Duemmler doesn’t even seem to be comfortable presenting the above-mentioned period scene: I had to rewatch that sequence a couple of times just to understand exactly was happening, let alone how a random water snake was involved. 

“What Lies Below” has some swing-for-the-fences chutzpah, but never enough to prepare viewers for its ultra-grim conclusion, which features a memorably harsh concluding image, and some disturbing interstitial details. That anticlimactic ending is so tacked-on that it’s hard to take the rest of the movie seriously as a cautionary tale: my, how quickly an eccentric man bearing gifts (with receipts) can transform from an awkward eccentric into an otherworldly monster. If only there were some signs, or better yet, some things for home viewers to sink their teeth into before everything inevitably goes wrong for poor Libby. 

With its gleefuly nihilistic and destructive ending, “What Lies Below” ends on such a flat note that it makes everything before it seem like an inconsequential and/or needlessly convoluted set-up. This sort of down-to-the-wire Hail Mary strategy isn’t unusual, or bad unto itself—I’m partial to the infamous out-of-left-field ending of Ted Post’s “The Baby.” But did everything leading up to it have to be so uncool?

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Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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Film Credits

What Lies Below movie poster

What Lies Below (2020)

Cast

Mena Suvari as Michelle Wells

Ema Horvath as Liberty

Trey Tucker as John Smith

Haskiri Velazquez as Marley

Troy Iwata as Tommy

Danny Corbo as Young Tommy

Olan Montgomery as Clerk

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