Tapping into the rich history of water-creature horror flicks, Braden R. Duemmler’s feature debut, “What Lies Below” is quite a mixed bag
As a descendant of the aquatic-creature-horror genre (sub genre? Sub-sub genre?), Braden R. Duemmeler’s feature directorial debut, What Lies Below, naturally inherited some Universal Classic Monsters nostalgia. Besides Creature from the Black Lagoon’s “Gill Man,” (1954) the common ancestor of so many cinematic water-terrors, What Lies Below also takes cues from a handful of other film classics. There’s dashes of Spielburg in the eerie lights that glow from the bottom of the lake, bits of Friday the 13th (1980) in the film’s isolated lake house setting, and echoes of dozens of teen summer camp films in the bright colors of the opening scenes. What Lies Below pulls together an eclectic mix of movie influences, but the question is whether or not all this inspiration actually works together. Although it is an entertaining thriller overall, What Lies Below takes on a bit more than it can handle. The film never quite comes into its own, jumping shakily back and forth between different themes and schemes.
After spending a few weeks at her annual summer archaeology camp, teenaged Liberty (Ema Horvath) returns to her mother’s (Mena Suvari) lake house only to meet the man of her dreams: the devilishly charming and handsome John Smith (Trey Tucker). But there’s a problem: although John might be hot enough to inspire Liberty to wear a dress for the first time in her entire life, he’s a bit too old for her. In fact, John isn’t just a guest at Liberty’s house, he’s her mom’s new boyfriend. While she’s insanely attracted to him, Liberty is ambivalent about John from the start. He’s an intelligent marine biologist who can talk science with her and has more than enough money for expensive presents, but he’s also too perfect not to be suspicious and his presence seems to be causing an emotional rift between Liberty and her mother. As soon as Liberty gets to spend some time alone with John out on the lake, the romantic novel hero of her dreams begins acting very strange, exhibiting unnatural behaviors that are straight out of a comic book. In a series of disturbing twists, Liberty finds herself in a creature-horror-nightmare with no one around to help.
One of the first things I noticed while watching What Lies Below, and one of its ultimate strengths, is its cinematography. There are some great shots dribbled throughout the film that highlight the rising tension between the characters and emphasize Liberty’s powerlessness. From the opening scenes in which Emma and Michelle drive to the lake house, before John is even introduced, the shot-reverse shot sequence between the two women foreshadows the awkward mother/daughter tension to come. While there are more than enough melodramatic relational moments in the film (more on that below), the mother/daughter tension feels real and believable, and I only wish it would have been explored more in depth (particularly since the story sets up a fantastic space for conflict as Liberty finds herself attracted to her mom’s boyfriend). Additionally, Ema Horvath’s performance stands out as a winning factor of the film. She is appropriately awkward for her character and strong at the right moments. Horvath accounts for all the little details that bring Liberty to life as a socially awkward and sexually curious teenager.
However, strong as Horvath’s performance may be, it’s cheapened by Trey Tucker’s uncomfortable portrayal of John, who is underdeveloped and predictable to begin with. John’s Harlequin-romance physique and Twilight-esque dialogue just don’t blend in with the rest of the film. In most all of the scenes between Liberty and John, it feels as though the characters are from two different films that have been spliced together. Granted, John is supposed to be a bit off, but he’s so awkward and unrealistic that he ends up being distracting. A more nuanced, subtle villain would have made it easier to take What Lies Below seriously.
In addition, there’s the weirdly inappropriate sexual tension between Liberty and John in the first portion of What Lies Below, which could have been crafted into a fantastic psychological conflict. However, it is overplayed and cheap, coming across as an erotic trick to spice things up rather than a serious look at a young girl’s sexual awakening. The slow motion shot of John emerging from the lake in his Speedo when Liberty first meets him disrupts the tone of the film, and the accompanying sound of Liberty’s heavy breathing is entirely too corny. Then, in the second half of What Lies Below, the sexual themes are suddenly and completely thrown out, cementing these themes as sloppy, throw-away frills to make the plot more exciting.
The erotic conflict wasn’t the only theme in What Lies Below that fell flat. With an intriguing story idea in place, What Lies Below could have gone in a lot of different directions. However, the main issue I took with the film is that it tries to explore too many of these potential avenues rather than really carving out a solid and focused story. The film tries to do too much, opening dozens of doors that it forgets to actually enter, making for an unstable viewing experience. What Lies Below builds tension and suspense around details that aren’t fully played out and provides little to no explanation for the details that do end up being significant. It also throws in new details that are just a little too convenient and don’t fit in with the established world of the story. For example, the socially awkward Liberty, who is characterized as an outcast, suddenly has a best friend half way through the film whom she can call on when things get weird with John. Where has this best friend been the whole time? Why hasn’t Liberty mentioned her best friend before?
Do these flaws mean that What Lies Below isn’t watchable or fun? Certainly not. While it falls quite flat in many areas, there’s still enough of that Classic Universal Monster, teen-horror nostalgia to make it enjoyable. What Lies Below is one of those horror flicks that I’d watch at a slumber party with my girlfriends while downing a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and a few glasses of wine because we need something fun and mindless to watch. It’s images and themes don’t all come together in the end, but the ridiculousness makes it that much more fun.
Available on demand and digital December 4, 2020
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."