What Lies Below kicks off with awkward teen, Liberty (Ema Horvath), returning home to the family’s cabin in the woods from a summer away at camp. During the car ride home, she discovers that her mother (Mena Suvari) has found herself a man, John (Trey Tucker), during her time away. And at that, one that’s young, ripped, and a man of science to boot, one that’s almost too good to be true!
With a mother completely infatuated with her new partner, and with all three in close counters, Liberty struggles with this new dynamic. The film mixes interpersonal issues and the unease of new person. Her own self-consciousness, budding sexuality, and sense of a loss of the old family life, fuels her teenage angst. She fights with her mother over her disinterest in their relationship, and old family traditions are now something for the new couple. Ema Horvath and Mena Suvari both really nail the mother/daughter dynamic here. There’s a strand running through the first section of the film where it’s never at the front of the scene, but Liberty is obviously attracted to this new man. This mother/daughter love triangle becomes this implicit moment of change in these women where one is coming of age and the other is trying to regress in age to keep up with her new man, so to speak.
Her scepticism of John is the main tension, and what drives the movie. Odd things are constantly popping up, but just as quickly explained away; a weird underground lab he needs for research? – he is a scientist after all! Unexplained doppelgangers walking around town? – he’s allowed some independence, isn’t he? Diving towards his future stepdaughter at the slight of her period blood – he was worried about the fish attacking her! As silly as it sounds, its simultaneously where the film works at its best, and its worst. From a character perspective, in the constant shewing away of her concerns, we watch this girl being gaslit from her mother and creepy partner, and this with the isolated cabin setting leads to some pretty intense, claustrophobic moments.
The greater story, however, is not nearly as successful. The film is played as if you’re on the same page as the characters, with each strange thing adding onto your own suspicion. But very quickly you catch onto the rhythm of the film and realises it’s purely a tension building exercise for a predictable twist – one so obvious it left me thinking it has to be a bait and switch, it can’t be this blatant. If you’re going in to this completely blind, you’re probably going to see it coming after around the 20-minute mark. If not, then from the trailer, synopsis, or even the title, it’s not completely given away, but it’s pretty damn close. It creates an audience not wondering if there will be a twist but, instead, wondering when.
What bothers me most about What Lies Below is how it under-utilises the rocky relationship of the mother and daughter to prop up the mystery of her new boyfriend. I would have wanted to see this explored further and really have had it as the main focus of the film. The movie kicks off about a girl growing up and seeing their parent as an individual, rather than just their mother and her struggle with that. But this stays firmly in the background; isn’t concluded in a meaningful way and gets completely dropped when we approach the ending.
What Lies Below sells itself as an erotic thriller with a sinister mystery hidden within. While structurally flawed, it builds a decent atmosphere of tension for the first 2/3’s of the film. It gives enough that you’ll be strung along to reach the finale, which in turn will just leave a sour taste in your mouth. It feels like going into a haunted house twice in row; in some places it might have its intended effect, but the big finish isn’t really the same and afterwards you’re left disappointed, thinking “that was it?”.
Synopsis: A Quiet Place meets Species. Mena Suvari faces aquatic horrors in this tense, original and sexy sci-fi thriller. Sixteen-year-old Libby returns from summer camp to the surprise introduction of her Mum’s chiselled fiancée, John Smith, who emerges from the backyard lake. When John ignites an inappropriate curiosity in Libby her suspicions are escalated when, one night, she wakes to a piercing, amber light from the depths of the lake outside. She spots John on the shore, basking in the luminance, until he walks into the water, completely submerges and then…. disappears. Libby quickly uncovers his true nature and sinister motive, but will she be able to protect her Mother who clings to his infectious charm. What Lies Below stars Mena Suvari (American Beauty), Ema Horvath (Don’t Look Deeper) and Trey Tucker (The Space Between Us) and was written and directed by Braden R. Duemmler.
Signature Entertainment presents What Lies Below on Digital Platforms 22nd February