A 16 year-old girl returns home from camp and learns that her mother has a new boyfriend, one she intends to marry; a man whose charm, intelligence and beauty make him look like he’s not human at all.
One of the oldest tropes in horror is that of the lone protagonist who discovers a secret they shouldn’t have, while everyone around them is in blissful ignorance of the fate about to befall them. It’s a classic for a reason – used well it can be devastatingly effective, as seen in movies as diverse as Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The Manchurian Candidate, They Live and Rear Window; a palpable sense of fear, isolation and paranoia can be developed by a skilled director as we witness our lead slip further down the rabbit hole.
One of the latest movies to use this device is What Lies Below, a 2020 effort from writer-director Braden R. Duemmler. Socially awkward teen Libby (Ema Horvath) leaves camp to stay with her novelist mother Michelle (Mena Suvari) in their isolated lake house in the woods. Their relationship seems a little forced, and not helping matters is the fact that Michelle has a surprise in store, in the shape of new beau and live-in fiancé John (Trey Tucker).
First impressions for Libby are something of a knock-out, as it appears from John’s introduction – rising from the lake, speedo-clad and dripping wet – that he is composed entirely from chiselled abs, charisma and model good looks. Not to mention the perfect gentleman, as he presents Libby with an impeccably researched gift of a Navajo fertility bracelet, in an attempt to appeal to her loves of archaeology and history.
John is spending his time at the lake house on his three main interests, namely nailing Libby’s mom, removing his shirt at every opportunity, and being an ‘aquatic geneticist’, the latter of which seems to require him having a ton of weird zoological equipment in the basement. Before long Libby and Michelle are desperately trying to out-flirt one another round John; Libby has a major crush, to the point where she’s soon privately masturbating to the memory of John’s paternal touch on her shoulder.
This might all sound familiar, and indeed to a degree it is; it’s immediately clear there’s more to John than meets the eye. He’s particularly keen to show Libby his collection of tanks full of parasitic lampreys, which he seems to be a little bit TOO fond of if you know what I mean. Things start to get very weird when John takes Libby on a trip out in his dinghy; the poor kid has the misfortune to get her period in a very obvious manner, the awkwardness of which is not helped by John dipping his fingers in the blood and licking it off!
Of course in true paranoid horror fashion Michelle does not want to hear Libby’s tales of John’s odd behaviour, and in her obvious desperation (she’s pretending to be several years younger than she actually is) to not be left on the shelf she quickly dismisses her ravings as jealousy. But things start to build to a head when Michelle announces another little surprise; she’s pregnant with John’s baby….
What Lies Below doesn’t have much in the way of ideas you won’t have seen before; it shares some DNA with Gore Verbinski’s 2016 oddity A Cure For Wellness amongst other things, including a penchant for aquatic Lovecraftian horror. It also feels quite Cronenbergian (hey, if Lovecraftian is a word) given the depth of psycho-sexual tension and hints of body horror. While it’s clearly working with a low budget – visual effects are fairly sparse and there’s some cheap CGI on display – it more than makes up for this with its carefully orchestrated atmosphere. Tension ratchets up effectively as Libby uncovers more and more unwholesome secrets about John, and the tight editing works very well to sustain this over the brief sub-ninety minute run time.
The performances are all notably good too; Tucker’s John is suitably charming-yet-sinister, Horvath’s Libby is all teen angst, paranoia and hormones, and Suvari seems to have settled into her niche in – shall we say – less than A-list Hollywood movies to effectively portray Libby’s needy mother. Overall What Lies Below is nothing groundbreaking but it is well shot and directed, with a nicely ambiguous downer of an ending; definitely worth a watch.