Studio: Vertical Entertainment
Director: Braden R. Duemmler
Writer: Braden R. Duemmler
Producer: Abel Vang, Stephen Stanley, Kristina Esposito
Stars: Ema Horvath, Trey Tucker, Haskiri Velazquez, Mena Suvari
A teenage girl suspects her mother¡¯s charming new fianc¨¦ may secretly be an amphibious humanoid monster.
At least once, and likely more times than that, we¡¯ve all enjoyed the guilty pleasure of a cheesy Lifetime cautionary chiller about a Craigslist killer, serial murderer unknowingly met online, or some other ¡®Dirty John¡¯ scenario of love gone horribly wrong. One character usually waves all the warning signs at the woman whose eyes are blinded by hearts, only for the danger to be ignored until a suspenseful showdown once the terrible truth comes out in the open.
¡°What Lies Below¡± adds a sci-fi hook to that style of ¡®ripped from real-life romance¡¯ drama by asking, what if a daughter discovered mom¡¯s too-good-to-be-true new boyfriend is secretly a shapeshifting Lovecraftian fish monster? That¡¯s the kind of made-for-TV kookiness I can get behind, even if ¡°What Lies Below¡± is a straight-to-streaming thriller that feels like a basic cable MOW without technically being one.
What¡¯s hard to get behind is the way ¡°What Lies Below¡± sexualizes 16-year-old heroine Liberty. Upon meeting her mother Michelle¡¯s new beau, attractive aquatic geneticist John, the first thing Liberty notices is how ¡°hot¡± he is. How can she not, what with the way the camera tilts from his crotch to his face as John rises from water in slow motion wearing nothing but a banana hammock. Through a dropped jaw, Liberty whispers, ¡°Holy crap.¡± Michelle responds, ¡°I know. I¡¯m riding him constantly,¡± which is a shocking sentiment to express to your daughter at any time, much less during a first impression.
Liberty swoons over John almost as much as mom. She smashes her breasts together thinking cleavage will make her more attractive. She masturbates while touching the shoulder where John previously touched her. She even secretly spies on John and Michelle having sex after hearing her mother getting vocal with the telltale sounds of torrid passion.
Remember, Liberty is a teenager introduced to us for the first time at a summer camp she should have outgrown years ago. Maybe it¡¯s just me, but I get weirded out by watching an underage girl, particularly a socially backward one presented as not yet mature, behaving like she¡¯s in a PG-13 version of a stepfamily sex film. If that makes you feel weird too, be warned that there¡¯s plenty of this discomfort to go around. The movie wants us to be uneasy about John. I¡¯m more uneasy about Liberty wanting to witness how her future stepfather makes her mother orgasm, but again, maybe that¡¯s just me.
John keeps upping the awkwardness ante with one move after another. Right away he gifts Liberty with a Navajo fertility bracelet, an unusually themed object for an adult man to give a young girl, though I suppose Liberty has to start getting suspicious about John somehow.
And get suspicious she does. Gawking at John with his shirt off doesn¡¯t inspire the same fantasies when Liberty simultaneously spots John wringing out his jogging shirt so he can drink his own sweat. Midnight dives toward a glowing light underwater aren¡¯t exactly ordinary either. T hen there¡¯s a moment where Liberty has her period at an inopportune time. John grabs a shirt and spontaneously reaches between Liberty¡¯s legs. To ease her embarrassment and assure her menstruation is normal, John licks Liberty¡¯s blood from his fingers. Yeah, ¡°What Lies Below¡± really goes all the way there.
This summary outpaces the plot. The story is actually incredibly slow to step into territory where ¡°What Lies Below¡± gets into John¡¯s true identity. Other than the questionable taste of aforementioned actions, nothing definitively sinister starts taking place until almost 40 minutes have passed. There¡¯s also next to no music in the interim, and its absence amplifies the dullness of so many ordinary scenes.
Slower establishing scenes never amount to anything anyway. ¡°What Lies Below¡± includes an unnecessary opening where we meet Liberty¡¯s camp crush for all of five seconds. I guess the point of this prologue is to acknowledge Liberty as a hormonal teenager instead of taking that obviousness for granted. Fractured family stuff comes up in a similarly brief instance where Michelle and Liberty get into a tiff about who grandpa loved more, then never mention the issue again. Another ignorable aside comes via Liberty¡¯s best friend Marley, whom we know is Liberty¡¯s BFF because ¡°Marley BFF¡± is how she¡¯s listed in Liberty¡¯s phone. She¡¯s so inconsequential, end credits mistakenly call her ¡°Miley,¡± which is a wild thing to get wrong since only five characters have proper names at all.
Something surprisingly good about ¡°What Lies Below¡± is Mena Suvari¡¯s performance. Suvari has slummed it in trash like ¡°The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson¡± (review here) for a while. Her disdain for the downgrade from A-list projects like ¡°American Beauty¡± has been visible in her ¡°let¡¯s get this gig over with¡± lethargy. With ¡°What Lies Below,¡± Suvari seems to have accepted she¡¯s a B-movie maven like Mischa Barton now, which is best for everyone involved. Suvari actually puts energy into her enthusiastic mother persona, although the ¡°baby girl¡± endearment she incessantly applies to Liberty grows old in a hurry.
Ema Horvath is as good as she can be as Liberty. The movie makes Liberty do a great deal of silent staring as she soaks in sights both sexual and strange. Horvath makes it look like Liberty¡¯s mental wheels are always spinning through subtle expressions. Some substance seems to exist in the character, and most of that comes from Horvath¡¯s visible pondering, not from anything in the script.
¡°What Lies Below¡± leans on the dry side, no pun intended, and contains a significant amount of potentially problematic content. Still, the film can be oddly alluring in a weirdo way. Even though I wasn¡¯t enthralled, I rarely pressed Pause to check my email or engage in some other delaying distraction. That¡¯s not to say I was hooked. It is to say that the aquatic monster mystery mixed with a soap opera setup makes for a bizarre bit of small screen cinema.
I definitely dig the grim ending. I¡¯m not sure the fiction has the depth to earn it, but whatever. Hmm, ¡°whatever.¡± That word encapsulates the reaction many people will have to ¡°What Lies Below.¡±
Review Score: 50