Braden R. Duemmler’s What Lies Below is a stylish sci-fi horror driven by its three exceptional leads. With a great premise with a multitude of interesting elements, this is an atmospheric film not to let sneak under your radar.
Sixteen-year-old Libby (Ema Horvath) returns from summer camp to the surprise introduction of her mum Michelles (Mena Suvari) chiselled fiancée, John Smith (yes really) (Trey Tucker) who emerges from the backyard lake. When John ignites an inappropriate curiosity in Libby her suspicions escalate. One night, she wakes to a piercing, amber light from the depths of the lake outside. Libby 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 has the difficulty at the beginning of making itself too obvious from the first introduction of John. Even if we do not quite know what makes John so off we know there is something. There are no other false moments to make us believe anything other than John is going to do something or has been doing something disturbing.
That said credit has to go to Braden R. Duemmier for at least bringing more to the story than just a standard newcomer upsets a family dynamic thriller. By bringing more science fiction elements into the story, the door is slammed open and the possibilities become a bit more endless. Instead of wondering what Johns intentions are with Libby and Michelle, it becomes what John is and more questions begin to get asked. This causes the audience to return to sitting more upright and close to the edge of their seat. What mysteries is John hiding from us and what will become of his new family?
The final act of What Lies Below takes you a little by surprise with how bold it goes with its ending. Not many films take the plunge in what it does and this unforgiving ending is helped by some wonderful direction from Duemmier. Simple shots such as Libby and Michelle leaving the house that final night with the camera raising a little more than you would expect, so it can just about catch something else in the background. The slow pullback in the final moments is equally jarring but also leaves the audience with their “I got it” moment if it had not already been caught before thanks to the litany of crumbs spread throughout the film.
It also appears to rush itself at times that due to the tightness of the script there is little room for more intrigue to fit in. Michelle gets ill all too quickly, Libby and John’s relationship begins to derail too quickly as well. With the film ramping up too quickly, we rarely get time to comprehend what is going on. With John’s mysterious weirdness shrouding the film, it feels as if there is no real-time for the feature to breathe. Which is a shame as the performances are particularly strong that having more time building up these characters and their situation would only benefit it.
What strengthens the film is the chemistry between all three leads. Suvari and Horvath have that clear strong bond that we need Michelle and Libby to have as mother and daughter. This is especially the case when we realise that it has just been these two together for a long time. Equally, Suvari and Tucker have good chemistry in that new love kind of way.
But What Lies Below is fully dependant on the awkward interactions of a young woman and an older mysterious man. The arc of Libby’s feelings towards John take the sharpest of lefts after their boat incident and it is tremendous work from both to allow what slight sexual tension there was to form into unadulterated fear. That shower scene is not one that is likely to leave the memory anytime soon and should cause a lot of curtain pulls to check if anyone else in the room with you for a little while after.
All three performers are working at a high level here in What Lies Below with Suvari being the heart of the film as a character who has devoted a lot of time to her career and daughter and not nearly enough on herself, so when this younger man takes interest in her, how could she not be swept away. Tucker shines as the mysterious John Smith. Having his character break out into smiles at almost every opportunity to save face or to keep the façade going is a lovely touch and his facial reactions are wonderful throughout.
Horvath is undoubtedly the star of this piece and is exceptional throughout. Navigating a difficult role with ease, she lets the audience in with he doubts and fears. Be it the attraction to John or her camp friend, to her unease with how quickly her mother has fallen for this man. There is a lot going her for a teenager to handle and Horvath takes this in her stride with a great amount of confidence. When it comes to the final act of the film, she continually raises her game to cement herself as one to keep an eye on.
This is a coming of age home evasion thriller that takes a well-earned and needed turn into science fiction horror and when it goes through the gears becomes an intriguing film. For first-time feature director Braden R. Duemmier, he has made a strong and gorgeous looking film racked full of tension.
Signature Entertainment presents What Lies Below on Digital Platforms 22nd February
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