What Lies Below is a wicked step-father movie with a fishy twist, a horror-thriller that pulls you along in its wake despite the fact that some parts of the plot dissolve like salt in water.
When Liberty (Ema Horvath), returns with her mother Michelle (Mena Suvari) to their lake house after summer camp, she is surprised to find another person living there – a handsome man who walks out of the water with his naked abs rippling in the sunlight. John (Trey Tucker), is Michelle’s new boyfriend, an aquatic geneticist researching how to make fresh water animals more tolerant of salt, given that climate change is increasing the salinity of the world’s water supply (this is true!) He is also ridiculously good-looking, and this is a plot point, not just me thirsting all over this review.
Liberty is an awkward teen with a passion for archeology, and John charms her with both his attractiveness and his seeming respect for her as a fellow scientist. Michelle, a romance novelist hungry for a romance of her own, dotes on Liberty in a mildly suffocating way. Horvath and Suvari are good enough actors to portray that smother-love themselves, so I felt it was unfair to their skill that the script included a bit to broadcast this aspect of their relationship. Michelle has Liberty scratch her arm for comfort, in a way we know is a traditional bonding action for them. Later, Liberty sees John scratching her mother’s arm, showing that Michelle’s emotional dependence has shifted, and then Liberty’s feelings are tinged with jealousy, as well as fear of – and attraction to – John. But Horvath’s face tells us all we need to know about her emotions, and those emotions make sense in the situation. The arm-scratch seemed unnecessary and artificial to me, and there were a few other instances of the script not trusting its performers enough.
That strange, awful mixture of insecurity, inappropriate sexual desire, and distrust of men that comes with being a weird teenage girl is excellently portrayed by Horvath. Suvari is also great as a hot mess of a woman, traumatized by her dead father’s indifference and addled by the attention of a much younger, and much muscled, man. Taylor is also convincing as a charismatic studmuffin who becomes increasingly creepier, to the point of monstrosity. The direction is well-done, with flashes and glimpses of John’s inhumanity developing at the right rate to feed Liberty’s suspicions and the audience’s interest.
It’s a hard balance to strike between revealing too much, and revealing not enough. No one needs that trope of a villain who elucidates their whole evil plan once they’ve captured the protagonist (unless done comedically.) It is also possible to make a satisfying movie that leaves things entirely unexplained, but there’s a style to it. What Lies Below doesn’t seem to be attempting that kind of film, but it doesn’t strike the right balance. I don’t want to go into detail because spoilers but, in general, the plot seemed to lose cohesion at the end, replaced by a focus on scary visuals.
It’s worth seeing for those scary visuals, the performances, and Taylor’s general hotness. The camera lingering on his body the way it usually does on the bodies of women, while Suvari and Horvath stay practically dressed throughout, was very satisfying for me. If this were summer, I’d recommend you schedule to watch it on your next trip to a cottage, where you can watch it by a lake.
WHAT LIES BELOW will be released on Demand and Digital on December 4, 2020 from Vertical Entertainment