What Lies Below Review- An Unexpected Creepy Delight
Braden Duemmler’s directorial debut, What Lies Below, is a unique take on the otherworldly man trope with deep insights.
Duemmler’s What Lies Below is a fresh take on a familiar theme. Liberty, played by Ema Hovarth, is a socially awkward teen who returns home from camp to discover her mother, played by American Beauty’s Mena Suvari, is now dating a gorgeous, much younger man(Trey Tucker). John appears to be a doting, caring boyfriend, but quickly his behavior shifts from charming to unsettling. Liberty must discover the truth to save herself and her mother before it is too late.
This is a slow burn that you have seen before, but never quite like this. The fish out of water story is equal parts benign likability and menacing weirdness. Suppose Magic Mike added The Boys’ The Deep as a headliner that would be What Lies Below. Duemmler chooses the female gaze to sexualize John as too good to be true. Choosing to shoot him from both Liberty’s more innocent gaze and Michelle’s mature perspective keeps the viewer in a state somewhere between arousal, fear, and disgust. That’s where this film shines. Should we be hot for John or fear him, and what does that say about us?
John Smith, played by Trey Tucker, who you last saw in The Space Between Us, is gorgeous. There is no denying his magnetism. He is stunning, which suits his too serene demeanor. His first appearance in the film is like something out of a James Bond movie. The man wades mostly naked out of the lake with water glistening off his perfectly chiseled abs. He is walking sex, and that causes the viewer to distrust him even as we want him. Mena Suvari’s Mom is pretty and viable, but she is clearly a little bit damaged. We wonder what this gorgeous much younger man with brains to match his beauty is doing with the mess that is Liberty’s Mom.
Suvari gamely flits between overly involved parent and dangerously flippant partner in crime. In early scenes, she splits time between teasing her obviously uncomfortable daughter about boyfriends and having loud sex with her newly introduced fiance. Michelle is offputting and not just in a “geez, Mom” kind of way. You get the impression she cares about Liberty but isn’t a great role model. Loneliness and desperation shed out of her pores like sweat. It isn’t a shock John chose her for possible nefarious reasons.
The push and pull of the mother-daughter-boyfriend trio are undeniably icky, but that is what makes the film work. Never completely going off the rails despite some truly cringy moments, it is what makes What Lies Below more interesting than the typical sea monster trying to make a baby or abusive Stepfather cliche. The disturbing quality of the dynamic is where the bulk of the horror comes from. This is not a gory film, there are no visible kills or violence, but it is creepy all the same. Duemmler chooses to focus his horror on the fears and anxieties of women and teen girls. Michelle and Liberty are vulnerable to a variety of dangers. John is only one of those. Those fears are doled out in a well-paced film that revels in making you squirm.
There is one particularly squirm-worthy moment involving menstrual blood and a strangely kind gesture that turns into something out of the French Extreme film Anatomy of Hell. It’s surprisingly effective because, until that point, the film reads very much like a simple merman or alien male predatory movie that is heavier on suspense than actual shocks. That one moment is the film’s single best and carries the film to an unexpected but oddly satisfying ending.
Ema Horvath is the real standout. She emotes awkward teen girl in every breath she takes, making her inhales as emotion-filled as her words. You last saw her in Shudder’s The Mortuary Collection. Hovarth is very talented and manages to not only hold her own against Suvari and Tucker but captivates your attention throughout. Partly that is due to writing by Duemmler, who seems to understand teen girls better than most, but also Hovarth’s choices, which keep Liberty from becoming strange and allows her to be believable as opposed to cartoonish.
There are clues everywhere as to what John is, but they act as signposts more than annoying foreshadowing. You likely have seen this type of movie before. For those who enjoy these psychological thrillers, it is worth your time. A few plot beats disappointingly go nowhere or are red herrings, but as a whole, the film is spooky fun. Likely with additional views, some of those are resolved. The final act rushes to a conclusion that leaves more questions than answers. For someone that loves a little eye candy with a side of creepy weirdness, What Lies Below is more than surface entertainment.
Dive into What Lies Below everywhere you stream movies on demand on December 4th, 2020.
As the TV/Streaming Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre tv. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. When I’m not watching and writing about my favorite movies and series, I’m introducing my family to the wonderful world of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My only regret, there is not enough time in the day to watch everything.