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‘What Lies Below’: Body horror by way of family drama

‘It’s just science’

What Lies Below tells the story of the summer that 16 year old Liberty Wells goes to stay at a cabin in the Adirondack Mountains with her mother for the summer. Liberty, (or Libby), played by Ema Horvath, is an unsure and socially awkward teenager who’s genuinely more interested in archaeology than in her peers. Libby’s surprised to meet her mother’s boyfriend, John Smith (Trey Tucker), who’s literally introduced by slowly coming out of the water looking like the cover of a romance novel. Libby is immediately self-conscious around him, and it’s clear that she’s attracted to him. It’s a weird dynamic.

Libby’s mom, Michelle (Mena Suvari) is quite possibly the most annoying on-screen character I’ve seen since Piper in season one of Orange is the New Black. In the first 5 minutes of the film, I almost turned it off; not a great start. It does end up being worth sticking with, though.

While this movie sets us up for a campy experience, Mena Suvari apparently doesn’t do campy well anymore, which is surprising, given her previous acting credits. Shortly after the comical beginning of the film, What Lies Below begins to take itself more seriously, and that’s where it begins to feel like a Hallmark movie about a mom and daughter dealing with mom’s new relationship turned thriller. This could have been avoided by having more of a sense of humor throughout the film, or by better performances. Instead, there’s a whole heap of melodrama, which Mena Suvari in particular is guilty of. In contrast, Trey Tucker does play the boyfriend who may be too good to be human with a smarmy charm that’s fun to watch.

Back to John Smith. He’s an aquatic geneticist, who met Libby’s mom that summer while studying at the lake. He explains that he’s there to work on finding a way for aquatic species to live in a rapidly changing environment. As Michelle says, “he’s basically saving the world”. There’s a lot of heavy foreshadowing in this early conversation, and that continues throughout the movie. There’s not a lot of subtlety here. John shows Libby some of the creatures he’s studying in their basement — an ancient, parasitic species who latch on to their prey and adapt to the host.

There’s a sexual tension between Libby and John right from the moment they meet, which I’m pretty sure is wholly unnecessary. It just makes the film feel kind of gross, and not in a way that’s fun to watch. It’s actually just gross. There’s a disconcerting moment (okay, there are a lot of disconcerting moments) where Libby gets her period while she and John are out on a boat together. John goes to help her, and in trying to make the moment less awkward, John licks Libby’s blood off his fingers. Gross.

'What Lies Below': Body horror by way of family drama

Vertical Entertainment

The film’s score is uninventive, but effective. With the pulsating thrums typical of horror movies, Libby begins to piece together that there is something really weird about John. She messages a friend to come help her, saying that her mom is getting married to a freak of nature. Not only that, but her mom has gotten really sick, possibly pregnant. This should be a stressful scenario to watch, as Libby tries to get help and to get away, but unfortunately it’s short-lived.

The real stress of the movie doesn’t come until the final act, which is by far the most interesting part of What Lies Below. At 87 minutes long, the film is worth watching for the last 30 minutes alone, but this story probably would have worked better if told in an hour. This is the first feature written and directed by Braden R. Duemmler, and because of this film’s final act, I’ll be interested to see what he does in the future. I’ll also be interested to see Ema Horvath’s performance in the upcoming Lord of the Rings television series — I think she’ll do great when given some more substantial material.

The end of What Lies Below is gross (in a good way), unsettling, and freaky. All in all, I found the ending really satisfying. More of the body horror featured in the final act would have greatly benefitted this weird little creature feature.

'What Lies Below': Body horror by way of family drama

Vertical Entertainment

What Lies Below comes to Digital and On Demand December 4.

Thriller plays it straight

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