WHAT LIES BELOW follows a simple general trope: single parent gets new partner, their kids are suspicious, turns out the new partner is super fucked up after all, and hilarity ensues. Similar to the new boyfriend in this film, what begins as a creepy stepdad thriller turns into something much more bizarre and sinister, keeping the trope fresh. I’ll explain.
We follow the story through the eyes of Liberty (Ema Horvath), a socially awkward 16-year-old girl who returns home from camp to discover that her mom, Michelle (Mena Suvari, giving us big Amy-Poehler-in-Mean-Girls hot mom energy) has a new boyfriend, John Smith (Trey Tucker). We are introduced to him when he emerges from the nearby lake in slow motion, wearing a Speedo because of course he is. John is attractive enough to make me uncomfortable and triggers my own repressed heterosexual thoughts. In fact, he’s so attractive and charming that he’s far too perfect to be human. Literally.
John attempts to get closer to Liberty, and the two bond over their love of science. He shows off his knowledge of the wildlife surrounding the cabin, he proudly shows Liberty his impressive lamprey collection kept in the basement, and at one point the two venture into the lake together in a boat–and this is where things really start to change and where the horror begins. Liberty clearly knows something is wrong with this Prince Charming, but her mom stubbornly chooses to see him through rose-colored glasses no matter what. What ultimately ensues is a suspenseful unraveling of John’s perfect human facade, and Liberty discovers who–or what–he really is.
What mainly makes What Lies Below succeed is the masterful building of suspense. The film is fairly short (87 minutes), but director Braden R. Duemmler still manages to take all the time necessary in each scene to build tension in an increasingly uncomfortable way, while still keeping the pacing of the story quick. Not a single jump scare is present, and much of the horror is character-driven, simply coming from the viewer being able to relate to the protagonist.
One of the most unique aspects of What Lies Below is the female gaze point-of-view–we watch this story unfold in the eyes of a teenager who is coming of age and beginning to discover her sexuality, and we feel the visceral awkwardness and terror that Liberty experiences. Horvath’s performance is authentic and empathetic, and makes us feel just as vulnerable in a situation that none of us have any control over. (The entire year of 2020, anyone?)
To be honest, the opening of the film was shaky. The scene at the very beginning with Liberty and her mom in the car together almost felt as if it was from a different film, with awkward dialogue, awkward camera angles, and awkward editing. Perhaps it was intended to introduce Liberty’s awkward perspective and personality, but it came off looking like an after-school special. Was it budget? Space? Who knows, it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.
I would have really liked to see John fully transformed into the Creature From the Black Lagoon type thing that we catch glimpses of towards the end, which were often flooded by the threateningly bright pink, red, and green lights that lit his basement laboratory. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, but it’s definitely unexpected, one of many elements of the film that make the creepy boyfriend trope feel as if we’re seeing it for the first time.