WHAT LIES BELOW (2020)
Directed & written by Braden R. Duemmler
Starring Ema Horvath, Mena Suvari, Trey Tucker, Haskiri Velazquez, Troy Iwata, Danny Corbo, Olan Montgomery
When her mother Michelle (Mena Suvari) picks her up from summer camp, teenage Liberty (Ema Horvath) is surprised to meet Michelle’s new boyfriend John Smith (Trey Tucker) living in their home. Liberty immediately crushes on John, who emerges from the lake in a speedo when they first meet. Despite the fact that Michelle is obviously smitten with John, Liberty can’t help but notice John flirtatious moves towards her. But the more Liberty gets to know John, the more it seems there is something much more insidious going on.
I hate to recommend a film because of the last fifteen minutes, but I’m going to do this time. WHAT LIES BELOW is a film that might make you check and see if you’ve accidentally changed the channel to Lifetime movies, but the way it all wraps up is deep, deep, deep into the horror genre.
This doesn’t mean that the first hour and fifteen minutes of WHAT LIES BELOW isn’t compelling cinema. The conflict between a middle-aged mother, her teenage daughter, and the man of both of their dreams is a compelling one. This is mainly due to the strong performances of these three actors. Trey Tucker isn’t going to win any Oscars, but as the somewhat blank slate hunky man of mystery, he fits the bill. On the surface, he’s got everything a gal would want with the abs, full head of hair, and charming smile, but he also has that vacant blackness in his eyes that makes you feel like there is something unsettling under the surface. Ema Horvath is new to me, but she plays the awkward teen extremely well. Her performance feels genuine, full of confusion and curiosity for this new person in her mother’s life. And what world do we live in that Mena Suvari is now playing the mom role? Suvari has always been an underappreciated actress in my opinion. Here in only a few conversations, she really evokes some wonderfully sympathetic moments. Seeing these three characters bob back and forth into each other in this complex drama of hidden and taboo passion is intriguing stuff, though it’s not the subject matter I often see in the horror genre.
One of the things that might be called a criticism is how quickly Liberty’s bond with her mom disintegrates as she develops these feelings for her mom’s BF. I understand there’s an attraction there, but the fact that Liberty acts upon these impulses and seems so able to betray her mom really speaks to Liberty’s character or lack thereof and ultimately, doesn’t make her that likable. Since this is a film that follows Liberty the entire time, I eventually found myself empathizing for her, but there is a sense of “you get what you deserve” once the final moments drop—a sort of satisfying end to a character making questionable decisions. I still think Liberty would be a much more sympathetic character had she less of a part in her own fate.
And what a fate is reached by the time this relationship drama finally plays out. While I was willing to give this film a decent recommendation simply as an entertaining drama of conflicting morals and taboo urges, I wasn’t prepared to be kneecapped by an ending filled with shock, awe, and body horror of WHAT LIES BELOW. This one would be a great double feature with the Leigh Janiak shocker HONEYMOON. While not a lot is explained, the horrors unleashed are intense, violent, and terrifying. Stick with this one. It’s drama heavy and slow to rev up, but strap yourself in for the ending. It’s a wild one!