Big bucks for what?

Rating: NNWhen they're asked what's going to kill Hollywood, people usually finger big budgets. But budgets don't really matter. It.

Rating: NN

When they’re asked what’s going to kill Hollywood, people usually finger big budgets. But budgets don’t really matter. It doesn’t matter that X-Men cost $75 million or that Rocky And Bullwinkle cost a reported $80 million. Sure, the fact that Rocky And Bullwinkle, based on a cartoon renowned for making a virtue of cheap, cruddy-looking animation, cost more than X-Men makes you want to ask what those people were thinking.

But the biggest threat to Hollywood lurks in movies like What Lies Beneath. Here’s an intimate psychological horror film that had to cost $25 million just to hire Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer and director Bob Zemeckis, made by people who ignored the fact that Ford only makes money in action movies and Pfeiffer hasn’t had a hit since Dangerous Minds in 1995.

This is not to knock either actor’s talent or either star’s presence. Movie stars do what they do, and their agents get them what the market will bear.

But this is an intimate picture, virtually a two-actor picture with a handful of special effects, that cost $65 million before figuring in the cost of prints and promotion. It has to earn $100 million before it breaks even.

Saturation ads

The odd thing is that studio execs have publicly admitted that a mid-level, non-effects-oriented story is the hardest kind of movie to market. They can peddle inexpensive teen movies with saturation advertising. Likewise the big effects pictures. How hard is it to sell Mission Impossible 2 or, despite the protestations of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, The Patriot?

It doesn’t help that What Lies Beneath also has some serious problems.

Pfeiffer and Ford are married and living in Vermont, where he runs a microbiological research project. She rolls about in their big old house suffering from empty-nest syndrome, having just sent her daughter off to college. Suddenly, strange things start to happen. She starts seeing a pale blond ghost and immediately suspects it’s the woman next door, with whom she’s had a Rear Window-ish experience on a dark and stormy night.

She can’t decide if she’s going nuts, but he’s reasonably certain that she is — but then, he has a dark secret — and sends her to a sympathetic shrink (Joe Morton). This doesn’t work. She still sees a dead person.

I liked the performances and the eerie, floating sense of dread that pervades the first 90 minutes of the film. I didn’t even mind the supernatural guff. It’s a ghost story, so you’re stuck with it.

What really threw me out of the film entirely was the climactic confrontation. It’s one of those movies that turns a normal human being into an unstoppable killing machine. This all started, I suspect, with Carrie, where the jolt after you thought the killer was dead came as a complete shock. It’s a perfectly fair trick when the dead guy is some kind of unstoppable bogeyman/ ghost/nightmare figure. Of course you can’t kill Freddy Krueger. He’s already dead.

Mortal character

But it’s a bit much when a mortal character gets beaten senseless and hung, a la Alexander Gudonov’s terrorist in Die Hard, only to show up again at the end of the picture so someone else can kill him again.

The climax of What Lies Ahead is the result of a decision to make up for missing action beats in the first hour and a half by backloading them onto the end of the picture.

I know exactly what they were thinking when they green-lighted this movie. We’ve got an Oscar-winning director and two big stars, and it’s sort of like The Sixth Sense — it’s got a big plot twist and everything. Well, it is a ghost story. Of course, what made The Sixth Sense a hit wasn’t the plot twist — that was just a talking point. The Sixth Sense had such a powerful mood that people couldn’t help but respond to it. What Lies Beneath has a plot twist. And a house that people will respond to — it’s cottage-country interior design porn in the guise of a ghost story.

And it might have worked had Zemeckis or the producers been a little less literal-minded about the ghost and if they’d resisted the urge to pile on the shocks at the end of the film — one climax is cathartic, two or three become a form of narrative assault.

And it might have worked if they hadn’t been playing with the big budget and the consequent pressures of satisfying DreamWorks, an Oscar-winning director and a couple of big-name stars.

This is what kills Hollywood. Not the pressure on the big-budget extravaganzas, but the competing pressures on mid-level movies that aim to please everyone and wind up satisfying no one.

Made with Miranda Otto and James Remar, who play the neighbours, instead of Pfeiffer and Ford, it’d be a $20 million (or less) indie picture that might have some vision and some kick.

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