What to Watch Verdict
'What Lies Below' teases a lusty thriller with more below the surface, but sinks in its third act.
🧊 Clean cinematography.
🧊 Intriguing first two acts.
🧊 Trey Tucker's nice guy act.
🧊 Fizzles out in Act 3.
🧊 Grand aspirations devalue the smaller story.
🧊 Polarizing ending.
What Lies Below hit video on demand in November 2020. We're republishing this review now that the movie has found itself in the Netflix Top 10.
Picture The Creature From The Black Lagoon spliced with Species and reimagined as a Lifetime driller (drama + thriller) with eco-horror undertones. That’s not as much a dig at Braden R. Duemmler’s What Lies Below than it is a broad stroke descriptor, as low-key erotic chills transition into a mother-daughter fight against their vacation invader. If their judgmental radars aren’t on the fritz?
Like dating in your 40s isn’t hard enough, now the threat of chameleon merman posing as heartthrobs built like Olympic swimmers murky the waters further. Just another case of “little girl cries gill-daddy?”
Stick around through the far more engaging buildup to receive that less emphatic answer.
Teenage Liberty (Ema Horvath) heads into another extended stay with her mother (Michelle, played by Mena Suvari) at their lakefront Adirondack getaway cabin. She’s young enough to express embarrassment over her newfound interest in boys, but mama’s way less shy. When “Libby” exits their family Volkswagen bug, she ogles tall-damn-drink John Smith (Trey Tucker), Michelle’s dreamboat boyfriend. The studly Aquatic Geneticist reveals his research mission on the same lake, where he met Michelle and fell madly in love. At first, Libby is accepting, even smitten herself, but John’s odd behavior — drinking sweat, late-night submergences — sparks distrust. Is Michelle diving too quickly into her new relationship? Or is Libby sabotaging her mother’s happiness out of spite?
As Jimmy Jung Lu’s cinematography investigates What Lies Below, the cosmic glow of inhuman colonies illuminates liquid surfaces. The camera’s lens projects the accomplishments of a slick, vibrant sci-fi mystery that removes the safety of comfort from Michelle and Libby’s quaint hideaway while also using neon-warm reds or oranges to transfix viewers. Whether that’s a sunken beam piercing through the jet-black waters of midnight pools or John’s basement workplace that’s been blacked-out with garbage bags not to disrupt his lamprey tanks. Darkness isolates while colors hypnotize, alarming in their vividness. Jung Lu’s camera is always engaging with its environment or provoking further duress.
In simplicity, What Lies Below is a chamber piece between John and Libby. The maturing adolescent experiences her blossoming sexuality through attraction, then experiences a hostile takeover scenario where perceptions are amiss. So much relies on Trey Tucker’s smolder and [censored]-eating grin, as John purposefully challenges Libby to dare infuriate her mother further. At the same time, Ema Horvath has to navigate her character’s reality-shattering paranoia. John’s instigation through devilish smiles over Michelle’s shoulder and general marine biology obsessions (while acting fishily) stir the pot, and Libby’s appropriate boil-over moments still favor a maternal bond that keeps Libby (almost) always aligned with Michelle’s deserved comforts. Tucker and Horvath walk the same tightrope. Their delicate dance towards an unavoidable standoff sustains relationship tension imbued with coming-of-age awkwardness — then crackling fires of psychological “war” dull.
As the aquatic horror elements and scientific jargon of What Lies Below attempts some fictional coup against humankind a la The Beach House, what should be the film’s climactic big-splash is more like a puddle ripple. The amphibious foreshadowing of John’s background may or may not be proven, while Libby rifles through cliches like phoning a friend for backup (to no avail) or dumfounding hiccups, like rolling her escape vehicle into the lake. At least this is foreshadowed by however many times Michelle comments about her daughter’s novice driving abilities - but, still borderline comical in the moment. Reveals keep crashing like waves during high-tide, yet there’s lacking intensity in Libby’s frantic phoning of 9-1-1 while John counteracts the extreme salinity levels in laboratory water leakage with...rubber booties. A finale that favors a single mindf#ck over any intimate brawl, leaning into apocalyptic undertones brought upon by Mother Nature’s retaliation (in a matter of words).
In the end, What Lies Below is an uncertain imposter rehash that never wades deep enough into its aquatic horror themes. Furthermore, it’s never especially horrific. Braden R. Duemmler is best when coaxing Trey Tucker’s creepiest shirtless faux-loverboy niceties, especially when gaslighting Ema Horvath. Otherwise, it’s all bluster and a waterlogged payoff that doggy paddles to the finish line. Mena Suvari is underutilized, non-essential subplots play out just as non-essentially, and scenes feel oddly landlocked. All the salt-and-ice science class experiments and lingering ab-showoff poses can’t save a conflict that bellyflops when other equal titles have held their composure and stuck far more excitable finales.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.