The Films ‘What Lies Beneath’, ‘1408’ Similar and Different?

American supernatural horror drama film, What Lies Beneath directed by Robert Zemeckis in 2000 and American psychological horror film, 1408 directed by Mikael Håfström in 2007 are the two representative films from the horror genre that are discussed in this blog. The two respective protagonist actors are Michelle Pfeiffer and john Cuzack.

The Mise-en-scene in What Lies Beneath prior to any horror is the upper middle class comfortable life of the open minded protagonist amongst some oddly growing disturbances arranged in and around her safe day to day life.
The film look grows gradually darker and darker. Starting in nice summer days and slipping into the gloom of full winter through the narrative. The diminishing of any comfort given to the audience through interior house lighting. ‘Reflection’ and ‘Observation’ are cleverly inserted into What Lies Beneath with the use of mirrors, reflections in the shard of mirror Michelle Pfeiffer holds in her hand to use as a weapon and reflections in the water showing ghostly images looking back at her, the appearance of the murdered girl fighting to give insight to us the audience which the protagonist and the viewer start to see toward the end.

The Mise-en-scene in 1408 prior to any horror is bright, blissfully ‘cynical’ and sunny, given the John Cuzack’s occupation as a (kind of) well known published ghost debunker. When he initially enters the hotel there’s noticeably a time shift, almost a spooky hint into the hotel’s past.
When the protagonist enters the room ‘1408’ light and colours slightly fade.
He goes to flashbacks of his past with his wife and child and when he does this the Mise-en-scene of the room becomes brightly lit to unmistakenly shift the viewer’s awareness from present to past (memories).

In What Lies Beneath special effects were used to a minimum. Instead almost all of the shots were achieved using purely clever filming angles and quick panning to and fro to keep the viewer two steps behind the actual manifestations feeding into the growing narrative. An example of this is where she carefully puts a framed picture on the desk and slowly goes to walk away and the picture then falls and smashes on the floor, supposedly shoved off by the haunting ghost (to reveal something). Cleverly no special effects but obviously nudged by an out of sight film crew member to achieve the unbroken scene using only well judged timing.

On the other hand in 1408 special effects were used extensively once our protagonist enters the haunted room. Taking the viewer along with him on his horrific journey from one frightening psychological aberration to another. The first special effect being when the key turns in the lock, taking the viewer directly into the old door lock device in creepy slow motion. CGI being used to create the ghosts in the room all queuing up in anguish one by one to jump out the window to there deaths.
What Lies Beneath uses minimal special effects compared to 1408 in the second half where she clearly sees herself as another entity in the mirror beckoning to herself from a different state of existence. Another clear special effect in this film is where he has placed her in the bath to drown and she looks back at him as the secret lover he had drowned before the story. A clever two second shocking change of appearing which throws him and the viewer off balance in shock. The obvious use of CGI with the ghost of the dead victim under the water to serve out her last post-life deed in dragging the evil husband to his own stunned, drowning deat

The Mise-en-abyme usually phrasing a picture within a picture:
The near centre of this film – psychological mirror. The elaborate Mise-en-abyme in What Lies Beneath being the moment the protagonist publicly accuses a man of murdering his wife but gets shot down (metaphorically), made to look further insane and losing any trace of credibility. The mid camera shot hovers there like another onlooker to her public fopaux. Although not a visual heraldic moment as such, but telling with oral bursts in the narrative what she was accusing this man of is exactly what her own supposed caring husband conspires to act out on her in the final stages of the film. Subconsciously Mirroring the danger to the viewer of her own looming fate.

1408’s absolute change of mind scene of staying there after struggling to get out of the room the protagonist looks through the door peep hole and sees his own eye frighteningly staring back at him. Obviously his doppelgänger spelling his end on an evil note. Near centre of film – visual mirror. This visual mirror gives us a glimpse of his looming unfolding terror that’ll play psychological horrific games on it’s victim until the very end.

In What Lies Beneath immediately after she has been injected with the paralysing drug by her husband she is frantically crawling on the floor to get away from him. The camera is placed low down on the floor in front of her terrified face to draw out high empathy from the viewer. Then instantly the camera is raised way up over at the staircase giving the viewer a direct point of view from the evil husband slowly, callously to finish off the helpless animal. This camera shot from the husband is a rare point of view shot strategically giving the viewer the only real glimpse of being in his shoes. (In his head). Then the camera back to crawling on ground level sharing in the fear of her muscles failing her but leaving her breathing intact, her eyes and hearing well aware. As she lay there with her husband casually explains his murderous reasoning the camera cleverly takes the viewer from a couple of feet above the floor boards down quickly to a couple of feet below the floor boards. Now the viewer is a couple of feet below the protagonist looking up at her looming fate. Somehow the viewer is looking right through the floor up at her. A clearly unreal camera manoeuvre but highly effective.

A scene where she is driving across a bridge. The camera follows the pick-up truck on the side of the bridge and gradually the camera impossibly comes in closer and closer, then somehow inside the bridge supports and hovers at the window of the pickup truck with her and then the camera moves even closer and inside the pickup truck. Obviously a CGI trick to add continuity to the scene without breaking the shot. An unreal camera manoeuvre again but very effective.

In 1408 from time to time the camera uses a similar path as What Lies Beneath especially in the heating duct where the protagonist is crawling along on hands and knees. The camera placed at his eye level. Then suddenly the camera becomes his voyeuristic aid in seeing snippets of his past while he looks out of different places of the heating duct. The heating duct becomes his camera to torture him with his own demons of his painful past.
He opens the fridge door and suddenly ‘us’ the camera is inside the fridge looking back at him keeping perfect continuity of the view of the protagonist’s face and his ongoing journey. A far off distance effect of the camera looking at the protagonist standing in a doorway half a mile away and gradually the camera gets closer and closer, faster and faster until the camera view moves so close and inside his pupil, another CGI shot.

The sound/score in What Lies Beneath is mostly put in at unpredictable moments forcing the viewer to feel fear in unexpected places unnerving the viewer even more. The lack of score thrown into the usual places instead relies on the protagonists body language, adding another dimension to the building tension. An example of this is the scene where a door opens by itself and we are given only the chilling body language of the protagonist. Her body language conveying her uneasiness in the house successfully brings the viewer an uneasiness with the house also. Natural elements are used in place of score such as a thunderstorm, the moaning wind and the creaking of the house all adding chill to the atmosphere of the house without the use of score. Using a technique called ‘Hyper-Foley’ which by enhancing these sounds to ensure the viewer feels the intensity of these effects by exaggerating the sounds.
Sound effects in 1408 were a mixture of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds. Diegetic is the sound which actually created and non-diegetic sound is sound added in during editing. For example the loud amplified sound of the protagonist’s heartbeat – obviously added to film in post production. Sounds utilized in this film at times all thrown in in a small space of time and at time having dead silence to put the viewer further on edge.

One film’s horror is supernatural evil and the other film’s horror is intertwined with our perception of evil but the leading and ultimately the helping kind.
In What Lies Beneath the protagonist clearly makes some bad decisions because of being on edge. In 1408 the protagonist makes all the right and intelligent moves right through the story but the evil room being far more intelligent and cunning than anticipated.

The scene at the beginning of 1408 where the protagonist is in a hotel room talking to his dictating device with a close up view of his expressionless face, proving just how cynical and tired he really is of his occupation. Another scene to mention here is also the beginning of the film where he is in his car, (a mid shot) in the rain. Rain pelting on the roof of his car, he has a flashlight he is fumbling with and clearly not really sure of where he is going. These ingredients telling the viewer exactly what kind of movie they are about to watch and to brace themselves for an even scarier ride.
The use of ellipsis to show him in the hotel room going from moment to moment in the room becoming extremely bored as the night goes on even showing boredom as he inspects items in the hotel room all while actually being in a notoriously haunted room that he is meant to be writing about but without much enthusiasm.

As with ‘time’ What Lies Beneath and 1408 have two different types of time. What Lies Beneath has diegetic time, or time that is the result of the story or narrative. The story may span a few minutes, a few hours, a few days, a few years or a lifetime although it may only take 90 minutes. 1408 has a distorted ‘time’ with all of the events of the narrative, his past his present all locked up with him in this ‘hell room’ for one hour.

Robert Zemeckis, best known for his work on such films as the Back to the Future trilogy and then pigeonholed by many as purely a special effects director broke his own mould with What Lies Beneath. Successfully achieving the heights of a great movie with great narrative and acting as opposed to drenching the film with special effects as many directors would do given the exuberant budgets usually thrown at them.
Mikael Håfström on the other hand has pretty much stayed with his chosen genre of mainly suspense and horror successfully putting out such good films loyal to the type.

Being analytical has definitely been a fruitful experience. Looking into these with wide eyes it has helped enhance the understanding and appreciation of these two amazing films. The trick is to know how to assess films better and comprehend how and why something is happening on screen.

Both of these movies no doubt have their strengths and weaknesses and recognizing them has added many new dimensions never noticed before in other films and other genres also.

A D Solomon