What Lies Beneath (DreamWorks Pictures, 2000)
This is the week when you can’t spit a piece of gum without hitting some reference to the fifth installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, which lands in theaters on Friday. Though due to quite a lot of early buzz my hopes are less than high, I will of course be in the theater on the 30th having purchased my tickets a month ago. Nostalgia alone will make Indy 5 a huge hit, even if it really is a master class in CGI and not much else (pardon my potentially unfounded snark).
But it did get me to wondering about Harrison Ford and horror.
I have vague memories of one horror movie in particular, starring Ford, called What Lies Beneath (2000) which costarred Michelle Pfeiffer and was directed by Robert Zemeckis. Ford plays an adulterous husband who murders his lover, placing her body in her car and sinking it into the nearby lake. However, the unquiet ghost comes back both for revenge and to save Ford’s wife (Pfeiffer) from being the next victim.
When Ford did WLB, he was eleven years removed from his previous Indiana Jones movie (Last Crusade, 1989), and seventeen from his last go as Han Solo. By 2000 he was deep into his contemporary hero films such as Clear and Present Danger, Patriot Games, and The Fugitive, etc, which is why WLB has stuck in my head: it was a really evil and devious portrayal for Ford who had always played the good-guy-boy-scout type.
Check out the trailer.
With a little research I learned that, at the time, WLB received generally mixed reviews, with critics praising Pfeiffer’s performance but criticizing the screenplay. However, the film was a box office success, grossing $291.4 million worldwide against a production budget of $100 million, becoming the tenth highest-grossing film of that year (Mission Impossible II was the highest). One could argue that by 2000, audiences were pretty much willing to see anything that Ford starred in regardless of whether or not it was any good.
So, to refresh my memory, I found WLB on Hulu and gave it another go last night. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it held up well and Ford’s performance is even more creepy, given that being dastardly is such a departure for him. Honestly, he’s a pretty convincing bad guy.
Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford in What Lies Beneath
So, did Ford ever do any other horror movies?
Indeed, he did. But we have to go back a whole lot further to find it.
In 1977, The Exorcist (1973) inspired a made-for-TV movie called The Possessed. An exact count is nearly impossible to get to, but a couple of sites I found estimated that between 300-400 films are in some form either knockoffs or homages to The Exorcist, and the seventies spawned quite a lot of them. So, it’s no surprise that in Ford’s early career running up to Star Wars IV, he would have signed on to such a project. In fact, it was his last before shooting to super stardom as our favorite, scruffy-looking nerf herder.
Harrison Ford as “Paul Winjam” in The Possessed (1977)
Available on YouTube, The Possessed wasn’t difficult to locate for an old TV movie. The quality is a little shaky and grainy, but it only serves to add to the whole vibe the film has going for it. The story takes place in an all-girls high school where there have been strange occurrences involving people randomly catching on fire and the doors around them slamming shut when anyone tries to assist. A disgraced ex-priest (James Farentino) is brought in to help investigate the situation as there appears to be no worldly explanation for the events. Meanwhile, a member of the school continues to show signs of demonic possession.
Ford’s role in The Possessed is short lived, but his character does end up being quite pivotal to the story. He plays a smarmy teacher who is not only having it off with one of his colleagues, but also one of the under-aged female students, and who meets a very 1970’s horror-genre death. However, at this early point in his career, and even though he’s portraying a character far sleazier than the ones that made him famous, Ford’s talent is very much on display.
The Possessed (Warner Bros. Television, 1977)
Overall, The Possessed is about as unsettling as a TV movie trying to do The Exorcist could have been. It’s full of small practical stunts using real fire and someone throwing up nails and liquids of unknown origin, Evil Dead style. Ironically, some of the scenes would likely not be allowed on commercial TV today, which on its own is a great reason to invest the one-hour, thirteen minutes to sit through it on YouTube.
I found a very interesting article on RogerEbert.com which was just written in 2020 entitled “The Dark Side of Harrison Ford: On the Roles That Led to What Lies Beneath.” Back in 2000, for the release of What Lies Beneath, Ford explained to the BBC,
I’ve always been aware of the potential to be trapped in the action genre because of the commercial success of the first films that I did. But I made every effort from the very beginning of my career to vary the kinds of genres and roles, to not only do that kind of film.
In the same interview, he confirmed the chance to play with audience expectations led to his pursuing Zemeckis’ film.
Ford’s latest Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opens everywhere on Friday, and 2024 will see him play Thaddeous “Thunderbolt” Ross in two different Marvel offerings currently in production.