Film Corner: What Lies Below

[Content Note: Sexual Assault, Grooming, Parental Abuse]

I'm feeling a little under the weather today, so it's time for Netflix and warm blankets. And "What Lies Below" on Netflix, which comes with trigger warnings for some kinda rapey/grooming stuff, via a friend. I may have seen this before but I must've been ill because I don't remember anything.

PLEASE NOTE: Apparently there's a movie called What Lies Beneath. This is What Lies Below, a Netflix movie.

The write-up says: "Back home at her lake house, a teenager begins to suspect that a sinister force lurks beneath the surface of her mother's too-perfect new lover." Ah, yes, I put it on the watchlist because Netflix kept showing a still of a beautiful beefcake man rising from the lake waters and I wanted to reward that kind of algorithmic behavior.

We open with the eye of Sauron under the surface of some dark water. It thrums menacingly and grows brighter to fill the screen, then we cut away. Not a very informative scene. Our heroine of indeterminate age (16? 17?) is at a Digger Camp waiting for parental pickup. She has an obvious crush on one of the camp counselors and is trying to hide it behind a book.

Her Mom, who has dyed her hair blond and is trying to act like a fellow teenager, plies her for information in the ride home while Teen replies with one-word answers. ACCURATE. Mom keeps trying to push heterosexuality onto Teen. Trying to needle Teen into confessing to a crush, telling her she's too old to enjoy that camp for non-boy reasons, and that if she wants a boyfriend she needs to "dress a bit sexier". Hello, childhood.

Mom decides to apologize by letting Teen drive the rest of the way home, then freaks the Teen out by being a way-too-nervous passenger. Teen is alarmed to see a For Sale sign in front of one of the spacious wooded lots. "It's just for one of the vacant lots. We're gonna need money for college. The romance novels aren't selling like they used to."

Ok, so she's a romance author who also owns and manages a group of lake houses? Busy job. Maybe she has a management company. Teen eyes an expensive watch on her mother's wrist. "It was a gift!" Mom protests defensively, indicating she didn't waste their scarce money on it. When Teen asks about the giver, Mom singsongs "You'll seeeee!"

They pull up to a huge lake house and Teen is confused by some itsy bitsy teeny weeny men's swim shorts on a drying line. "Whose...?" But mom brushes her off and bursts out of the car. "Babe? We're here!" She didn't...tell her daughter there'd be a guy at the house?!? "Hey!" An unreasonably beautiful man in a speedo rises from the lake watery.

"Holy crap?" whispers Teen. "I know. I've been writing him constantly," Mom says. The captions say "writing" but it sounds like "riding" and Teen grimaces. (If it's a deliberate pun and not a caption-mistake, it's a bad one. Yes, she's a writer, but that's not how to use the word. "I've been writing ABOUT him" would be used here. "I've been writing him" sounds like she's sending him old-timey love letters. She's not.)

Teen has a name! Libs! Libby is polite but wary. Boyfriend is super cool and polite, recognizing that he's treading on her home ground. That's nice! He's also got a gift for Libby, which is extremely good guest etiquette. He runs to retrieve it. Libby reasonably demands to know why Mom didn't tell her she has a boyfriend. "I thought it was just a fling!" She points out how gorgeous he is and didn't expect him to want a long term thing with her. There is an implied age gap between Mom and Boyfy.

Oh wow. The gift is a really thoughtful one, not just a generic lotion basket. He knows (from Mom) that she's into archeology so he got her a bracelet that has a complicated and poetic past involving Navajo spirituality and Moorish vocabulary. He says, "This bracelet has origins from the Western and Eastern worlds, all the way back to the very beginning of civilization." He thought she'd find it interesting BUT he adds with a wink, there's a gift receipt if she wants to return it for something else.

With the caveat that I know nothing about Navajo beliefs and I don't know if he shopped from a local indigenous artist, this SEEMS thoughtful? He's validating her interests (a thing her Mom refuses to do) but not being pushy. Libby seems not to know what to do with this charming gorgeous man who is half-naked in front of her. (Mom should've warned her!)

She puts on a pretty dress for dinner, which Mom notes is unusual. Libby is hyper-aware of Boyfy's presence, and it's a little hard to tell if we're meant to see this as suspicious pheromone magic (bc horror movie) or if she's just a teenage girl who is watching people's bodies while trying to sort out what hers is doing.

Over dinner, Libby asks how the two of them met. Mom came out early to the lake house to get some writing done, and John "just appeared" one day. He's an aquatic geneticist living at the lake and studying some local species. He's trying "solve a problem" in nature. Using water glasses as props, he explains that climate change is increasing the salinity of the water all over the world. Freshwater species "can't survive without major adaptation. I'm here to speed up Mother Nature."

He wants to make it so that "certain species" can survive in a saltwater world. He takes a bite of his salad and begins coughing violently. Maybe some of the salt he was playing with got in his salad? Mom hugs him and he touches Libs' shoulder and smiles. I have questions about invasive species and ecosystems, but Libs keeps them to herself.

That night, she struggles to sleep while Mom loudly moans her way through intercourse. The camera work here is blurry (on purpose) but it looks like Naked John walks past Libby's open door to use the restroom after sex, then stands in the doorway and watches her while drinking from a glass. Then he gently closes the door. That's, uh. A bit creepy. Maybe it's not a horror movie and he's just from a nudist colony.

Over breakfast, Mom asks what Libs wants to do today and Libby is upset that she forgot some kind of anniversary. Libs is digging up...time capsules? It looks like? Mom has nothing to add to hers. Grandpa has been dead for 9 years. Libs loves him (and he left the lake house to her). Mom doesn't, and talks about how her father wasn't a good father. Realistic look at how it's often very different being a Daughter vs being a Granddaughter.

After a fuss over whether grandpa was a saint or not, Mom goes back to the house and Libby walks down to the lake. John stops Libby from stepping on a rare bug that bit her; he says it was protecting its offspring. Then he blows gently on the wound and smiles. Props to this actor! He's not just a pretty body; his face acting is amazing. He's charming and yet *unsettlingly* charming, which isn't easy to do! He offers to Libby that he can leave; he doesn't want to cause a rift between Mom and Libs.

Libs asks him some direct questions and he answers apparently honestly, saying he loves Mom very very much. Libs tells him to stay and offers to go check on Mom, who has gone back to bed with some kind of fever or tummy ache. Mom and Libs have a nice apology about Grandpa. Mom tries to gently breaks the news that John asked her to marry him and she said yes. "I need you to be ok with this, baby girl," Mom says. Libs: "Please don't call me that." But says she wants Mom to be happy.

I...kinda like this? Don't get me wrong, I'm super frustrated with Mom. But I like seeing Libby set boundaries, state her feelings, and try to grapple with what the adult response should be here. It's nice seeing a teen written like the kind of teen I was? Mom adds that she told John she's 35 and would prefer Libby not drop that she's actually 42. Christ on a cracker, Mom. "I'm gonna tell him. I just- I can't lose him, Libs."

There's been a brief mention that John has taken up residence in the basement to make, like, a dark room? But instead of developing photographs, he's got aquariums with night critters? It's unclear. Libs heads downstairs and he greets her on the stairs. Libs offers him a soda and he demurs gently; he has a bad heart and can't drink sodium.

He takes her downstairs to see the lampreys. She knows what those are, because they're super old and in the archaeological records she studies. He says lamprey are the only species that can live in fresh and salt water (not salmon??) and that they've survived everything the earth has thrown at them. Meteors, dinosaurs, all that good science stuff. I guess he's drawing a distinction between fish that can live in both vs. the lampreys "adapting" when their parasitic host (salmon, etc) takes them from one environment to the other. "No other species on earth can do that."

John and Libs go out to the lake to pull samples. She asks him normal pre-marriage questions; how old is he (30), where did he go to school (a little private school no one has ever heard of). Then something happens that I don't fully understand. Libby starts menstrual bleeding in the boat. John panics, grabs a shirt, and shoves it between her legs to stop the blood. Libs is shocked by the unwelcome proximity of his hand to her genitals.

It's an assault, but he doesn't seem...assaulty, if that makes sense. He looks panicked. Either he's an underwater vampire trying not to freak out, or he's a cis guy who...made a lot of errors just now ("blood? I staunch? Oh wait, no!") and is trying not to freak out. He apologizes in a panicky rush. "I'm sorry. I didn't want to ruin your dress and I didn't know what to do. Hey. Hey. We're both scientists and this is totally normal. Right? It's no big deal." AND THEN HE LICKS THE BLOOD ON HIS HAND.

He rows them back to shore and Libby rushes upstairs to shower. The bracelet he gave her earlier has cut a red mark (a rash?) into her wrist. John knocks on the door and asks if Libby is ok. She doesn't answer so he opens the door. "I'm in the shower!" He apologizes and says he was just worried. But instead of leaving, he stays and sniffs the shower curtain for a minute before leaving.

Oh, now he's sniffing the bloody shirt from the trash. It's really unclear whether he wants to have sex with her, or eat her, or...turn her? He was really impressed with her SAT scores and I could see trying to make her a fish-girl to, idk, bolster a mer-community?

Now thoroughly freaked out by John, Libby goes to her Mom's room. Mom is still resting and John is gently cuddling her. Libs scurries downstairs and calls her best friend. Yes! A teenage girl with a best friend! Libs tells BFF that this is a 911 situation and she needs her. BFF promises to come over tomorrow. I love this plot twist, yes. Good.

John leaves an apology sandwich by the door with a note. "I've always been very awkward. Please forgive. J." Libs takes it inside and eats half before falling asleep. Night. A red glowing light wakes her. John is outside, walking into the lake. A bright orange-red light fills the water. He walks into the water and disappears, fully clothed.

Libs runs to Mom's room and bangs on the locked door, but no response. Outside, the lake is dark and quiet. Libby peers at the lake while a silhouette moves behind her and SHAKES IN A WAY SHADOWS SHOULDN'T SHAKE. John asks her what she's doing out here. He's dry and he says he suffers from sleepwalking. He says he woke up out here and doesn't remember what happened. Stammering, he says he fucks everything up except his research.

Libby is done with John and points out that the bedroom door was locked. "Do you lock the door behind you when you sleepwalk?" She goes back to the house and barricades herself inside her room until 8 am, when Mom starts moaning in pain for her. Mom is vomiting over the toilet. She wants Libby to go to the store and get a pregnancy test and some tummy-ache medicine.

Libs doesn't want to drive into town but does so...where she sees...John, in glasses, walking with his arm around a woman. Glasses-John sees her but doesn't seem to recognize her; he looks confused to have her staring at him.

Libby gets home and her best friend is there. She drops the pharmacy stuff with Mom while John watches. John is sweating and looks...strained? He says he just got back from a marathon training run. Libby goes downstairs to talk with her friend, Marley, who is very excited about the wedding. Libby confides, "He grabbed me. Like Donald Trump, he grabbed me." Marley is super concerned and wants Libby to "tell your mom or call the cops".

Marley can't stay the night, but tells Libby to leave with her. Libby says she can't leave her Mom. Marley says fuck it, SHE'LL go tell Mom what happened. She marches upstairs. Marley, I love you. Libby takes some egg salad out of the fridge to wait, then wakes up dressed, in bed, and it's dark out. Was the salad drugged??

John and Mom are watching television. Where's Marley? Mom says Marley left after John "explained it all". Mom is happy to announce that she's pregnant. "I need you to be ok with this." Libby asks Mom her reaction to the event in the boat. Mom insists it was a misunderstanding and then gets angry at Libby, saying is making this up to keep her single. "I'm done putting my life on hold for your feelings!"

John steps in to play the "voice of reason" and calm Mom down. He smiles at Libby and blinks, and we see a flash of a second eyelid, like a cat. He's a cat-fish? Libby tries to wrestle Mom away from him and Mom slaps her. Mom rushes to John and fusses over him. "Are you ok?" she frets, even though John wasn't involved in the tussle at all.

Thoroughly done, Libby drops that Mom is 42 not 35 and she hopes John wasn't planning on having another baby after this one. John's face *transforms* and he looks coldly furious for the first time ever. (Transforms in the "good actor" way, not in a "CGI fish-man" way, I mean.)

He stalks out, his eyes strangely bloodshot. The captions say his voice is "alien" now, but it just sounds really deep and whispery to me. Mom storms upstairs, furious and hurt. Libby locks the door and sits up. Some hours later she hears...something on the roof and goes out to investigate.

Mom screams and Libby rushes back inside and upstairs. John and Mom are having (consensual) sex while John's back does extremely weird prickly anatomy things that backs shouldn't do. Libby runs back to her room, but the orange lights are back at the lake. Her mom's room is empty. Libby goes outside, calling for her. Silence. Libby walks into the lake, looking for the light. Nothing.

Libby drives her car down to the lake and pushes it in. I'm not sure why. Oh, she wanted to use her brights to see into the lake! There's something there that's...made with straight lines. That's not natural. A ship? Running inside, Libby tries to call the cops but the lines are blocked. When she tries to call her friend, the ringer can be heard...from the basement. Oh no.

In the basement blacklight, Libby's wrist lights up with strange symbols. From the bracelet? Libby finds Mom sitting on a stool, half in and out of an aquarium tank. She's got an IV hooked up to her and...her wrist has blacklight symbols too. Feet pound on the stairs. Weird fishy-feet slush into the flooded basement and hiss where the salt water touches the feet. He's a...leech monster? He withdraws and returns with boots.

Mom goes into labor and John seems really excited until he's not. We can't see what's going on, but he takes something outside. Libby climbs up to look out the window and sees John cradling...something...and vomiting a little blue light into it. Ariel's voice??? Like, it LOOKS like Ariel's voice!

Mom wakes and Libby runs up the stairs to lock the door. Ah-ha! We have found the phone scrambler. John, meanwhile, has found the basement window and is gaslighting her. "I really do care about your mom. It's just science." Libs destroys the scrambler and calls the cops. GOOD GIRL. She leaves out the fantastical stuff and says her step-dad is trying to kill her and her mom, and the address. GOOD GIRL.

Oh shit. Marley is in the lamprey tank, dead and being eaten. So that's upsetting. AND NOW JOHN AND HIS MONSTER FEET HAVE FOUND HER. SHIT. Libs hits him with a bucket of salt (remember, he's testing saline levels) and he starts choking. She covers him thoroughly in salt and helps her Mom out of the birthing tank. My good girl.


Libs wakes in some kind of basement, cuffed to a chair. The Johns looks like women in water tanks behind the drywall? Original Recipe John vomits the blue light of Ariel's Voice into her throat. Libs swallows and passes out.

Libby wakes in a strange chamber that is filling up with water. She struggles, terrified, as the camera zooms out and we see apparently lifeless other women in similar chambers, all with red hair. (John mentioned Libs has a little red in her hair.) The chamber fills with water completely and Libby suddenly realized she can....breath water. She laughs in surprise and credits slam in.

So John is.....trying to make red-haired mermaids? And Libby is one now? Huh. I guess that's the movie? The suspense was GREAT, but the rush to the ending was a little unclear and disappointing because I'm not quite sure what happened.


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