Every now and then, something you probably haven’t heard of will bounce to the top of Netflix’s mysterious Top 10 list. This week’s surprise winner is What Lies Below, an erotic thriller that debuted on the streaming platform earlier this month with no fanfare. As of this writing, it doesn’t even appear to have a Wikipedia page.
“Well then, what is it?” you may ask. “What is it about? And why is it atop Netflix’s charts?” I watched this horny-turned-horrific nonsense so you don’t have to (though after reading this, you may want to).
What is What Lies Below? Can you just tell me what lies below???
I’ll get to it, but first I need to do a little setup. What Lies Below is about Libby (relative newcomer Ema Horvath), a shy teen who loves fossils and her overbearing mom, Michelle (Mena Suvari). Michelle excitedly picks up Libby from camp and drives her to their lake house in upstate New York. There, Libby is greeted by a surprise guest: Michelle’s new boyfriend, John (hunky actor Trey Tucker), who walks straight out of the lake like some kind of merman to greet them.
Is he a merman?
I’ll get to it! But suffice to say that “what lies below” refers both to … sex stuff, and also to sea monsters. So: Libby is skeptical of John, in part because she is protective of her mom, but also because John is as weird as he is hot. (That is to say, very.) The depths of his weirdness become clearer and clearer to Libby as she spends more sexually tense get-to-know-you time with John, who shares her interest in science: He’s a biologist who’s researching freshwater creatures at the lake. It’s his relationship to those seemingly friendly fish that slowly reveals him to be more dangerous than he seems.
By relationship, do you mean he literally sleeps with the fishes? Or is he himself … a fish?
No, he’s not quite a Troy McClure type, using a woman to hide a fish fetish. He definitely is horny for the hot ladies! In fact, there are a handful of scenes in which Libby listens in on her mom and John having extremely loud, aggressive sex, in case you’re doubting that this movie is truly as horny as previously mentioned.
As for whether John is a fish, it’s not entirely clear. What he’s not, though, is 100 percent human. The Netflix subtitles peg the strange noises that John sometimes makes as “alien-like sounds,” and some of the scarier moments involve John seeming to develop scales and shooting a tongue out of his mouth that is thin and forked like a snake’s. He also can’t ingest sodium, and salt is his kryptonite. His research also centers around trying to keep these particular fish alive forever … so perhaps he has combined some of their DNA with his own? Unclear!
… Let’s go back to the horniness for a second. Is this, like, porn-adjacent?
Sadly, no, but the first half of What Lies Below is pure lust. The camera constantly lingers on John’s glistening, bare six-pack—the man seems to own, like, one shirt total—as he dips in and out of the lake. After Libby first meets John, she immediately swoons over him, his buff arms and calves, and his perfectly tousled brown hair. She ends up going to bed that night and masturbates while thinking about him. (This uncomfortably intimate moment is interrupted by the sound of her mother’s over-the-top sex grunts.)
So who is horny for who here?
The lust triangle looks like this: Libby is horny for John. Michelle is horny for John. John is horny for Michelle, but also Libby, and also the fish, at least a little. One harrowing moment involves John grabbing at Libby’s crotch (!!!!) when she gets her period while the two are on a disturbingly romantic boat ride together. He claims he did it just to stop her from staining her clothes, but then we’re treated to a scene where Libby is taking a shower, embarrassed and grossed out, and John stands on the other side of the curtain, turned on by the thought of her naked. He then sniffs the clothes that she stained.
Uh, how old is Libby again?
They don’t say! But she doesn’t have a permit, and she just took her PSATs, so it’s definitely not clear that she’s of age to be fooling around with fishmen.
Where do the horror parts come in?
It turns out that John is actually something of a mad scientist. The lab he’s set up in the basement is not just where he studies his fish. It’s where he experiments on humans, too. The last half-hour of the film involves Libby trying to save her mother from becoming one of these experiments, as she looks for ways to break out of the basement that John has locked them in. It’s tense and terrifying, and John’s transformation from nerdy hottie into tortured, evil villain is pretty much instantaneous. But the cinematography so completely devolves into murky shadows and searing red lighting that the action on screen is almost impossible to parse. This is when the movie begins to truly jump the man-shark.
I’m not sure I want to watch this, but now I am curious how this all ends, so can you just tell me?
I don’t blame you. (Spoilers follow, obviously.) Libby and her mom break out of the basement, seemingly free from John. But, of course, their freedom is fleeting: John manages to find and knock out the women, who wake up back in his clutches. John, now a full amphibian-dude hybrid, has bound and gagged Libby, who starts screaming for help to no avail. She quickly passes out again when she refuses to swallow this bizarre blue glowing ball that John pukes into her mouth—it’s presumably the fake-scientific thing that transforms her into a part-fish like him. Libby next wakes up submerged in a water tank somewhere else in the basement, surrounded by other women who are unconscious and trapped in other tanks. After pleading for help that will obviously never come, she gives up, appearing to accept her fate that John has added her to his growing collection of sexy fish-ladies.
This sounds mostly terrible. Why is it popular?
It is mostly terrible! But it’s also at once wildly self-serious and totally bonkers, and perhaps you, like me, love mess? Some choice lines: “He grabbed me. Like, Donald Trump grabbed me,” says Libby to a friend about her boat ride with John. Also: “I’m riding him constantly,” Michelle tells Libby when she first sets eyes on John.
In a sense, this movie is “so bad, it’s good,” except that any time the characters aren’t indulging their sexual desires, it falls flat. Thankfully, it’s brisk, and mostly fun, especially when watched at 1.25-times speed. (Thank you for that option, Netflix.) Who doesn’t love sexy scares, even if the scares aren’t too scary and the sex is mostly implied? Clearly Netflix does, and for that, I thank them.