What Lies Below has proven to be a huge hit for streaming service Netflix, but what happens in the movie’s wild ending and what does it really mean?
What Lies Below was Netflix’s third-most streamed title over the weekend, and viewers are desperate to know what the movie’s surreal ending was all about. Released in April 2021, What Lies Below is a domestic thriller about a young woman, Libby, who returns from summer camp to find her mom has a new beau. Throughout the movie’s creepy action, Libby grows suspicious of her mother’s seemingly perfect new boyfriend, John Smith.
At least, What Lies Below begins as a fairly conventional domestic thriller. Like the streaming platform’s other recent releases Behind Her Eyes and Deadly Illusions, What Lies Below features a genuinely shocking final act twist that changes the movie’s genre and leaves viewers wondering about everything that came before the closing minutes. Where much of the preceding movie only hints at supernatural or sci-fi horror, the ending leaves What Lies Below in firmly Lovecraftian territory comparable to the similarly surprising A Cure For Wellness.
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The ending of What Lies Below confirms that this latest Netflix release exists at the confluence between two recent niche trends, the “domestic thriller that takes a sharp turn into another genre during the third act” and the “Lovecraftian romance.” The former has proven popular on Netflix in the last few months, with both Behind Her Eyes and Deadly Illusions becoming word-of-mouth phenomenons not despite but precisely because of their absurd and unexpected genre-switching about-face endings after the buzz around 2019 theatrical release Serenity. Meanwhile, the latter subgenre, Lovecraftian romance, has been growing in popularity since 2014’s indie horror Spring but has gained more mainstream traction with last year’s Lovecraft Country HBO series and 2019 indie hit Color out of Space. So, how does the ending of What Lies Below play into, and toy with, these recent cinematic trends?
What Happens In What Lies Below’s Strange Ending
The ending of What Lies Below is a confusing scene, but the important details are that Libby realizes a little too late that her mom’s new boyfriend is actually not a human at all, but instead some sort of freshwater fish person with a dastardly plan to impregnate human women and propagate his strange race, creating unseen human-monster hybrids akin to those cooked up by the devious android David in Alien: Covenant. He’s been studying lampreys because they can survive in saltwater as well as freshwater and whatever species John is part of can not, hence his allergic reaction to saltwater in one early bit of foreshadowing. Libby discovers her mother trapped in a water tank in the basement, where John is attempting to force her to birth an unseen fish-human hybrid. Fortunately, she’s able to briefly free her and make a run for it as John transforms into his fish-person self and vomits up a strange blue light. However, moments later, the young heroine awakens to find herself trapped in an identical basement water tank, only for John Smith to pour this same blue light into her mouth and presumably impregnate Libby herself.
What Was John Smith?
From the little that What Lies Below shows of his true form, John Smith was actually a scaly fish-person monster. Like Alien’s Xenomorph, the biology of this movie monster is difficult to discern, but the movie does show that he can transform into a human, can’t touch saltwater, and, according to the last scenes of the movie’s ending, is working with numerous other members of his species to impregnate human women. John Smith’s creature design will be familiar to fans of iconic horror author HP Lovecraft, and his status as a part-fish, part-human monster seems to be inspired by the famous short story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (loosely adapted to the screen as Dagon).
Is Libby Going To Live? Is Her Mother Dead?
The ending of What Lies Below gives viewers no reason to think Libby won’t survive, as in the closing moments she is smiling from her water-tank prison. However, if she lives, it will likely be as one of John’s fish-human hybrids, bearing him and the rest of his species children. She may seem content with this fate, judging by her inexplicable Midsommar-style final shot smile, but it seems unlikely that Libby will be able to engineer an escape or inform the authorities. However, John may have been able to compel her to stay through some form of chemical mind control, as he holds an inexplicable sway over her mother earlier in the film. Speaking of Libby’s mother, who was last seen escaping with Libby and is never seen again after Libby awakens recaptured, she is most likely dead as the fish-people were able to replace her with her younger daughter (early on, John is angered to learn that Libby’s mom may be too old to bear more children). It’s a grim ending not unlike that of the aforementioned direct Lovecraft adaptation Dagon, wherein the hero is doomed to breed with the local fish-people while his loved ones are killed by their kind.
Related: Netflix’s Ridiculous Behind Her Eyes Twist Ending Explained
What Do What Lies Below’s Fish-People Represent?
A shadowy group of identical men who hope to propagate their species by controlling the bodies of others, What Lies Below’s fish-people re-contextualize the racially charged monsters of Lovecraft to make a statement about bodily autonomy and cultural misogyny. There isn’t a specific culture that What Lies Below appears to be critiquing, but the fact that John Smith is a scientist actively involved in research studies could be seen as an argument that developments in technology don’t always bring with them social progress and can instead be achieved in service of outdated, harmfully obsolete world views.
Unlike most narratives wherein the love interest is revealed to be a monster at the end, John Smith isn’t portrayed as a sympathetic or understandable figure. Anthology horrors such as Tales From the Dark Side: The Movie and The Outer Limits’ episode “First Anniversary” frequently featured tearful individual female monsters who didn’t want to kill their male love interests, but couldn’t help eventually revealing their true form. In contrast, What Lies Below, in an unusual move for a Lovecraftian romance, depicts a well-organized group of male monsters who are actively trying to seduce and control women, making their bodies into breeding chambers for their monstrous species. As a result, the ending reads as more of a commentary on the importance of preserving bodily autonomy than a standard story of love blinding one partner to reality until it is too late.
The Real Meaning Of What Lies Below’s Ending
Like Into The Dark’s recent outing Tentacles and the earlier Lovecraftian romance Spring, What Lies Below uses eldritch horror tropes to symbolize a character falling so deeply for their romantic paramour that they don’t notice their monstrous side. However, unlike those earlier examples, here it is a male love interest who is secretly a monster, and the depiction of the master is less a sympathetic, tragic figure and more an actively malignant, duplicitous creature. With Libby not only warning her mother that John Smith seems too good to be true but eventually also informing her mother that John attempted to assault her, only for her mother to not believe her, the ending of What Lies Below also addresses the importance of believing victims and not falling for the seemingly sweet veneer of many predators (not unlike the ending of Promising Young Woman). Given how impressive John Smith’s buff physique, lucrative career, and apparent charm are, the message of the movie’s shocking ending is to never judge a book by its cover and instead watch out for What Lies Below.
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