In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.” This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics. With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot. Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme.
The horror genre has gone through a lot of phases over the years, some of them more reputable than others. One phase that people like to forget is one that emerged in the late 80s and early 90s just as the initial slasher-movie craze was starting to wane and the post-Scream slasher revival hadn’t started yet. These movies all shared one common trait: they were all about upper class (or at least upper-middle class) people and families being plagued by an outside threat. These weren’t all horror movies really, many of them would better be classified as thrillers, but they definitely shared some conventions with more conventional horror movies. In fact, as these movies got more popular some argued that these movies are really just Freddy Krueger movies with a veneer of sophistication that’s been painted onto them.
The commercial highpoint of the genre was almost certainly the 1987 film Fatal Attraction, in fact the very existence of the genre may be entirely attributed to screenwriters ripping off that blockbuster, which is probably why almost all of them are about people who suddenly have crazy people enter their lives. These movies were respected at the time, well at least more respected than other horror movies. Many of them had high profile directors and featured fairly famous actors who would have never been caught dead starring in conventional horror movies at this time. And yet, this is a movement that is largely forgotten about today and those who do remember it do so with a certain amount embarrassment or at least disinterest. This is why I’m pretty curious to see how they hold up, so I’m going to watch the yuppie horror films I’ve yet to see as part of this special Halloween installment of the Crash Course.
The Stepfather (1987)
Almost every time the police capture a serial killer you hear people who knew them say they seemed like the nicest most unassuming people they ever knew… which is pretty far removed from the serial killers you saw in most 80s horror films like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. The Stepfather is in many ways an attempt to bring the conventions of 80s slasher films to a slightly more realistic and down to earth murder story. Based on the story of real life killer John List, the film opens by revealing that a man has murdered his family and casually left them behind. It then shifts to one year later and we’re horrified to learn that he’s remarried to a widow with a teenage daughter and seems to be replaying the cycle all over again.
Terry O’Quinn (yeah, John Locke himself) plays the titular stepfather, and the movie is probably best remembered for his performance. Indeed, he does a great job of showing the many sides of this psycho and does a great job of shifting from being an upstanding family man to being an obsessive killer. That said, pretty much every other performance in the movie is really lousy. That extends to a lot of things about the film because as much as this anticipates the yuppie horror trend it also keeps one foot firmly planted in the world of low budget slasher movies (it is not a coincidence that this is the only of the yuppie horror movies here that was made before Adrian Lyne classed up the genre with Fatal Attraction). The film has a lot of Friday the 13th style stedicam shots, a jarring scene of gratuitous nudity, and a truly horrendous John Carpenter-wannabe synth score.
So why is such a poorly made film considered something of a well-remembered genre classic? Mainly because it’s actually pretty thematically rich for what it is. While most slasher movies are about the horrors of the world invading idyllic suburban lives, this movie suggests that maybe the pursuit of that idyllic lifestyle is where that horror begins. The titular stepfather is a man who seems to be obsessed with the idealized “Leave it to Beaver” nuclear family and lashes out when his new families are unable to live up to that ideal. In many ways the film could actually be viewed as an allegory for domestic violence as it’s perceived by children in the way that the stepfather uses the veneer of wholesome family life to hide his violent tendencies and the way the wife puts up with his erratic behavior for reasons the daughter cannot really understand. So, if you’re the kind of person who likes to over-analyze exploitation B-movies (and I sort of am) then this movie will give you food for thought but if that doesn’t interest you I wouldn’t really recommend it.
**1/2 out of Four
Dead Calm (1989)
Given that it’s set on a damn yacht, Dead Calm would seem to be the yuppiest of yuppie horror films. However, it actually differs from other movies in the genre in a handful of ways. The most obvious is that it’s clearly a larger production than most of these movies given that it’s set on the open sea in a couple of boats. Also, while it is technically a movie about a crazy person entering the lives of an unsuspecting family, the fact that he’s crazy is made clear pretty quickly and there isn’t the same creeping dread about the fact that the yuppies are in an increasing amount of danger. In fact, it plays out much more like a straight-up adventure movie than I was expecting. The film opens on a horrific accident in which a married couple’s child is killed and I was kind of expecting the film to take on an Antichrist-like tone of greif-stricken isolation that would inform the rest of the movie, but they actually forget about that loss pretty quickly and just focus on their own predicament for most of the movie.
The couple in question are played by Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman, who both give reasonable if unspectacular performances. The more questionable casting is probably Billy Zane, as the lunatic who sets off this series of unfortunate events. This is a character who should have dominated the film, but I don’t really know that Zane brought the overwhelming menace he needed to. It’s kind of a waste because this is an open invitation to chew the hell out of a lot of scenery and there are other actors who could have done a lot with it. Otherwise I’d say that the movie plays out at a consistent B+ level, with some tense scenes played very well and other scenes sort of botched. This is one of those thrillers where you sometimes feel like the protagonists are making a lot of blunders just to keep the film going which they otherwise wouldn’t make. Kidman is probably given a half dozen opportunities to kill Zane which go unused for example. Still the movie does a reasonably good job of keeping things going and mixing it up over the course of the film.
If there’s one thing worth examining more deeply it’s probably the film’s gender politics. Some of the film’s more rapey elements would probably not go over very well today, but there is an inversion of the damsel in distress trope going on here that is worth commenting on. Once the main conflict is in place it seems like we’re meant to expect Kidman to be held captive as Neil rushes to save her, but this isn’t how it plays out. Rather, Kidman ends up saving herself (more or less) and it ends up being Neil who needs to be saved by Kidman at the end (at least until the obviously studio mandated coda at the end which is best left ignored). It’s stuff like that which gives Dead Calm the appearance of something special, but really it’s kind of a missed opportunity. It’s got a good setup but never really gets the psychological tone right and I think it indulged some dumb studio notes. Still, it’s a serviceable thriller which definitely has its moments.
*** out of Four
Pacific Heights (1990)
While The Stepfather predated Fatal Attraction and Dead Calm was different enough that it didn’t really need to live in its shadow, Pacific Heights is the first of the yuppie horror films to be pretty obviously inspired by the success of that Adrian Lynne film in 1987. Here we are once again treated to a pair of upper middle class people (albeit a little younger this time) who find their lives turned upside down when a crazy person shows up in it. This time we look at a young couple (Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith) are the new owners of an apartment building that they have purchased at great risk by taking out a mortgage that they can only pay if they collect all their rent payments promptly. The plan is upended when a man named Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton) becomes one of their first tenants and promptly begins acting strangely. He makes noise all through the night but never answers the door and his rent payments haven’t shown up either and when these inexperienced landlords try to evict him he finds a number of ways to dodge the orders.
The film is in certain ways a 1990s answer to Cape Fear (it was made a year before Martin Scorsese’s remake) in that it’s about a psychopath who terrorizes a family without ever really breaking any laws and occasionally making them look like the bad guy. Unlike Cape Fear, Carter Hayes’ motivations are never entirely clear. Sometimes he comes off like he’s merely a con man who hopes to profit from what he’s doing, other times he seems like he just gets off on causing mischief, and sometimes he seems like a straight-up psycho. The goal of the movie is to put you in the shoes of these landlords who suddenly find themselves in the middle of this kafka-esque spiral of trouble. However, the movie sort of undercuts this by making its protagonists (but particularly the Matthew Modine character) almost impossible to relate to or sympathize with. The Modine character is a flat out impulsive moron who brings most of his problems on himself by getting ridiculously aggressive and making mind-bogglingly stupid decisions at every turn and never fucking learns. He makes the boyfriend in Paranormal Activity look calm and collected by comparison. The Melanie Griffith character is a bit more likable and proves to be more capable than she looks by the end, but she’s also under-developed and Griggith’s performance isn’t much better than Modine’s.
Michael Keaton obviously gives the standout performance here, but I still don’t know that I’d really call Carter Hayes a particularly good villain. In fact I strongly suspect that earlier versions of the script (or perhaps early cuts of the film even) had Hayes being less of a dangerous psychopath and more of a jackass trying to rip people off and that this was changed at the last minute by a studio note that demanded that the film play more like a thriller and that a bunch of shots of Keaton behaving like a sinister creep be added which don’t really get followed through on. There’s a really bizarre scene with Hayes right at the very beginning of the film that seems to be completely incongruous with everything that comes after and I can’t help but wonder if this is a residual piece of that alternate version of the film. Who knows, at the end of the day this just isn’t nearly as good of a film as it could have been. It’s certainly beneath the dignity of director John Schlesinger (who seemed to have fallen off in a big way during the 80s) and is generally just kind of forgettable.
** out of Four
The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992)
Director Curtis Hanson has had a pretty wacky career all told. He started out making B-grade comedies like Losin’ It, then became the maker of slick if schlocky and dated Hollywood thrillers, then out of nowhere he became a legitimate prestige filmmaker in the late 90s and early 2000s when he made L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys, and 8 Mile but then kind of fell apart again and has only made mediocrities in the ensuing years. The film I’m looking at today is obviously from that middle period, a yuppie horror film called The Hand that Rocks the Cradle about a crazy nanny who tries to get revenge on the woman who brought rape allegations against her now deceased husband by infiltrating the family, making the mother look bad, and then killing her and taking her place.
Obviously this premise is pretty wacky and wouldn’t be too out of place in a soap opera. In usual yuppie horror movie tradition it’s a story of a crazy person entering into a rich couple’s otherwise perfect lives and using lies, trickery, and murder to try to destroy what they have. This time around their doing this through a relationship that is especially yuppie-ish: that of a family and their live-in nanny. Yeah, I know, it’s something that only a select handful of rich people (most likely including the execs who green lit the thing) are likely to relate to. However, there is sort of something there. Late in the movie there’s a scene where the crazy nanny says something along the lines of “When your husband makes love to you, it’s my face he sees! When your baby is hungry, it’s my breast that feeds him. Look at you! When push comes to shove, you can’t even breathe.” She’s plainly delusional about some of that, but she’s not entirely wrong: when you hire someone else to do all of your parenting are you really that child’s parent anymore? It’s a question that was addressed a little more tastefully (if with mawkish sentimentality) in the 2011 film The Help, but in its own thriller way the same theme is addressed here as well.
The problem with this movie isn’t so much a matter of theme as it is a matter of execution. For one thing, the screenplay (written by Amanda Silver who would go on to write Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes of all things) could have been a lot smarter than it is. For example I think the movie would have been a lot more interesting if the crazy nanny’s revenge had been motivated by an actual legitimate beef rather than some delusional notion that her husband didn’t deserve what he got. Beyond that though, I think the cast sort of lets this film down. Annabella Sciorra is alright as the protagonist, but Rebecca De Mornay just doesn’t really bring the evil as the crazy nanny. This is a role that probably should have been approached in the most over-the-top scenery-chewing way imaginable, especially in the climax, but De Mornay just didn’t know how to “go there.” Meanwhile Matt McCoy has zero screen presence as the husband and Julianne Moore is hampered by some questionable dialogue and dated hair/costume choices. Then there’s Ernie Hudson who has the absolutely thankless role of the mentally handicapped handyman with a heart of gold who has to save the day at the end. All told, this is one of the more blatant Fatal Attraction wannabe’s of all the yuppie horror flicks and while there’s a kernel of a good idea behind it and one or two effective scenes, the movie as a whole is nothing to write home about.
**1/2 out of Four
Single White Female (1992)
This is that last of a series of “Yuppie Horror” films that I’ve watched, and I kind of assumed that this would be the nadir of the genre. While I wouldn’t call it a great movie by any means, I was actually surprised to find it a cut above some of its peers and overall I found it to probably be the strongest of the five movies I looked at. Why is that? Well, I think it’s mostly because of the performances. As the title implies, this is a younger and more urban variety of yuppie that we’re dealing with this time around. The main character (played by Bridget Fonda) is a computer programmer (an occupation which allows the film to use a very old-school version of the internet in a couple of scenes) who has just broken up with her live-in boyfriend (Steven Weber) after she discovers that he’s been unfaithful. To fill the void and help pay for her expensive New York apartment she puts out an ad for a new roommate which is answered by a somewhat awkward but occasionally charming woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Given that this is a Yuppie horror movie and all of those involve people getting their lives torn apart after they accidentally let an insane person into their homes… you can probably guess how well that works out.
Say what you will about yuppie horror movies, but for the most part they were generally able to get strong casts, and then squander them. Previous yuppie horror movies have had people like Nicole Kidman, Michael Keaton, Melanie Griffith, Matthew Modine, Michael Keaton, and Julianne Moore but they haven’t always been able to elicit the best out of these talented actors. On paper the cast here probably actually looks weaker than some of the other films, but I think they mostly do a better job than I expected. Jennifer Jason Leigh in particular really does some standout work here as the crazy roommate. They don’t actually say it in the script but her character is actually supposed to have a Borderline Personality Disorder rather than just some unspecified form of insanity, and the way that this escalates over the course of the film feels more natural than it usually does in these films. That isn’t to say that this is going to necessarily be a 100% authentic depiction of mental illness, and I’m sure a trained psychiatrist would say that the depiction isn’t really that much less silly than the ones in the other movies on paper, but Jennifer Jason Leigh sells it and makes it feel real. I don’t want to oversell her work, it isn’t Oscar-worthy or anything, but there is something to be said for weaving gold from straw like this.
Single White Female was directed by Barbet Schroeder and it was kind of an odd choice for him given that he’d just made the excellent film Reversal of Fortune. You’d think that a critical and awards success like that would give him the clout to make another prestige film, so why was he making a uber-mainstream thriller like this? I’m not really sure what the story is there, but I think he more or less did do the best with what he was given. Like most of these films, this does tap into a real life anxiety of middle-class life, specifically the awkwardness of sharing a space with a relative stranger, especially when they maybe start getting a little too close even when you maybe don’t want them to be. This isn’t a perfect movie either, it’s probably one of the less intense examples of the genre once it gets past the psychological cold war and gets into the cat fighting. Still, while I don’t want to oversell it too much, this is probably the yuppie horror film with the fewest problematic performances and the fewest odd cringe inducing moments.
*** out of Four
So what have I learned from watching all off these yuppie horror films? Not a whole lot really. I am a little curious about what was in the water during the late 80s and early 90s to make people so afraid of meeting people who turn out to be crazy. All five of the films had their pros and cons. The Stepfather had the most political subtext but a fairly trashy aura, Dead Calm had the best production values and the most creative concept but was also never really able to maintain psychological tension, Pacific Heights was probably the most realistic (relatively speaking) but had some of the most annoying protagonists, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle… has the best title I guess but was the most shamelessly calculated, and Single White Female has the best acting and the least ridiculous depiction of mental illness (again, relatively speaking) but was maybe less able to throw down once the gloves came off. I’ve already mentioned that Single White Female is probably my favorite of the three, but it might have benefited from expectations that had gotten pretty low at that point in the series. All five of these movies were fairly minor blips on the pop culture radar, they each had minor elements to make them stand out a little, but overall they don’t register to quickly on our collective memory. Still they were fun to watch together and compare and I’m glad I decided to check them out in this context.