31 Days to Scare ~ The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A distraught woman becomes a nanny to exact revenge for the loss of her baby and husband.

Stars: Annabella Sciorra, Rebecca De Mornay, Matt McCoy, Ernie Hudson, Madeline Zima, Julianne Moore, John de Lancie

Director: Curtis Hanson

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Here it is folks, the halfway point of 31 Days to Scare and you’re getting a real gem as a reward for making it to Day 15.  One of the all-time greats in the realm of the psychological thriller that the 1990’s delivered so very nicely, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is a bona fide blockbuster that I can still remember my parents taking me to at a special Saturday night sneak preview.  This is one of those “special previews” that you had to pay for the privilege of seeing and oh boy, was it worth it.  To sit in a packed theater (one of those tiny Har Mar screens for you Minnesotans) and hear the audience react to the suspense generated from this nanny from hell potboiler is something I’ve never forgotten…even as it approaches its 30th anniversary.

In truth, much of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle feels even more slimy than it did back in January of 1992 when it was released and dominated the box office for a surprising four weeks.  The first act of it hinges on a pregnant Seattle woman being sexually molested by her gynecologist, a violation that causes a chain reaction of events which leaves him dead by suicide and, unbeknownst to the woman who has brought a high-profile lawsuit against him, the doctors own pregnant wife losing their unborn child along with her ability to have further children and their entire life savings.  Life goes on for the woman and her family but the broken women who lost everything lives in a darkness she can’t escape from.

Months pass and Claire (Anabella Sciorra, who would star in another less successful thriller, Whispers in the Dark, the next year) is getting ready to go back to work after giving birth and needs live-in help for her baby, young daughter, and other tasks she might not have time for.  They already have handyman Solomon (Ernie Hudson, Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters) from a local group home who has helped to build a greenhouse in the back, but Clarie and her husband Michael (Matt McCoy, DeepStar Six) need an experienced professional to watch the baby.  Into their lives comes what appears to be the perfect nanny, Peyton Flanders (Rebecca De Mornay, Backdraft) and she checks all the right boxes, is hired, and moves in with the family.  Of course, we know she’s the wife of Claire’s abuser, but the family is blissfully unaware at first, enjoying the friendly caregiver that says all the right things to the wife, flirts just enough with the husband, and mothers the daughter when her own parent is too distracted to be there.  Then there’s her plan to win over the baby…

She doesn’t win over everyone though…and that’s what Peyton doesn’t quite count on.  Solomon sees through the cheery veneer from the start, but Peyton makes it clear he shouldn’t mess with her (in another one of the film’s moments that wouldn’t fly today but still lands with the intended sharp sting) unless he wants his tenure to end prematurely.  Her biggest obstacle is family friend Marlene (a sharp and sly Julianne Moore, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, already showing the potential for the movie star she was poised to become) who feels challenged in some way by Peyton and sets out to get to the bottom of the nanny’s strange behavior…to her own downfall. 

As audience members, we know the solution to the mystery the characters are trying to solve so the suspense on that end is lacking but the tension scores high points for how and when it will come out and what the reaction will be.  The wait is more than worth it – again, I’ll say that I won’t ever forget Sciorra’s way of informing De Mornay her services are no longer needed or the way the audience cheered when she did.  This type of audience together-ness is what I miss about movies such as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or Sleeping with the Enemy from the year before.  These were movies that were building to a climax the audience was craving and the filmmakers actually followed through and gave them what they wanted.  That’s why audiences stomp their feet and applaud at denouement…because they are so satisfying if a director and cast have set them up right.

While Sciorra is very good here and top billed make no mistake, this is De Mornay’s film all the way.  With her ice blue eyes and Hitchcock blonde hair, De Mornay had a brief career bump thanks to her performance and rightfully so.  It’s not easy playing a villain (it’s fun, not easy) and still giving it human traits but De Mornay makes Peyton a person that experienced a loss first, a vengeance-seeker second.  Winning an MTV Movie Award as Best Villain (naturally), De Mornay turns on a dime from the sweet to a bitter cold that is acutely chilling and it’s terrifying.  Even changing the timbre of her voice gives the character a different kind of depth to her predatory nature is downright frightening.  I’ve always loved what Hudson brings to any movie but it’s admittedly hard to watch him (or any actor, let’s be honest) play someone with intellectual disabilities.  The performance doesn’t age quite as well because of it.  Moore is sublime, whether she’s puffing on a cigarette (which she is frequently during the movie), badgering her assistant, or squaring off with the nanny, she’s a force onscreen.  She’s have to wait a few more years before the A-list came calling but she was about to move up the ranks quickly.

Written by 29-year-old Amanda Silver (who would go on to write the Planet of the Apes movies as well as two other movies I might be doing for this column soon, so I won’t mention them) and directed by future Oscar winner (for L.A. Confidential) Curtis Hanson, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is fortified filmmaking that was built to last.  Even running nearly two hours, there’s barely anything that lags and it just continues to pick up speed as it nears its conclusion.  I’m sure critics at the same longed for something that didn’t get quite so conventional, but it has whipped the audience into such a frenzy that it could only end the way it does.  Highly rewatchable, it’s a film I can watch anytime I see it on TV or someone suggests it.  I mean, I’ll go for De Mornay threatening to beat up grade school bullies on a playground or getting uncomfortably close to Ernie Hudson like a lioness smelling her prey any day of the week. 

31 Days to Scare ~ DeepStar Six

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The crew of an experimental underwater nuclear base are forced to struggle for their lives when their explorations disturb a creature who threatens to destroy their base.

Stars: Taurean Blacque, Nancy Everhard, Greg Evigan, Miguel Ferrer, Nia Peeples, Matt McCoy, Cindy Pickett, Marius Weyers, Elya Baskin, Thom Bray, Ronn Carroll

Director: Sean S. Cunningham

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Coming up on the near halfway mark of 31 Days to Scare, I figured it was time to bring out a bit of nostalgia by way of this underwater creature feature from 1989 that was the first release of The Big Three that year which have gone on to become an infamous trio.  Along with Leviathan and the much more well known (and respected) The Abyss, DeepStar Six wound up suffering by comparison with the later releases which came in with bigger budgets and certainly in the case of The Abyss, more technical polish.  Making the least of all three at the box office (a paltry $8 million) it developed a nice cult following when released on VHS and it’s not hard to see why. Looked at now, it’s a perfect Friday night popcorn selection that’s easy on the rump and, thanks to its appealing cast, far less onerous to spend time with than Leviathan.

It does take its sweet time to get going, though.

Let’s back up.  Developed by writer Lewis Abernathy (who, in an odd twist, wound up working with The Abyss director James Cameron, on his Titanic doc, Ghosts of the Abyss) and co-written by Geof Miller, the film wears its bones as an Alien rip off almost proudly.  A crew of an underwater nuclear base is just about finished with their project when a routine day turns into a nightmare after a cave system is discovered and a crack in the ocean floor unleashes a prehistoric creature that only has destruction on its mind.  As the tiny crew races to find a way to get to the surface before they’re either eaten, drown, or explode from the pressurized base being compromised, it comes down to a precious few to prevent the beast from escaping into the depths of the ocean where it may never be caught.

Why this massive predator doesn’t just hightail it out of there once it’s freed from its crusty cove is a question you just shouldn’t consider for the sake of your own entertainment value.  Instead, just concentrate on the fun of the 75 or so minutes where it’s causing a whole heap of problems for the crew, led by McBride (Greg Evigan) and Collins (Nancy Everhard).  Both actors are convincingly heroic in their bid for main action star and even with the not so hot success of the film it’s strange neither could parlay the work in DeepStar Six into something bigger (or better) after this.  An amusing twist to this film is that often the predator outside is no match for the troublemaker inside, and the whiny mechanic Snyder is played to perfection by the late great Miguel Ferrer.  All the crew actually interacts well with each other, from Cindy Pickett as the kindly physician onboard to Nia Peeples playing a pretty marine biologist wanting to be taken seriously…and then has a shower scene with late ‘80s hunk Matt McCoy from The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.

One could argue that the set-up takes a little longer than necessary because at some point you feel the script and actors start to list restless in the water as the action comes to a slow grind…what is director Sean S. Cunningham waiting for?  Showing the same kind of interest in getting to know the doomed before sending them off to meet their maker that he did with the original Friday the 13th, Cunningham was never a director with a knack for flair but admittedly there’s a lot to juggle with DeepStar Six from large set pieces to visual effects.  Iffy though they are, and pretty silly as it nears the conclusion, some of the practical effects of the creature wind up looking sort of nice and there are several nasty bits of gore along the way that remain memorable moments for this viewer.

I’m not going to argue the merits of DeepStar Six compared to James Cameron’s impressively epic achievement of The Abyss, which remains one of my all-time favorites (where is that dang 4K BluRay?!?!) but I will stand up for this scrappy film to any fan of Leviathan.  That movie has a larger ick factor, making the threat more of a body horror parasite at first before giving way to something bigger but DeepStar Six is a monster feature that feels like a nice nod to the B-movies back in the day.  It’s definitely going for its own thing, and one must remember this came before all of the so-called imitators – and for that it has to get some credit for not being the sixth in line but #1.