31 Days to Scare ~ The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

1

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. 

Mid-Day Mini ~ Backdraft

backdraft_ver1

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two Chicago firefighter brothers who don’t get along have to work together while a dangerous arsonist is on the loose.

Stars: Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Scott Glenn, Rebecca De Mornay, Donald Sutherland

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: R

Running Length: 137 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

ReviewBackdraft was one of those films that I responded to fairly well when I first saw it at a second-run theater in the summer of 1991.  Already familiar with the work of director Ron Howard (Parenthood) and as the proud grandson of a firefighter, I remember liking the drama created between two firefighting brothers and enjoying a secondary storyline involving an arsonist that seems to know a thing or two about setting buildings ablaze. 

Viewed nearly 22 years later (!),this film which once seemed epic to me now feels a little too soap opera-y, a feeling aided by the fact that it’s filled with some off-the-mark performances.  Don’t get me wrong, Howard stages some still impressive eye-popping sequences involving fire up close and personal but seen now there’s a curious lack of restraint that made the movie feel longer than it was.

Russell and Baldwin aren’t totally believable as brothers but they find some cohesion in their macho roughness that helps color the film  We’re told that Baldwin has flitted around a lot, much to the disapproval of his older brother who has followed their father’s career path and has become a respected fireman.  When the younger brother gets into the family business and is assigned to the same station as his elder sibling there’s some old wounds that re-open…especially when deadly fires start being set that Russell’s character may be involved with.

This being a Ron Howard movie, there’s a lot going on at all times and the large supporting cast of familiar character actors pop up here and there and are generally put to good use.  Sutherland (Ordinary People) has two short scenes as a jailed arsonist but makes the most of his onscreen time.  De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) and De Mornay (Mother’s Day) make the most impressive impact in their roles…the most fleshed out in Gregory Widen’s slight script.  While I appreciate Leigh for some of her more out of the box performances her work here is embarrassingly poor…

If the film has lost some heat over the last two decades, it’s only the fault of some changes in taste.  There was a time when these type of emotion-driven, large-scale films played quite well and there’s still value to be found in the film thanks to some strong performances (I forgot to mention that Russell is particularly good here) and Howard’s trademark immersive production design.  If the script could have been elevated a bit and some recasting done we may have had a film that weathered the furnace of time.