31 Days to Scare ~ The Temp (1993)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A troubled businessman’s life is upturned after the arrival of a mysterious female temp worker in his office.

Stars: Timothy Hutton, Lara Flynn Boyle, Dwight Schultz, Oliver Platt, Steven Weber, Colleen Flynn, Faye Dunaway, Scott Coffey, Dakin Matthews, Maura Tierney, Lin Shaye

Director: Tom Holland

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  Tell me if this sounds familiar to you (and if not, humor me).  You’re at home, eaten a nice meal, and are ready for dessert.  You go to the freezer, get out a batch of ice cream that already has a flavor profile…let’s say, Peanut Butter Cup.  Tonight, though, Peanut Butter Cup alone isn’t good enough.  You go to your cupboard and add some M&M’s, a few mini marshmallows, maybe some actual peanut butter cups to gild the lily, and then top it off with some chocolate syrup and whipped cream.  By the time you’re done, there’s this strange creation in front of you that doesn’t resemble what you started with and when you bite into it…you wish you had just left it alone.

That’s sort of what I feel like when thinking about The Temp, the goofy thriller that came out on my birthday in 1993 and made back just a paltry 1/3 of it’s 15-million-dollar budget.  With a strong director (Tom Holland of Thinner & Child’s Play), two Oscar winning actors (Timothy Hutton and Faye Dunaway) and a number of rising stars in its cast, not to mention it’s perfect for the early ‘90s pseudo-suspense set-up, The Temp should have been an easy score for Paramount Pictures.  However, if you read up on the film and even just watching it through, you can tell that it’s been royally messed with on its way to release and either maneuvered into the half-hearted attempt it is, or torpedoed from something more sinister which it feels like it wanted to be.

Of all the offices to stage a murder mystery, a cookie company in Oregon would be the last thing I would think of but that’s exactly where screenwriters Kevin Falls and Tom Engleman post Peter Derns (Hutton, Ordinary People) as a divorced dad with anger management issues recently returned to work after suffering a bit of a breakdown. With his company about to be taken over by a larger corporation looking to trim the executive roster as a cost-saving measure, his paranoid nature is back on high alert almost instantly. To make matters even worse, his personal assistant (Scott Coffey, It Takes Three) just left for paternity leave, and he’s left scrambling to please his own boss (Faye Dunaway, Eyes of Laura Mars, wild-eyed and sweat-lipped from the downbeat) with little notice.

He’s not on his own for long, because he’s soon assigned a temporary assistant, the well-educated Kris (Lara Flynn Boyle, Poltergeist III) who time and time again proves to be Peter’s saving grace.  There’s clearly some kind of electric connection between the two and whatever flirting goes on between them remains on the up and up. This is especially good considering that when his full-time assistant returns Kris has endeared herself enough to stick around and begins to rise up the ranks of the company rather quickly.  So quickly, in fact, that it comes on the heels of a suspicious number of accidents, deaths, and exposed secrets about executives, suggesting that someone on the inside might be making it easy for Kris to have a path forward.  Is it Kris herself or someone else with a vested interest in seeing the others around her fail?

In our current era of #MeToo and understanding more about gender politics in the office workplace, The Temp actually becomes an interesting watch through a more experienced lens.  I’m sure the movie couldn’t have been written exactly as-is now…but could it remain just slightly altered and be more effective?  Possibly.  It’s a shame that it seemed to go through so many test screenings and alterations in post-production.  The well-known tale is the entire final act was reshot, much to the anger of Dunaway who refused to film certain scenes and to the overall confusion of audiences.  What’s there now seems incongruous with the rest of the movie, turning into a half-baked Hitchcock film when it never expressed any interest in being up until that point. 

What it had shown some curiously in exploring were a few nasty deaths and Holland’s expertise in building tension as we waited for some bad things to happen to the employees and friends of Peter. (Look for Single White Female’s Steven Weber, Oliver Platt from Flatliners, and Beautiful Boy’s Maura Tierney in the cast as well.)  One such incident is bloody memorable even today (two words: Paper Shredder) and if The Temp had been more adventurous in exploring those kinds of shocking moments, perhaps it would have been promoted more in theaters from a box office dud to minor success.  It also might have helped Boyle break out more as a film star because while she had notoriety on TV and minor roles in films, leading lady status sadly evaded her.  Hutton and especially Dunaway look embarrassed to be in this by the end, but Boyle stands by the movie throughout, which in a strange way works for her character as well.    

31 Days to Scare ~ Single White Female

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman advertising for a new roommate finds that something very strange is going on with the tenant who decides to move in

Stars: Bridget Fonda, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Steven Weber, Peter Friedman, Stephen Tobolowsky

Director: Barbet Schroeder

Rated: R

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Ahhhh!  It’s movies like Single White Female that make me pine for a revival of the early ‘90s psycho thrillers!  It seemed that two decades ago not a week would go by without the release of another movie about a crazed boyfriend/girlfriend/co-worker/stranger terrorizing some poor unfortunate soul.  Giving birth to an endless trail of sleaze films (and sequels!) these potboilers were slickly produced and often featured top notch actors and directors pushing themselves out of their comfortable blockbuster zone.  Most of these movies are forgotten now, deemed cliché relics of a more exploitative time. Every so often, though, a film like Single White Female earns its place at the top of the heap.

Adapted by Don Roos from the novel SWF Seeks Same by John Lutz and efficiently directed by Barbet Schroeder (coming off of an Oscar nomination for directing Reversal of Fortune in 1990), the movie dives headfirst into its tale of software designer Allison Jones (Bridget Fonda) who winds up with the roommate from hell.  Needing the extra money to make the rent in her spacious New York loft (the place would rent now for thousands of dollars a month) and having recently broken up with her philandering boyfriend Sam (Steven Weber), she posts an ad that attracts a variety of eccentrics.  Arriving at a time when Allison is emotionally fragile, mousy waif Hedra Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight) quickly earns her trust and the keys to the apartment.

At first Hedy and Allie get along swimmingly, but when Sam re-enters the picture Hedy feels like she’s losing her best friend and living situation and she’ll do practically anything to stay where she is.  Next thing you know, Hedy cuts and dyes her hair to match Allie and starts wearing her clothes and that’s when the real weirdness begins…along with the murders.

The film has some interesting blunt obstacles to overcome, not the least of which is Hedy’s inherent oddball-ness from the get-go.  She preys on Allie’s need for companionship, a need that blinds her to the danger Hedy poses to far more than her security deposit.  Leigh brings some extraordinary depth to the role and moves the character from being not just a lunatic but a deeply wounded soul that lashes out when her happiness is threatened.  It’s a layered performance that matches well with Fonda’s sharp edged Allie.  Allie isn’t the sweetest soul either and there’s a little bit of a popular high school cheerleader rooming with the poor misfit outcast vibe to it all.  Makes me miss Fonda’s presence in Hollywood where she’s been sadly absent since 2002.

The film isn’t perfect, failing to explain any of the life that happens outside the walls of the apartment and not doing much in the way of etching out the male roles like Stephen Tobolowsky’s lecherous client of Allie’s and Peter Friedman (Side Effects) as an upstairs neighbor.  Feeling like a play at times, the concentrated claustrophobia of the historic building (beautifully filmed by Luciano Tovoli who did wonders with Suspiria) can be a bit suffocating at times but works in the films favor when it approaches its cat and mouse chase climax.

Aside from some guffaw inducing computer software graphics, Single White Female plays quite well in this age of advanced communication and connection.  It’s always a risk to live with a roommate you don’t know…but at least know you can Facebook stalk them or pull up their criminal history with the touch of a button.  Back in 1992, you had to go with your gut and in 2016 my gut still tells me to watch this thriller every few years.