Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Double Bill review: Curtis Hanson

Bad Influence (1990)

Curtis Hanson seemed to be one of the most up-and-coming directors in the nineties, directing a string of well received thrillers that drew favourable comparisons with the master of that genre, Alfred Hitchcock. Hanson is a very measured, quite old fashioned director. He's far less hip and flashy as Tarantino or Rodriguez who hogged a lot of the limelight of that decade which perhaps explains why he's a little overlooked.

Bad Influence was a big break for not only Hanson but also for David Koepp who would go on to write a string of blockbusters from Jurassic Park to Mission: Impossible to Spider-man. The early nineties saw a series of horror thrillers that were set in ordinary cities and suburbs. Some were comic like The 'Burbs, while others were serious like Pacific Heights and Single White Female. Bad Influence falls very much in the latter camp. Whereas the preceding decade had dealt with supernatural killers such as Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, the nineties would be characterised by ordinary people turning out to be killers (see Scream series).

James Spader plays Michael, an everyman office drone whose crushingly dull and stressful existence is giving him stomach ulcers. He's been passed over for a promotion at work and his girlfriend is forcing him into a marriage he isn't interested in. His life seems to take a turn for the better however when he's saved from a bar room brawl by Alex (Rob Lowe), a mysterious drifter. The two become friends and Alex starts to teach Michael to take more control and become more assertive. However what starts as small bits of motivational banter quickly turn into something way more serious when Alex gets Michael high and takes him on a convenience store robbery. Perhaps Alex's “bad influence” is more dangerous than Michael thinks.

The film trades heavily on the bad boy image Rob Lowe that he got stuck with following the sex tape scandal of 1988. To be fair he gives the role his all, his square jaw and pretty boy smile make him a perfect choice for the role. James Spader, too, is brilliantly cast as Michael. Spader excels in playing these outwards simple but inwardly complex characters. There's just something very off about him.

This film's been somewhat forgotten but it actually bears a lot of similarities with David Fincher's Fight Club that came out several years later. Again, a powerless office worker happens to meet an assertive friend who helps him become more confident only for everything to get out of hand. Where as Fight Club played with the idea of the two men being separate parts of one person's mind, Bad Influence plays it far straighter. In fact the major downside to Bad Influence is that it's third act is a bit of damp squib. Whereas Fight Club I felt successfully kept ramping up the tension right until it's superb climax.

Like Fight Club, Bad Influence is mostly enjoyable just to watch the two men stick two fingers up to society's precious rules and conventions. In Freudian terms James Spader is the Ego while Rob Lowe is the Id. In someways Bad Influence is also a little bit of a commentary on the eighties too with Alex playing the classic amoral yuppie and Michael playing the more responsible nineties man.

This is a nice little unpretentious thriller that maybe plays it a little too safe but is worth checking out. Particularly anyone who enjoyed Fight Club and wants to see a similar flick or just anyone who enjoy watching James Spader.

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992)

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle was Hanson's immediate follow-up to Bad Influence and it has a very similar theme. An outsider moves into someone's life and starts to systemically destroy it without the person noticing until it's almost too late. However there are two major differences, the first is that the protagonist and antagonist are female this time around, and the second is that the outsider infiltrates a family rather than just a single man's life, upping the stakes considerably.

Annabella Sciorra plays Claire, an expectant mother who accuses her gynaecologist of inappropriate touching. Rather than face the courts, the doctor hangs himself and the family move on with their life. Claire gives birth to a baby boy while the doctor's wife (Rebecca De Mornay), who was also pregnant, has a still birth. Months later Claire is trying to find a nanny for a baby boy and her five year old girl Emma and offers the job to Peyton, a homely young woman. However what she doesn't know is that “Peyton” is really the doctor's wife, bent on wrecking Claire's life as revenge.

Cradle is, for all intents and purpose, a horror film for women. Whereas most horror/thriller films deal with male issues and male protagonists, Cradle is purely about female fears; the fear of sexual assault, the fear of harm coming to your children, the fear of your husband straying; the fear of not being able to trust your nanny. It's a wonder no one thought of making this film earlier. Well actually William Friedkin did make The Guardian in 1990 which had a similar story but it's supernatural undertones proved unpopular with audiences.

The whole film is very slick and calculated in both the script and the directing. The test of a good thriller is where no scenes seem dispensable and none feel like that in this film. Every scene and character sets up something down the line. Hanson keeps the film moving at a nice brisk pace. The large house set is good but Hanson flies a little too close to the winds of cliché with their white picket fence.

Again, this film has some excellent casting. Most surprising has to be Matt McCoy (aka Nick Lassard from Police Academy 5 & 6) who is something of a revelation as Claire's husband. The top acting honours have to go to Rebecca De Mornay who creates a truly duplicitous and menacing villain. The only player to let the team down is Ernie Hudson who plays a mental handicapped gardener. It's always hard pulling disabled characters off in films, I'm not saying Hudson was terrible, just a bit off.

Cradle and Bad Influence are both about how delicate our existence is and how something very small can completely shatter it. Of the two films Cradle is the far superior film, though Bad Influence didn't explain the backstory of Rob Lowe's character (and maybe didn't need to), Cradle is all the more satisfying for giving the background to “Peyton”.

Hanson would go on to make one so-so thriller The River Wild (Cliffhanger on a raft with Meryl Streep instead of Stallone) before creating LA Confidential which is probably his best film. Since then, he seems to have gone cold on making thrillers, which is a shame as all four films show he was a master.

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