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Looking Back: The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992)

In the similar manner that Peyton Flanders sneaks up on the Bartel family, “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” crept up on moviegoers in early 1992 and firmly insinuated itself into pop culture. How under the radar was this movie? Hollywood Pictures (the Disney label that, like Touchstone Pictures, was intended to distribute adult minded movies) had a national sneak preview the week before opening, up against Christian Slater in “Kuffs.” The Mouse House quietly watched as their unassuming, early January release stayed in most theaters well into the summer. Was it a movie of the moment or is there something to director Curtis Hanson’s film that deserves another look?

Hanson’s pre-“L.A. Confidential” body of work was full of efficiently made, mainstream courting suspense thrillers. It would be generous to call them Hitchcockian (although one of them, the Steve Guttenberg-starring “The Bedroom Window,” was clearly a nod to “Rear Window”). Hanson’s films lacked the finese of De Palma in his element but still worked as in-the-moment button pushers with top of the line talent and production values.

Rebecca De Mornay stars as Peyton, the disgraced wife of a sleazy doctor (an excellent, vivid bit by John De Lancie), who loses her baby after her husband’s scandalous secret becomes local news. Peyton directs her rage at the patient who reported her husband’s disgraceful behavior: Claire Bartel (played by Annabelle Sciorra), the mother of a cute little girl and wife to Michael (played by Matt McCoy). In disguise as a nanny for hire, Peyton charms the Bartel family (who has no idea of her true identity), moves in with them and finds little ways to torture Claire and drive her apart from her husband and daughter.

Coming after Hanson’s “The Bedroom Window” and “Bad Influence,” “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” oddly plays like a secular alternative to William Friedkin’s 1990 “The Guardian,” which sports a similar premise but with a spotty supernatural angle. Hanson’s film lacks the technical acumen of Friedkin’s much wilder horror film but, because it doesn’t stumble in the third act (whereas “The Guardian” falls apart in the home stretch), it’s the superior film.

De Mornay is terrific and carries this from start to finish. She’s played lots of girlfriends and wives but her icy beauty and under-utilized acting range had never been properly showcased before this. McCoy, the likable-enough lead of “Police Academy 5,” and Sciorra are very good here but Peyton’s plan of revenge is so well orchestrated, I found myself rooting against the Bartels.

There are odd touches in Amanda Silver’s screenplay, like Michael being a “genetic engineer;” during scenes where Peyton visits his place of work, you half expect Dolly the Sheep to walk by. Michael loves Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pinafore,” a touch that works on a thematic level but, really, why is he obsessed with that music (he even sports a framed poster of it in his office!). I kept waiting for the reveal that Michael is a failed actor whose college production of “Pinafore” was the highlight of his life.

Then there’s Solomon, the mentally impaired character who comes to work for the Bartel family, becomes close with their daughter and falls victim to Peyton’s cruel manipulations. As a character, Solomon is a losing battle for any actor- he’s a plot contrivance and treated horribly. Having Ernie Hudson play the part seems to position the character as an ancient stereotype. Being the only African-American in the cast, Hudson infuses depth and compassion into a role that, on the surface, seems like a bad idea the movie didn’t need. Solomon is too much for this movie, which is already overflowing with exploitation. Solomon has to hold the floor with a suicidal, molesting doctor, his psycho ex (who falsely accuses him of molesting the Bartel’s daughter) and the conveniently placed asthma attacks that plague Claire.

Hudson deserves real credit here- he gives Solomon a soul. Hanson also makes a right choice following the film’s ugliest moment: Peyton pins Solomon against a fence, slandering and threatening him. Hanson wisely keeps the camera on Hudson after the moment  passes, allowing for Solomon to have a moving, dignified moment of reflection. I’d argue that Hanson’s movie would’ve been better off without Solomon but Hudson’s work and the screenplay’s making him the film’s only rational character, counters this.

Julianne Moore, playing Claire’s best friend Marlene, makes her second film appearance (after a delicious turn in “Tales From The Darkside- The Movie) and nearly steals it from DeMornay. I loved the moment when Marlene recognizes Claire’s perfume, “Poison,” and names it while looking directly at Peyton.

The “Fatal Attraction” comparison is inevitable but unmerited, as Adrian Lynne’s blockbuster (and Time Magazine cover story) is a class act until its famously compromised finale. On the other hand, Hanson embraces the sleaziness, blatantly manipulative twists and in-your-face trashiness of Silver’s script from start to finish. “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” is basically “Fatal Attraction”-lite, as it tapped into the zeitgeist and, its most noteworthy distinction, inspired  decade’s worth of Lifetime TV movies.

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