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[Article] – Underrated Thriller movies 1990-1995: Bad Influences

 

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Posted March 26, 2018 by

 
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Thrillers are defined by the moods they elicit – they aim to give viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, anticipation or anxiety. These films pursue one goal – to keep the audience on the ‘edge of their seats’ as the story builds towards a climax. The plots involve characters which come into conflict with each other or with outside forces which may sometimes be abstract or shadowy.

Some of the overlooked thrillers of the early 1990s fulfilled those criteria in particularly unique ways. Before the Grunge movement of the mid-1990s hailed a return to the anti-materialistic values of the 60s hippies, the late 1980s and early 1990s revelled in the accumulation of wealth and self-gratification which produced yuppies and style-conscious gangsters.

It was also a time of political cynicism and anxiety, with a yearning for the escapism and glamour provided by the Noir movies made back in the 1940s. These concerns produced a varied crop of thrillers, some of which exemplify the particular characteristics of the time:

Pacific Heights (1990)

Director: John Schlesinger

Pacific Heights is a story dealing with a villain intent upon attacking, not your person, but rather your property – a terrifying idea indeed for yuppies of the 1980s and 90s.

The story concerns co-habiting couple Patty Palmer (Melanie Griffith) and Drake Goodman (Matthew Modine) who buy and move into an expensive dream home in a swanky neighbourhood in San Francisco. As they renovate the house, they look for a tenant for the first floor.

Along comes Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton), a fellow yuppie driving a Porsche and flashing wads of cash. Drake is suitably dazzled by this exemplar of money and materialism, even when Carter himself warns, ”I don’t really have traditional kind of credit – you understand?”

The yuppies soon learn the lesson of giving in to greed and that ‘all that glisters is not gold’. The slick operator that takes occupancy of their spare flat is more frightening than any demonic possession, at least from the standpoint of a yuppie landlord – he’s a bad, destructive tenant, who knows his rights under the law – a sinister man who moves in, never pays the rent, saws and hammers in the middle of the night and breeds cockroaches which he delightedly dispatches to other parts of the building.

Carter Hayes is a devil of Mammon himself – a con artist whose strategy is to drive Patty and Drake into foreclosure and then pick up their property at a cheap price. As Hayes steps up a campaign of harassment and destruction to chase them out of their home, the couple must take drastic action.

Director Schlesinger made Pacific Heights with glossy efficiency, rarely pausing for stylish flourishes. Michael Keaton is, as ever, particularly good at playing a diabolical charmer.

State of Grace (1990)

Director: Phil Joanou

State of Grace opens with a reunion in a sleazy New York bar. Absent for a decade, Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) is welcomed back into the fold of his Irish-American Hell’s Kitchen, NY neighbourhood by his best friend Jackie (Gary Oldman).

A one-time street tough, Terry is now an undercover cop, targeting Frankie Flannery (Ed Harris), the leader of an Irish gang. Crime in this neighbourhood is a family affair and Frankie also happens to be Jackie’s older brother.

Rising rents are forcing the gangsters out of the neighbourhood and Frankie has moved to the suburbs where he calls the shots from his middle-class house on a tree-lined street, far from the crimes and drug deals that pay for his mortgage.

The two brothers have a sister named Kathleen (Robin Wright), who is also trying to get out of the Hell’s Kitchen – she works as a clerk in an uptown hotel. Once upon a time, she and Terry were lovers.  As Terry gets closer to his goal, his feelings for his friend Jackie Flannery and his old flame Kathleen complicate his mission.

Sean Penn is good in the lead role, as is Robin Wright as the sympathetic Kathleen, but the movie is stolen by a riveting performance from Gary Oldman, and it’s a great reminder of the beginning of an impressive career, culminating in his long-deserved current Oscar nomination.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Director: Adrian Lyne

After returning home from the Vietnam War, veteran Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) struggles to maintain his sanity. Plagued by hallucinations and flashbacks, Singer rapidly falls apart as the world and people around him morph and twist into disturbing images. What happened to him to produce such a fallout?

His girlfriend, Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña), and ex-wife, Sarah (Patricia Kalember), try to help, but to no avail. Even Singer’s chiropractor friend, Louis (Danny Aiello), fails to reach him as he descends into madness. People seem to act normally, but the line between what is hallucination and what is real becomes blurred.

Singer’s shocking battle experience is withheld until the end of the film – and even then, viewers cannot be completely sure that they have fully comprehended what is real and what is not.

Jacob’s Ladder attempts convey a mental state, (reminiscent of similar attempts as in Orson Welles’ The Trial or Ken Russell’s Altered States). The movie teeters on the edge of insanity and carries us along – Jacob seems to stand at the midpoint of a ladder that reaches in two directions: Up to heaven, like the ladder that God offered to the Biblical Jacob in Genesis, or down to hell, in drug-induced hallucinations.

This movie is not an easy experience, but it is a fascinating and exhilarating one, as it is so powerfully written by Bruce Joel Rubin, directed by Adrian Lyne and acted by Tim Robbins.

Bad Influence (1990)

Director: Curtis Hanson

Los Angeles marketing analyst Michael Boll (James Spader) struggles with insecurity until he meets a mysterious man, Alex (Rob Lowe), who promises to help him gain confidence. At first the lessons  appear innocuous and, after following Alex’s tuition, Boll is encouraged when he manages to outsmart a malicious rival in his office.

However, Alex’s guidance becomes toxic when he introduces Michael to sex, drugs and crime. The lessons in assertiveness become increasingly dubious and eventually, deadly. When Michael’s life begins collapsing, he comes to realize that his mentor is a sadistic sociopath. Will Michael be able escape Alex’s clutches and disentangle himself from his sinister web?

Bad Influence deals with the consequences a passive man suffers when he falls under the spell of a charismatic man who enters his life under false pretences. Spader invests Michael Boll with a cool diffidence which offers a counterpoint to Lowe’s slick and plausible Alex. We are not quite sure what game Alex is playing, and the full horror of his plan is revealed only gradually.

The climax of the movie becomes a game of cat-and-mouse. In Bad Influence, director Curtis Hanson presents a sombre study of a seductive, but ultimately toxic, relationship.

The Guardian (1990)

Director: William Friedkin

A Chicago couple Kate (Carey Lowell) and Phil (Dwier Brown) move to Los Angeles after he gets a better job in the advertising business. Optimistic about their future, they hire the lovely, well-mannered Camilla (Jenny Seagrove) to live with them and care for their new baby.

The nanny brings good references and is knowledgeable about children and their development. For example, she informs the parents that after 30 days the ‘baby cells’ in the blood stream are replaced by ‘grown-up cells’, a fact which appears to be of particular importance to her.

Phil begins to suspect that Camilla has some kind of plan involving the baby and soon a diabolical plot involving the wellbeing of their child is uncovered. The young parents are forced to fight supernatural forces for the life of their vulnerable offspring.

Clearly drawing upon predecessors such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, The Guardian provides plenty of the usual scary movie tropes:  ominous music; curtains blowing in the wind; dire warnings from strange women; empty cribs; the appearance of savage canines. Inevitably, some characters come to a gruesome end.  It may not provide anything too unexpected, but on the level of special effects and photography, The Guardian proves to be a well-‘executed’ thriller.

Dead Again (1991)

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh has a varied thespian CV encompassing theatre, TV and several movies that he has starred in or directed. One of the earliest was Dead Again, a lush thriller he made in 1991 with his then wife, the talented Emma Thompson.

The story begins when a mute woman suffering from amnesia (Emma Thompson) arrives at the gates of an old orphanage and private investigator Mike Church (Ken Branagh) is called upon to find out who she is.

With the help of a hypnotist (Derek Jacobi), the woman regains her voice, and then undergoes a form of regression under hypnotism that reveals that she has perplexing connections with events and secrets of a past time.

She begins to recall vivid scenes of a couple who lived long ago in the 1940s and who were torn apart by the death of the beautiful young wife of a European composer.

Church begins to develop feelings for the woman, whom he calls Grace, and then is shocked to discover that he has a personal connection to the tragic 40s couple that Grace has identified.

Kenneth Branagh’s direction in Dead Again shows his flair for theatricality. His movie has a wonderful ‘retro’ feel and hearkens back to films of the 40s and 50s which were not afraid to take on grand themes such as murder, passion and reincarnation and play them to their fullest, melodramatic effect. The film has style, wit and some subtle sardonic touches.

As we can see from the movies above, the Thriller genre holds scope for all kinds of situations and variations on suspenseful themes. If it’s the wrong place, and the wrong time – some kind of menace can threaten almost anyone.

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Written by:

Ren Zelen
@RenZelen
Lethal Lexicon
Freelance Contributor

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