Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: The Hand That Rocks The Cradle
There was a magical time in the 1990s when Hollywood studios made mid-budget movies about people in extraordinary (but not fantastical) situations. This was before you could only get a movie made if it was $5 million horror movie or a $200+ superhero flick with several dudes named Chris. There was still an acknowledged market for semi-realistic thrillers. Nowadays, we turn to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for these kinds of tales, but back then, they were still a sizable part of the business. Which means that many of them were cheesy, and since I’m still on that Lifetime kick from last week’s entry, Invisible Child, let’s take a look at one of its feature film cousins: The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.
And yeah, I realize this might seem like an unlikely pick. It was directed by the late Curtis Hanson, a solid, story-first director of films like L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys. It’s also solidly cast with actors like Annabella Sciorra, the dependable Matt McCoy and Madeline Zima making an early appearance as their daughter Emma. Julianne Moore even plays a part in which she never gets undressed — a rarity at the time.
The cheese is there though, and it lives within the script and the actually great, but also terrible performance of its star: Rebecca De Mornay.
The plot concerns Claire Bartel (Sciorra), a young mother in Seattle expecting her second child. When her gynecologist retires, she’s transferred to the office of Doctor Victor Mott (Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s John De Lancie). Using the excuse of giving a new patient a full exam, Dr. Mott molests Claire. She decides to go public, inspiring other to speak out against him; a pattern which is now pretty common in the post-Weinstein world. Disgraced and facing criminal chargers, Dr. Mott kills himself.
I promise, there is cheese here.
Because of the suicide, Mott’s life insurance policy is voided. Because of the pending lawsuits, his wife (De Mornay) has no access to their sizable bank account. This revelation causes her to miscarry just as Claire goes into labor. A juxtaposition that betrays the way the film is about to pivot from serious issues to the tale of a woman going cuckoo-bananas and trying to get slow motion revenge.
Several months later, Mrs. Mott answers Claire’s ad for a nanny and introduces herself as Peyton Flanders. The movie never really establishes if this is Mrs. Mott’s real maiden name or not, which adds to the overall insanity as “Peyton” systemically attempts to destroy Claire’s life. First, she trains newborn Joey to accept only her breastmilk. Then, she convinces Emma to join a “secret club” and keep things from her mother. Mrs. Mott also convinces Claire that Michael (McCoy) might be stepping out on her with their best friend Marlene (Moore), who is Michael’s ex-girlfriend. But just to put the whammy on it, Mrs. Mott also suggests to Michael that he and Marlene should plan a surprise party for Claire; making their lunch dates to plan the event look all the more suspect. Mrs. Mott also does a few smaller things like ruin one of Claire’s evening gowns and destroy a building proposal Michael had been working on to make Claire look incompetent.
And if all of this sounds like a legitimate thriller, that’s part of the charm. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is almost a good movie. It’s shot well, performed well — for the most part — and plays on some pretty real fears of its core audience. But then it makes several mistakes. For one: Ernie Hudson plays a “simple” handyman who discovers how Mrs. Mott has been feeding Joey. His “simpleness” is never really defined, giving Hudson a lot of latitude in his performance and allowing De Mornay her first real cartoonish moment when she confronts Solomon about what he saw. Mrs. Mott’s schemes also get more outlandish as she plans to kill Claire in her own greenhouse. When Marlene discovers the truth about Peyton, she uses the already set trap to be rid of Marlene. Knowing the shock of finding Marlene’s corpse will trigger an asthma attack, Mrs. Mott also tampers with all of Claire’s emergency inhalers. It’s a ridiculous sequence featuring some early driving-while-on-the-phone and Marlene acting unnecessarily catty to a real estate agent and the drivers around her.
Which is the next major mistake in the film: the characters are not really sympathetic. Michael spends most of the film clueless about Petyon; ending up in the basement with both of his legs broken. Claire, despite the nominal protagonist, never really earns the care the film gives her. Yes, she does a very courageous thing up front, but the script forgets that as it needs her to be willfully blind to certain things. Even Joey is presented as a traitor of sorts when he refuses to be fed by Claire. Only Emma seems to be more than a caricature; probably by virtue of being played by an eight-year-old child.
Like Invisible Child, the fun is in the dedication Hanson and his cast make to a script which is riddled with plot conveniences, silly melodrama — like the moment Claire confronts Michael about his “affair” while Marlene and all of their friends are waiting in the next room — and Mrs. Mott’s switch from restraint to psycho killer territory when she’s finally discovered by the whole Bartel family. And because the movie so ably masquerades as a quality drama, its flaws become all the more enjoyable. It also has some fine photography by Robert Elswit and some great Seattle-area locations. But the main attraction here is how a cast of fine performers can get lost in something so silly and the resulting cheese.
The Hand That Rocks The Cradle is available for rent on the usual streaming platforms and for free with a Cinemax Go subscription. It’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD.