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Good Thriller Movies (1990-95): Bad Influences

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Ren Zelen itcherThrillers are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety. I’m taking a look at some of the thrillers of the early nineties, and how they fulfilled those criteria in their individual ways. ~ Ren Zelen

The Suspense is Killing Me

The early nineties produced a fairly varied crop of thrillers – it was a time which spoke of yuppies, gangsters, political cynicism and anxiety – and a yearning for the escapism and glamour provided by the Noir movies made back in the 1940s.

Below are a few of the movies that exemplify some of these characteristics.


Breath-taking Thriller Movie Recommendations

‘Pacific Heights’ (John Schlesinger, 1990)

“You’re a brave and stupid man.”

‘Pacific Heights’ is a horror film for the 90s yuppies (whatever happened to them?).

Unmarried couple, Patty Palmer (Melanie Griffith) and Drake Goodman (Matthew Modine), 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 the cash. Drake is suitably dazzled, even when Carter himself warns, ”I don’t really have traditional kind of credit – you understand?”

They soon learn their lesson – ‘all that glitters is certainly not gold’, because the slick guy that ends up in their spare flat is more frightening than any ghost, 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 dispatches to other parts of the building.

Carter Hayes is 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 slick efficiency, rarely pausing for stylish flourishes. Michael Keaton is, as ever, particularly good at playing a diabolical charmer.

‘State of Grace’ (Phil Joanou, 1990)

“You believe in the Angels, or the saints. And you believe it, but it hasn’t anything to do with reality.”

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

A one-time street tough guy, 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 by working 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, and his old flame, Kathleen, complicate his mission.

Sean Penn is good in the lead role, but the movie is stolen by a riveting performance from Gary Oldman.

‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (Adrian Lyne, 1990)

“If you’re scared of dying, you’ll see demons ripping your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, they’re really angels, freeing you from the Earth.”

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 understood it.

‘Jacob’s Ladder’ attempts convey a mental state, (rather as in Orson Welles’ ‘The Trial’ and 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 is a fascinating and exhilarating one as it is so powerfully written, directed and acted.

‘Bad Influence’ (Curtis Hanson, 1990)

“People are such hypocrites. They go through their whole lives to the day they die saying that they’re innocent, but they’re not innocent.”

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 are innocuous and following Alex’s tuition, Boll is encouraged when he manages to outsmart a malicious rival in his office.

However, the lessons in assertiveness become more troublesome and finally become deadly. Alex’s guidance becomes toxic when he introduces Michael to sex, drugs and crime. 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 to a passive hero who falls under the spell of a charismatic man who enters his life under false pretences. Spader’s cool diffidence makes a good counterpoint to Lowe’s Alex, who is slick and plausible (despite disturbing flashes that play across his eyes). 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, and Hanson’s direction of ‘Bad Influence’ makes for a sombre study of a toxic and dangerous relationship.

‘The Guardian’ (William Friedkin, 1990)

“There’s no evidence that the woman you describe ever existed.”

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 knows a lot about children. She knows, for example, that after 30 days, the “baby cells” in the blood stream are replaced by grown-up cells, a fact which appears to be particularly important 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.

‘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 and 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’ (Kenneth Branagh, 1991)

“Someone is either a smoker or a nonsmoker. There’s no in-between. The trick is to find out which one you are, and be that. If you’re a nonsmoker, you’ll know.”

Kenneth Branagh has gone back to his stage roots and is currently enjoying a year’s residency at the Garrick Theatre in London where he is staging several plays with some well know stars of the British stage and screen. He is also starring on TV in the 3rd series of Wallander.

His varied CV, however, contains several movies that he has starred in or directed, including ‘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 (Thompson) arrives at the gates of an old orphanage and private investigator Mike Church (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 some baffling connection with secrets of the past. 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, as ever, his flair for theatricality. His movie has a wonderful ‘retro’ feel and hearkens back to films which were not afraid to take on grand themes such as murder, passion and reincarnation and play them to their fullest effect. It shows style, wit, subtle sardonic touches and a great deal of feeling.


One False Move

Thriller movies pursue one goal – to provide thrills and 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.

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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