In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1992 (the extra in this double-feature column) and six from 2002. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
At the start of 1992, only one American state had enacted anti-stalking laws. California’s statute was influenced by the high-profile 1989 shooting death of 21-year-old actress Rebecca Schaeffer (known for her titular role on TV’s My Sister Sam) at her home by an obsessed fan. By midyear, 18 more states followed suit, en route to all 50 states and the federal government.
Lawmakers are often stupid but rarely dumb. They go to the movies, too. Safe to say a fair portion of largely male politicos were scared shitless by what they saw circa September 1987 with Fatal Attraction, a cultural-phenomenon shorthand for “stalker movie” that persists today (even as it reversed the trope of males as perpetrators and women as victims). Because acts of American governance that neither empower nor disenfranchise tend to move more slowly, it just took more time to write up some laws that stifle in real life what startled them onscreen. Perhaps they were given a friendly reminder by 1991’s Sleeping with the Enemy — in which that nice, young actress Julia Roberts just couldn’t outrun her abusive husband, even in presumed death.
Obviously, Hollywood works much faster, and given California as a genesis for this groundswell, the early 1990s saw an explosion of studio-funded stalking films — often expanding into areas of crisis beyond marital discord or domestic violence. And 1992 was the year in which studios most embraced the irresistible force of an irate, insistent person’s intrusion on the safety of the (generally) well-to-do.
A surprise hit from early 1992 and the Rosetta Stone for ensuing decades of Lifetime movies, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle saw Rebecca De Mornay pose as a perfect nanny to steal a baby from the woman she blamed for her miscarriage and husband’s death. Violent moral judgment and an uncommonly liberal approach to nudity made strange, if boring, bedfellows, in Single White Female — in which Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh played roommates who battled both each other and a prevalence of bad ’90s hairdos.
By June, stalker movies (or, at least, sorta-stalker movies) were landing within weeks of each other. The opening sequences of both Unlawful Entry and Housesitter made no bones about helping those who may have wandered into the wrong auditorium: the former with ominous, hazy aerial shots of a dead body somewhere in Los Angeles; the latter with spritely castanets, bright brass and jaunty strings over a credits font so friendly all its serifs are carefully sanded off.
Easily among the best in this ’90s-stalker subgenre, Unlawful Entry finds a way to give people exactly what they want from such a thriller and a sense of understanding its players that they might not expect. The film plays on fears that the force of an entire system will turn toward you on the fetid whim of one powerful person. It also gives multiple dimensions to upper-middle-class fears about the encroachment of crime into their carefully curated worlds. Movies like Hand probably would be something Entry’s Michael and Karen Carr would watch and then feel relief it could never happen to them. That body at the beginning of Entry is but aesthetic window-dressing to the main narrative. Who it is or who’s investigating it don’t matter. All we need to know from this hazy aerial view is that it is far from where the Carrs call home.
Michael (Kurt Russell) is a real-estate developer cleansing run-down L.A. neighborhoods with a steady stream of gentrification, although his financial overextension on a new deal for a club mirrors his exhaustion of emotional capital at home with his schoolteacher spouse, Karen (Madeleine Stowe). For all of Russell’s hunky swagger and raffish charm, he deserves more credit than he often gets for chameleonic retreats like this and 1997’s equally enthralling Breakdown. Russell excels at a pendulum swing from pulsating machismo to puny emasculation, embodied here by youthfully tousled hair and the pleated pants he wears when ostensibly relaxing at home. There are no traces of Snake Plissken, Jack Burton or R.J. MacReady in Michael Carr, although he certainly fancies himself as raring and ready to go.
When the Carrs hear a mysterious noise at night, Michael grabs a golf club to investigate. “Don’t worry,” he says. “If it’s anything serious, I’ll come back for my driver.” Michael likes to make it sound like he’s been here before with all that bluster. But he’s as terrified as most men would be at the idea of engaging an intruder (if they’re being honest with themselves). Of course, it is serious and someone is in the house, having dropped in through an unlocked skylight window.
Director Jonathan Kaplan films this attack not with fluid action choreography but the hard, stabbing flashes of trauma that will imprint on Michael and Karen’s minds. Michael engages in a confrontation not with the intruder but with his comparative powerlessness. The burglar holds Karen at knifepoint as Michael stands there powerless with his golf club. He lets the man take Karen out of his sight and then lets her swim toward him to remove her from their pool, into which the escaping invader has thrown her. It’s a terrific setup for the film’s tension and themes, blending the proven suspense of Kaplan’s earlier exploitative efforts with his more sophisticated character shading of such studio films like The Accused.
When the Carrs call the cops, Pete Davis (Ray Liotta) is a responding officer. Pete is concerned for the Carrs, kind to their cat, quick enough to save Karen’s hovering bare foot from a shard of Michael’s broken beer bottle (foolishly cracked open when Michael believed everything safe). Pete also certainly notices the way Karen takes control to explain what happened, emblematic of her desperation to assert authority somewhere, anywhere in this house. Scenic blocking tightens the knot, with Michael always seeming to arrive just at the tail-end of Pete and Karen’s conversations. There’s also pointed physical proximity between Pete and Karen. It’s not rooted in a projection of sexuality. It’s rooted in one of safety. Pete knows what he’s doing. Maybe he seems a little too in charge. Meanwhile, Michael immediately jumps to buying a gun, which Pete and his partner, Cole (Roger E. Mosley), discourage. “The wrong people always get hurt,” they say, with a measure of wise, but weary, knowledge. Still, Michael performatively asserts that if he got a second shot at the guy, he’d “rip his fuckin’ heart out.”
Entry really clicks in its concentration on the ebb and flow of control in power dynamics. Control eludes Karen. Control empowers Pete. Control eats at Michael. That’s why Michael jumps at the chance to go on a ride-along with Pete and Cole for tough-guy tourism to level out his machismo. Pete agrees because … well, Michael seems like a good friend to have, what with all the security-moonlighting gigs he could orchestrate. Before he was typecast as predictably dangerous people, the late, great Liotta took advantage of the latitude he was given to make audiences understand them as he does here, alongside GoodFellas and Something Wild. Liotta’s clearly wounded, deceptively boyish qualities in his earlier days certainly play to his advantage as Pete, as the actor explains how his sense of vigilance and violence have become entwined or the joy on his face as he serves up Michael’s intruder to him after the ride-along.
Michael demurs from, uh, ripping the guy’s fuckin’ heart out less from moralistic conviction than fright at watching his masculine posing spill over into reality. What follows is an emboldened, empowered and entirely terrifying escalation from Pete, who almost kills the man in a moment that echoes, unintentionally but unmistakably, the real-life beating of Rodney King in L.A. riots earlier that year. Along those lines, Entry is a persuasively tetchy movie about how most people’s notions of justice, fairness and retaliation remain a comfortable abstraction throughout their life. If they address it at all, it’s as a hypothetical during dinner with friends, around whom even then you’d feel safe putting up whatever social front felt the safest. Upset as Michael is, he also chalks up what Pete does to hard reality (albeit one he’d rather not face). Karen calls it what it is — violence. In an elevation from respective mental-illness and vengeance narratives of Female and Hand, this clash of connotations between those notions fuels Entry.
“Nobody expects you to be me,” Pete tells Michael. Under normal circumstances, that might be practical advice from a police officer to a pal struggling with shameful feelings of inadequacy in his role as a protector. But we’ve also seen Pete exact verbal violence and financial exploitation on a sex worker. And we’ve seen Michael appropriate Pete’s aesthetic of brutish jokes and anecdotes with his big-dollar investors. Entry doesn’t bust out the old “we’re the same, you and me,” but it effectively illustrates how Pete and Michael are merely transactional pawns in larger systems as they seek authority, control and ownership.
All of this leads to a fundraiser clash where Michael insists Pete stay out of his and Karen’s lives. Albeit silently, Pete snaps — staring at this glitz and glamour at which a civil servant like him will never have a shot, letting it roll over endlessly in his mind. ACAB, sure, but the system can ruin people, too. For all of Pete’s institutional power, he has a gaping maw of individual powerlessness. You believe what Pete tells schoolchildren about why he became a police officer but also understand how society, and his own mind left alone to stew season after season, have perverted this. Similarly, the advice he gives to Karen when they meet alone to discuss the aftermath of the ride-along would not be bad if we didn’t know Pete had also reached a boiling point of possessiveness toward her. (Karen’s own past, and how she came into Michael’s orbit, also underlines how she often short-changes herself.) Back when the MTV Movie Awards meant something as a sort of pop-culture Oscar, Liotta’s loss to Leigh for Best Villain underscored how deeds that are easily written off as vague “mental illness” are easier to reconcile.
Of course, Entry erupts into a series of increasingly dangerous ruses and retaliations through which Pete puts Michael under his thumb. By that point, the screenplay by Lewis Colick (with story credits for George Putnam and John Katchmer) has established an effective baseline for every character’s anxieties and ambitions. It’s an effective exploration of emotions and exploitation of fear. These are characters incentivized by violence for different reasons before it entraps them. It’s not a coincidence that Michael soon finds himself screaming at cops in the same crazy, wide-eyed disbelief as the man he sees assaulting his wife during the ride-along, and Colick throws in a great wrinkle of Michael’s inability to simply coast through the system on a cachet of cash alone because of a privileged past deal he has essentially forgotten.
This unease with Michael’s mounting lies complicates the feelings for him, too, as a righteous man wronged — not to the point of whether Pete is going too far but in whether Michael deserves that which he’s fighting to retain. It’s also the source of Pete’s fat-cat fantasy, which he attempts to take through wincingly brutal force in the finale. His lie for why the Carrs’ security alarm has gone off is both absurdly hilarious and the sort of thing Michael might also do (“I was swinging a golf club and it went through the window!”) The rest of this conclusion is easily Entry’s least interesting and most conventional aspect, bordering on ridiculous with one trope in particular. But it also brings us back around to that dead body from the beginning. Nobody in the good neighborhood forgets the dead body that hits the ground. It’s also something the survivors will have to tiptoe around forever and hardly a pat conclusion as more cops roll up to the house, on which Kaplan’s camera holds over the end credits so as to underline his film’s deep unease.
Housesitter ends on a lingering shot of its central home, too, albeit as a postcard-framed marvel at its majestic architecture. Here’s a story that is perhaps described as stalker-adjacent, with someone’s unpermitted presence on the premises predicating light comedy over violent reality. This is more of a springboard to a story about emotional grift. It’s along the lines of director Frank Oz and star Steve Martin’s collaboration on 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels if someone swapped the salt shaker with sugar. Finding Martin more in Father of the Bride mode, Housesitter is a rather straightforward confection — something that could be called a throwback to madcap 1940s comedy were it able to muster a modicum of that momentum.
Like Michael Carr, architect Newton Davis (Martin) has also exhausted his finances on a real-estate deal. His is a marriage proposal to his lifelong beloved, Becky (Dana Delany), by way of building her a home in their picturesque New England hometown of Dobbs Mill. After Becky gives Davis a hard “no,” Housesitter cuts to three months later where Davis is feigning enthusiasm about the boring buildings he’s facilitating. “The building! Wow! It’s there,” he fumbles for a complement to his weaselly boss. “Why didn’t you just kick him in the balls and tell him he has ugly children?” asks Davis’s colleague, Marty, played by Peter MacNicol — among a murderer’s row of supporting performers here.
Marty’s suggestion to Davis is the standard for all crass compadres: He needs to get laid … which Davis does in a one-night stand with a waitress named Gwen (Goldie Hawn). It happens after an evening stroll in which Gwen lightly weaponizes Davis’s hoity-toity assumptions about her against him … and also reveals that her Hungarian language-barrier shtick is a fabrication.
Davis leaves before Gwen wakes up, but he accidentally leaves behind a sketch of the proposal house and had blabbered enough about his broken relationship for Gwen to find Dobbs Mill and set up shop in the house as a squatter. (So Housesitter more or less starts with the “stalker” getting what she wants and ramps up from there.) Naturally, Gwen is the only colorful aspect of Dobbs Mill besides the flowers, and one pleasure of Hawn’s performance is watching her spin up both sympathy and a social network of ride-or-die confidantes out of absolutely nothing at all. Gwen tells the townsfolk she is Davis’s newlywed wife, whom he agreed to marry on indomitable spirit alone seeing as her face was swaddled in gauze after an automobile accident. The ruse rankles Davis until he sees how he can spin it to his advantage. Gwen can stay in the house, Davis travels from the city on weekends under the pretext of fixing their already-estranged marriage, and he can win back Becky, who is starting to warm back up to him.
One joke finds straight-arrow Davis as terrible at lying as Gwen is good at it; “you’re like the Ernest Hemingway of bullshit,” he compliments her. Another is that the taller Gwen’s tales get, the shorter their route to solving Davis’s problems at work and in an estranged relationship with his parents. This leads to Housesitter’s goofiest joke of all — that Gwen would develop feelings for Davis for any reason apart from the movie not existing without said feelings. Davis does get Gwen’s consent for their one-night stand and bops someone whom she claims has assaulted her (“I punched a totally innocent Hungarian!”). But Davis is largely otherwise an abrasive malcontent with Gwen. The parameters of their agreement are also pretty one-sided. As Gwen correctly points out, the largest lie about the estrangement of their fake marriage sullies her reputation: “Everyone around here keeps treating me like I’m somebody except you.”
It would be pointless to expect more than throwaway froth from a comedy vehicle for two big stars. Housesitter is hardly a thoughtful parable about, say, people struggling and scurrying to remake the perfect life amid shifting sands of what defines success. It’s the sort of thing someone has likely tried to mount as a musical over the last 30 years or that Melissa McCarthy might remake on Netflix with an AirBNB presence for promotional considerations. In this form, you would expect a pairing of Martin and Hawn to more pleasantly and persistently indulge in a game of “yes-and” hijinks. Unfortunately, the film too often puts their considerable talents in curious reserve. Housesitter’s climax gets a bit screwy, as a teetering tower of lies threatens to tip over at a belated wedding reception where Davis is angling to secure a promotion. But Martin summoning the courage to emotionally croon “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral” for his dad and prop up one of their many lies is about as loony as it gets.
Given that Entry, Housesitter, Cradle and Female all performed relatively well, it might have felt a bit like the actions that would terrify or upend people in real life were being trivialized onscreen. The real-life Housesitter would likely lead to some sort of identity-theft nightmare. The real-life Entry, well … read the news on any given day. Did this simply transform stalking into a new controlled-fear attraction in Hollywood’s amusement park? It could be argued that it did, given that the predictable patterns of these fictional stories often double as doubts about when they do occur in actuality. Under the best of circumstances, as with Unlawful Entry, these stories don’t push a pleasant fiction that such threats are easily erased upon a roll of credits.