Unhinged De Mornay stalks unsuspecting Annabella Sciorra

January 10, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

One of the now-vanished staples of the old B movies was the "vs." film. "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" is probably the genre's tacky masterpiece, but who can forget Mamie Van Doren's "The Navy vs. the Night Monsters" or the immortal "Billy the Kid vs Now along comes "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," which is a classic "vs." movie, except that the monster doesn't ride a big Frisbee or arise in slimy, gooey splendor from the depths of the sea or suck necks. She dresses in Villager clothes; she's a yuppie from hell. The movie is really "Good Mom vs. Psycho Mom."

With a high level of craftsmanship and almost no moral qualms at all, it sets up a situation in which an outsider conspires to bump a young mother out of her own family and take over. The movie has some violence, but far more effectively it trafficks in subtly escalating psychological stratagems and the cold, clammy sensation of watching a cobra track a mouse, setting it up for the strike.

Director Curtis Hanson specializes in this highly refined arena of creepy pseudo-mayhem; he directed the spooky "Bedroom Window" (set here in Baltimore) and more recently offered low thrills in "Bad Influence," with Rob Lowe and James Spader. Working from a script by Amanda Silver, he keeps this project rolling along smoothly, gradually escalating the fears, never overinflating the violence, until the end, when it gets out of control.

The cast is excellent. In fact, who better to play a deranged yet cool psycopath than kewpie-doll perfect Rebecca De Mornay? De Mornay, with her icy blue eyes and tiny, exact features, already looks as if she came out of a mold, not a womb. She seems not quite human to begin with, and when she makes nice in the early going, we can see through it, even if poor Annabella Sciorra can't.

Sciorra is a perfect foil. Unlike De Mornay's glittery, abstracted Aryan, Sciorra has a warmer, Mediterranean cast to her: She's a beautiful earth mother already, her eyes radiating a kind of nurturing warmth. You would never wonder if she hugged her kid today; of course she has.

The event that sets the dueling moms up is insidiously imagined. The pregnant Sciorra is molested by her gynecologist; reluctantly, she brings charges. The doctor, destroyed by the scandal, then commits suicide and his estate is tangled up in litigation. His young widow loses everything -- her home, her prosperity, the child she was carrying, and, worst of all, the possibility of ever carrying another.

The widow, of course, is De Mornay. Unhinged by the destruction of her life, she sets out to counter-destroy the woman she holds responsible -- Sciorra, of course. Sweetly obtaining a position of nanny in Sciorra's household, she sets about to seduce Sciorra's two kids and somewhat dim husband from her.

The campaign is made more horrifying by the background: perfectly visualized upscale Seattle, where large old houses nestle in homey domesticity under towering elms; and Sciorra's husband (Matt McCoy, barely registering), a research scientist, brings home a decent paycheck every week.

In this unthreatening context, the campaign is greatly abetted by Sciorra's fundamental faith in the human race: As her position is subtly undermined, as her children bond to the other woman and the goofy husband comes to rely upon De Mornay's Peyton, Sciorra simply can't conceptualize the immensity of the conspiracy against her. She thinks she's just having bad luck when she "accidentally" loses a funding proposal that she promised her husband she'd take to the post office or when her sexiest dress turns up with a stain and she's forced to go out in a frumpy frock.

Sciorra's only defenders are a retarded helping hand, well played by Ernie Hudson, and a shrewish best friend, played by Julianne Moore. However, both are bumblers unsuited for combat with such a cunning adversary.

The movie's unholiest moment is also its best. That's when, much like "Fatal Attraction," the worm turns and the audience, nurtured carefully to a high pitch of bloodlust, atavistically unites with the beseiged heroine and celebrates with a blast of pleasure her decision to finally kick ass.

And, like "Fatal Attraction," "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" benefits from a number of resonant subthemes. In one sense, it plays on the fears of the millions of working mothers who must turn their child-rearing responsibilities over to others. But there's a political angle, too.

In some sense, this is a film about a liberal education -- in street reality. Sciorra and her husband are sweet and decent people, untinged by bias or paranoia, willing to grant anyone the benefit of the doubt, trusting and decent. In the '90s, that means they're free lunch. Only when they find the will to resist violence with more violence -- to become, in effect, vigilantes, and demonstrate how short the distance from the cradle to the grave is -- do they manage to triumph and restore their lives.

Sad though it is, that's the bleak message -- the movie is really about "Us vs. Them."

'The Hand That Rocks the Cradle'

Starring Rebecca De Mornay and Annabella Sciorra

Directed by Curtis Hanson.

Released by Hollywood Films.

Rated R.

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