Modern movie villains see the family as a prize, and want it

July 05, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Dan Quayle had it wrong. It's not that families have values. It's that families are valuable.

That's at least the implication of a surprisingly persistent strain of melodrama, nasty yet always compelling, which has recently surfaced on American movie screens. In a whole series of films, the drama has been built out of what might be called the nightmare of usurpation, as if membership in a functional family was itself a prize worth fighting -- even killing -- for: The movies have watched as a beloved figure, a mom or a dad, has been the target of a subtle campaign of replacement, designed to remove him or her either through death or exile, and implant the usurper in that place.

"What About Bob" was a comedy, or at least it tried to be. It followed as psychiatrist Richard Dreyfuss underwent the horror of usurpation by an amiable dysfunctional; his family was drawn to the idiot Bob (Bill Murray) because he embodied exactly the opposing values from paternal authority: Bob stood for self-actualization and uncritical love, where poor Dad stood for discipline, hard work and respect. No wonder they dumped him.

In "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," possibly the most efficient of the set, merciless and savvy at once, a young mother finds herself subtly replaced in both her husband and her daughter's affections by a nanny with a secret agenda; at one level, the movie was pure feminist backlash, "punishing" the young mother (Annabella Sciorra) for having ambitions outside mommyhood (she was a botanist), but the film drew its considerable power from the insidiousness of the campaign Bad Nanny Rebecca De Mornay waged. It built to a conventional horror-show ending, bringing the house to its feet when True Mom finally chucks Phony Mom out a window.

Then, recently and ineptly, there was "Poison Ivy," with a "Lolita" twist, the most perverse of the lot: In it, an aberrant young woman (Drew Barrymore) moves into the home of her best friend, the daughter of a prosperous television news executive (Tom Skerritt). She decides to become both his daughter and his wife and then finally the daughter's lover. To begin to accomplish this she must kill the original mother. It's certainly poisonous, but it isn't very pretty.

And finally, just last week, "Unlawful Entry" arrived, in which the power of the state is invested in the drama. A cop from hell (Ray Liotta) takes one look at the beautiful wife of a Los Angeles businessman and also at his life -- the beautiful home, the network of easy relationships -- and decides he wants the whole thing. Using his police powers, he initiates a campaign against the man (Kurt Russell), ultimately murdering to win the prize, which is not merely the woman but the life, or at least the illusion

of the life.

Not like home-wrecker films

Upfront, let's stipulate that although sexual currents run through all of these films, they really aren't about the yin and yang of adultery and fidelity, which means they're not classic "home-wrecker" movies, a fairly staple tradition that reached its apotheosis in "Fatal Attraction." The difference is interesting: A "home-wrecker" movie is usually a drama ofguilt and disloyalty, in which a mom or a dad, depending, is seduced and snatched from the family hearth. The core of the dramatic issue is whether or not he's going to leave and move in with New Girl. There have been approximately five million such. The point is that the family is ruined, or threatened with ruin, as the vagrant partner goes his way.

The drama of usurpation is somewhat more complex and in some ways more unsettling: Indeed, someone is seduced (or raped or brutalized or, more commonly, swindled) and removed from the family situation, but the outsider actually then moves into it, and takes the family over, making it his or hers. The family -- or rather the family ideal -- is the prize.

Why are such movies popular?

On a mechanical level, it might be argued that such plots have certain commercial virtues that make them attractive to the filmmaking community. For example, as movies, they tend not to be expensive to make, and they tend to be quite profitable. For actors and actresses, the parts offer the passionate range of expression that is common to melodrama without much in the way of being dwarfed by special effects, costumes, and other extravagances of modern film culture. ("The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" made De Mornay a star when none of her other films had come close.) And there's a sense, too, of the giant story machine that is Hollywood having ground its way through the permutations and finally uncovered this relatively untilled ground.

A feeling of vulnerability

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