Pacific Heights

(John Schlesinger, USA, 1990)


Pacific Heights is a thriller built on the “paranoid model” (as Tom Ryan has called this sub-genre) in which the Others who are unknown and mysterious are also coded as evil and threatening.


Here, the social figuration of this model is arranged as, on the good side, a landlord-boss professional pair; and, on the other side, their underclass tenants (including a guy who is vaguely an artist, blaring out the same heavy metal tune – “Those who live do not care!” – previously used in River's Edge [1986]).


It’s not really (as reviewers including Neil Jillett and Evan Williams have assumed) a ‘young couple buys a new home’ story. But it’s easy to see how the casting of Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith both evokes this association, and also manages the transition to making the husband a member of a yuppie hero class (note his job as some kind of factory foreman).


The film eventually slides from this paranoid model – tenants as the horror – to another that pits good yuppies against the really evil, idle rich, as the past of Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton) is gradually revealed. Carter is effectively a ‘fallen angel’, a sick male who breaks from and discontinues his family line. In fact, he turns out to be the kind of trickster-vampire who claims the identities of his victims.


The social text of the film, in this regard, calls up intriguing paradoxes of tenancy laws in the USA (and some other countries): in this scenario, Carter the monster has all the rights, and pretty much the entire legal system on his side. Another notable refraction of reigning fads and fancies of the early ‘90s: Carter’s evil practices manifest themselves in an obsessive ruining, recustomising and recycling of all social objects, such as cars. An early premonition of TV lifestyle program mania!


It is a somewhat hysterical movie (in the vein of what I have elsewhere dubbed hysterical cinema), saturated with wild semantic possibilities. For instance, when Patty (Griffith) snaps and goes after Carter, the situation is all at once: a. a ‘turning tables’ revenge story; b. some simmering of sick desire on Patty’s part for the bad guy (“You’re not his type!”, mocks his ex-lover, Ann [Beverly D’Angelo]); and c. a classic bit of thriller mirroring (“You crossed the line”, psychoanalyses Carter, “and liked it!”). The set-up constantly plays on – while never actualising – a threat of violation and/or murder to both women and domestic pets. Amusingly, on a balancing note, an Asian-American couple is cast as a pair of good tenants, presumably to keep the paranoid semantic contagion in check!


In a more general vein, the film turns events in the central couple’s relationship into dramatic effects for pure plot’s sake – this is especially true of Patty’s miscarriage, reminiscent to an Australian viewer of Colin Eggleston’s classic Long Weekend (1979). There is only a fitful gesture toward using the story as an occasion to reflect on the modern couple, with its marital problems, gender independence issues, and so on – the faint legacy, here, of John Schlesinger’s glory days of crossing over from Darling (1965) and Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) in the UK to the now-very-squirmy-to-watch Midnight Cowboy (1969) in the US.


Stylistically, there are traces of cinematographer Amir Mokri’s work on Kathryn Bigelow’s great Blue Steel (1990); and also echoes of or affinities with Internal Affairs (1990) – Laurie Metcalf who played a lesbian cop there is a lawyer here – and also, inevitably, with the key film of the paranoid thriller cycle, Fatal Attraction (1987).


There is some decent plotting in the narrative construction – in particular, the introductory enigma of Carter found in a beaten-up state, and later the startling revelation of the entirely ripped-out apartment – amidst a generally merry riot of implausibilities. As in Matthew Chapman’s unusual thriller Heart of Midnight (1988) and the Canadian horror film Of Unknown Origin (1983), Pacific Heights uses the idea of a secret infiltration of all the passages and byways of a house – a true urban/domestic nightmare!


And at least it avoids the modern thriller-horror cliché of the unstoppable monster who rises from seeming death for one last, almighty tussle … unlike, in this respect, two other roughly contemporaneous releases, Misery (1990) and Sleeping with the Enemy (1991). Although Pacific Heights is the type of film that gets routinely (and lazily) labelled Hitchcockian, this is one affectation that has nothing to do with the Master, and has clearly drifted up from the B cinema realm, starting with Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).

MORE Schlesinger: The Day of the Locust, Eye for an Eye, The Next Best Thing

RELATED essays: Thrillers; Lady, Beware: Female Gothic Variations

© Adrian Martin February 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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