Terror at Home: “Pacific Heights” (1990) & “Unlawful Entry” (1992)

Pacific Heights (1990) starring Melanie Griffith, Matthew Modine, & Michael Keaton

The home is the most dangerous place – the old saying goes. A young couple in San Fran, Drake Goodman (Modine) and Patty Palmer (Grifffith), decide to save on rent by buying a house. Despite it being outside of their price range, they purchase a Victorian house in Pacific Heights (a friendly/diverse neighborhood). They start making renos and renting out the 2 apts. on the ground floor. They rent out the 1 BD back unit to the Watanabes (a older Japanese couple); seemingly-wealthy Carter Hayes (Keaton) is able to manipulate his way into renting the front studio (promising to pay 6 mos. in advance). Drake and Patty eventually learn that Carter is the tenant from hell.

Drake Goodman: [as they are house painting] You have to remember this is an investment, Patty. You can’t afford to do everything at once.

Patty Palmer: It’s not just an investment – it’s our home.

Screenwriter Daniel Pyne once rented an apt. to a tenant that he couldn’t evict. In the original script, Carter was a bisexual man who sexually threatened both Drake and Patty; there is no trace of this in the movie. I can’t believe they got such a (respected/veteran) director- John Schlesinger- to work on this boring/predictable movie! There is next to zero chemistry between Modine and Griffith, so I can’t buy them as a couple; these are already actors I tend to avoid. Also, like some critics, I found it tough to empathize w/ this pair. To add insult to injury, check out the terrible fashion they made Griffith wear- ugh. Keaton is trying to do something w/ the scraps he has been given (fresh off of his Batman fame); however, Carter doesn’t come off as scary. Unlike many domestic thrillers, he is a con man after money, NOT a psychopath after another man’s wife. It was at least nice to see a young Laurie Metcalf (best known for Roseanne) as a capable lawyer.

It’s like a yuppie horror. Instead of taking an axe to the head, they take it to the house. Roger Ebert

There is a rather problematic assumption that Drake makes re: potential Black tenant, Mr. Baker (Carl Lumbly), which will rub many modern viewers the wrong way. And yes, I guessed that Baker would turn out to be a cop! As Drake’s more financially-stable/wiser friend Reed, Dorian Harewood doesn’t get much to do. Yup, they put in a Black bestie to offset the possibly racist assumption that Drake made re: Baker; it can’t get more predictable! Avoid this movie- you’re welcome.

Unlawful Entry (1992) starring Kurt Russell, Madeleine Stowe, & Ray Liotta

Issues of security, policing, and masculinity make this film a worthwhile watch (even for modern audiences). After a break-in at their house, a suburban LA couple- Michael (Russell) and Karen Carr (Stowe)- get help from one of the cops- Officer Pete Davis (Liotta)- that answered their call. He helps them install a security system and begins dropping by, even when NOT on patrol. Pete opens up to Karen, hoping to get to know her better. Michael grows V concerned about Pete after going on a ride-along w/ him and his partner.

The director, Jonathan Kaplan (who was known for his TV work), also worked on the critically-acclaimed drama Love Field (also released in 1992). Kaplan’s style is unfussy and workman-like (as some critics noted); this choice works for thrillers. Siskel and Ebert both liked the movie, esp. the strong performance by Liotta (in one of his early roles). I liked Russell and Stowe as a couple; they were easy to empathize with also. They didn’t expect crime to come to their area, or affect them in such a (potentially violent) manner. Russell is playing against type as a yuppie developer; his latest project is a nightclub (actually a beautiful/historic theater in downtown LA). Stowe is an elementary schoolteacher who loves kids; the viewer wonders (like Pete) why she and her hubby don’t have some of their own.

This movie isn’t as shallow as I assumed it would be. It came out after the (infamous) Rodney King beating and subsequent riots. To modern eyes, it will bring to mind the recent changes in policing (after BLM, the worldwide outrage at the George Floyd killing, and related events). Notice how horrified Michael looks when he sees Pete beating the scared/junkie (a Black man) after the ride-along. Yes, this is the same man who broke into the Carr’s house and put a knife to Karen’s throat; however, Pete beats him even when he is unarmed (and has his hands up). Pete’s partner (also a Black man) has already gone off-duty, so didn’t see any of this. Of course, Karen didn’t see this brutal behavior, so she thinks Michael is overreacting. Pete even goes to Karen’s school to talk to the kids, explaining that the police are there “to help people.” We know it’s NOT always the case (from evidence filmed on modern cell phones)! There are (huge) cell phones in this movie; some lawyers and businessmen carried them. At the party, the potential investors are interested to talk w/ Pete, as they are concerned re: the security of the nightclub.

This movie also has something to say re: society’s notions of masculinity and femininity. Michael (who is educated/ambitious) can provide financially for his wife, BUT can’t protect her physically (in the beginning of the movie). He hesitates in taking the chance to hit the burglar w/ his golf club; Michael thinks this makes him weak. Pete (who is trained to fight/authorized to carry a gun) doesn’t hesitate in using violence. He thinks this makes him stronger than Michael (and better suited for Karen), BUT he is an abuser. In the poolside scene, you realize that Pete has put Karen on a pedestal; he turns away when she gets out of the water. In the cop bar, Pete and Karen chat, and we get the sense that she could find him attractive. In Pete’s eyes, Karen (beautiful/refined) is TOO good for him. In the post-hookup scene in his patrol car, Pete insults/hits the blonde prostitute. This woman (able to be bought) is “trash” to Pete, though she was nice to him. In the end, BOTH husband and wife have to work together to defeat the cop who NOT only threatened their relationship, BUT was a danger to society-at-large.

6 thoughts on “Terror at Home: “Pacific Heights” (1990) & “Unlawful Entry” (1992)

  1. Well, Fatal Attraction I remember. (Along with that Sharon Stone movie.) Poor Glenn Close. Those movies were so hard to watch as a young woman.

    Liked by 1 person

    • OMG- I only watched “Basic Instinct” a few yrs ago- it’s terrible! That director has some major issues IMO. I will soon re-watch “Fatal Attraction” – some critics are re-evaluating it based on today’s standards.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think that was the film that made me aware how badly gay people were stereotyped in film — because you really couldn’t overlook it or write it off.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The gay couples really don’t get much to say or do; they are like window dressing (to show this is a liberal/wealthy/San Fran neighborhood).

        Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I just was too young to watch these as kid/teen- LOL! Also, Fatal Attractions is a l podcast I discovered last wk! I’ve been binge-listening each day; it’s all about the domestic thrillers of the 80s-90s.


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