by Robert Emmett Murphy, Jr.
Back in 2004, Bravo produced “100 Scariest Movie Moments” a celebration of horror film. Not surprisingly, a number of the “horror” film were more rightly “crime thrillers.” This is one of those.
“Pacific Heights” (1990)
Roger Ebert & Rita Kempley didn’t much like this film much, but I do. I find it ironic that as they bashed it, in a couple of phrases, they underlined why it is so damned good–“a horror film for yuppies” & “’Pacific Heights’ is ‘Fatal Attraction’ with mortgage payments.” But it took Janet Maslin, who liked the film better, to really hit the nail on the head, it: “taps into a previously unexplored subject, the source of so much excitement and so many conversational gambits within young urban professional circles.”
Not many horror films are intentionally political, but most have political themes woven through them unintentionally. As horror is a reactive emotion, and not a positive one, horror films lend themselves to the nastiest and most intolerant politics even when they don’t want to. There’s generally two elements that establish a horror film’s political leanings, liberal or conservative:
1.) The class distinctions between villain and victim an/or if the villain is cast as a victim.
2.) The attitude the film takes towards the character’s relationship with the concept of private property.
In the first category, is the villain either rich or of a social elite who flaunts his/her entitlement over the victims who are poor or marginalized? (Example: “Freaks” (1932) which is on this list) Or is the villain part of the great unwashed, a social parasite protected by bleeding heart bureaucrats, threatening appropriate social norms and a nice, socially secure person or family? (Examples: Both Robert Mitchum films on this list, “Night of the Hunter” (1965) # 90 on this list & “Cape Fear” (1962) which comes up later). Or if this is a supernatural revenge fantasy, was the monster first a powerless victim who now is hell bent on punishing the whole world for turning their back on him/her when he/she needs help the most? (Vengeful ghosts are usually female or child victims of domestic abuse, and the best examples of this is the mother and child apocalyptic threat in the “Ju-on” franchise (first film in 1998) which should be on this list but isn’t; “Frankenstein” (1931) which is on the list, serves just as well). Or does the revenge fantasy more represent vigilante-fetishism? (Example: “Last House on the Left” (1972) which is on this list).
The second category, which is most explicit in haunted house films, show the victims making themselves more vulnerable because they’ve fetishized home ownership in such a way that they stay put, and at risk, when they should run — in other words, do you own your possessions or do your possessions own you? (Best example of this is “Burnt Offering (1976) which is not on this list; it concerned a nice family that moves into a dilapidated house, and soon it is obvious the house itself is a vampire, with magical shingles repaired, walls repainting themselves, and a garden coming back to life as the humans become sicker and stranger; from the list, the “House on Haunted Hill” serves as a pretty good example.) Or is the defense of property wholly justified, and it’s only those who don’t respect that God-given right that are irrational (again, the above mentioned Robert Mitchum films fall into this category).
“Pacific Heights” is all about real estate but it is not a haunted house story, and not about the victims becoming vulnerable because of the seductions of a capitalistic fetish. They are good people who earned their lovely home, and the monster who wants to take it all away from them is a social parasite, a non-earner, who is protected by the creeping-socialism of a nanny-state that panders only to the most undeserving. The villain is a tenant who won’t pay the rent, and the moral is about the absolute sanctity of property ownership.
How right-wing is this? Well, I suspect that when Barack Obama has a nightmare, it’s about the KKK, but when Mitt Romney has a nightmare, it’s “Pacific Heights.”
And that aspect of the plot seemed to have embarrassed screenwriter Daniel Pyne to no end. Written in a white heat of indignation after a traumatic personal experience (the film’s realism is much buoyed by the situation-specific insider details he provided), it’s at odds with most of the rest of his screen credits. In his adaptation of “The Sum of All Fears” (2002), his political correctness replaced villains of a different culture and ethnic group with more politically correct, stock and unconvincing neo-Nazis. His remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004) has American heroes, souls wounded by war, manipulated by a government that has become nothing but a subsidiary of Global Corporatism.
Pyne tried to purge his film of its right-wing punitiveness, and did a better job than most horror film script writers when faced with the same impasse (Oh, so your villain is a witch, just like all those innocent people butchered in Salem?) while giving us a more convincing embodiment of wickedness than he, himself, did in either of last two cited films, largely because instead of apologizing for the story, he ironically twisted the tension to reflect white-guilt and the discomfort of college-liberals who then voted for Reagan and Bush.
By the 1980s, the white audience of horror films was getting older, but not abandoning the genre as previous generations had (there’s a reason why the classic Universal monsters got progressively more childish, it’s called audience demographics). This allowed more room for more mature themes, but those themes were no less audience driven than before. It is notable that from “Poltergeist” (1982, later on this list) onward, horror movies that were not about teenagers overwhelmingly concerned the recently affluent. Enter Patty Palmer & Drake Goodman (Melanie Griffith & Matthew Modine), an attractive, economically aspirational couple that buy a beautiful house in a premier neighborhood that is larger than their immediate needs (no kids) so it can be turned into a money-maker by renting out the excess square footage.
In a deft and subtle move, they are likable to the audience, but not really lovable; our uncertainly about them reflects their uncertainty about themselves. They like each other, but are slightly mismatched. Notably, Drake is an idiot (Matthew Modine has a number of gifts as an actor, but perhaps his greatest is playing people who should be behaving smarter than they do; he’s got a rare gift of communicating un-self-knowing) making Patty the put-upon grownup. Both are sympathetic but also clearly could become insufferable, best demonstrated by the fact that they were not even convinced they even liked each other until extreme crisis forces them together like never before.
And they are perfectly politically correct, which makes a little accident, losing that black tenant’s application, all the more tragic. Had they rented to him, nothing bad would’ve happened–but really, losing it wasn’t their fault at all.
One of the most perceptive scenes exploring the couples class-discomfort comes later in the film when they realize that they need help from the police. Patty is brought into an office and who is sitting on the other side of the table but the same black guy (Carl Lumbly). Patty squirms, you can here her mind scream, “No! Really! In know I’m blonde haired and blue eyed, and we chose some arrogant white guy over you, but PLEASE, PLEASE , PLEASE, believe me we’re not a racists and help us!” Perhaps the film’s greatest missed opportunity was not making this black guy a more important character; think of all the ways he could’ve been used to mine the couple’s insecurities about their own place in America’s pecking order.
After that honest accident, everything else is Drake’s fault. He’s dazzled by a white yuppie, slicker than they are, driving a Porsche and flashing a lot of cash. That’s our villain, Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton, who is clearly having the most fun of anyone in the film). When Carter says, ”I don’t really have that traditional kind of credit – you understand?” Drake falls for it hook, line, and sinker.
Carter will later be shown to be the disowned black-sheep son of a super-rich family, who, with a big trust fund, never had to earn his keep and has become resentful of all the good, honest, hard-working people of this world who have less than he. Hating the idle and parasitic rich is a left-media basis, but take away Carter’s whiteness and old-money family, and he really is a stand-in for Ronald Reagan’s Cadillac-driving-welfare-queen, whom he turned into an American icon during his race-and-class-baiting 1976 Presidential Campaign, “She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”
Problem is, that woman never existed. Her closest real-world counter-part was Linda Taylor, who used four aliases and cheated the government out of a mere $8,000 before she got caught and convicted. Carter is as fictional as Reagan’s lie, and a lot less uncomfortable to hate for the white-upper-middle-class. Especially for people like Patty and Drake, who probably voted for Reagan in 1980 and 1984, but were too ashamed to put his bumper sticker on their car.
Carter knows the system because since he’s never had a real job, he’s had time to learn how to game it. And once his game is fully in play, our attractive couple is defenseless, as explained by their an attorney (Laurie Metcalf) who is bitterly hilarious as she describes how the bleeding-heart-liberal/predatory-socialist-agenda has stacked the whole game against entrepreneurism and private ownership of property.
Drake is driven to alcoholism and Patty has a miscarriage. Soon Drake is legally barred from entering his own house, and they are still without legal recourse even after Carter shoots him but does not kill him.
This film has a late emerging plot-line that changes the direction of the story. After Carter has finished toying with them, he disappears, and in the real world, that is mostly likely the end of the story. But Patty finds a clue to his real identity, and turns girl-detective; she wants her pound of flesh. Melanie Griffith, a mere babe of 27 years when American feminism was officially executed in 1984, at 33 has turned herself into a near perfect post-feminist heroine — she’s the alpha in the relationship, but this is demonstrated rather than stated, and when she investigates Carter (without doubt, the most fun part of the movie) she’s like one of those plucky dames in escapist adventures of the 1930s and 1940s, living in a world of social and political limitations, but always more than equal to any man as long as they don’t notice that fact.
She turns the tables on Carter. Carter didn’t like that. And that sets up the psycho-killer climax.
The film is heavily Hitchcock influenced and set in San Francesco, the city of some of his finest movies. The most obvious piece of homage is that Hitchcock blonde Tippi Hedren is given a small cameo role. It is a shame that it wasn’t Kim Novak, star of Hitchcock’s greatest San Francesco film “Vertigo” (1958, not on this list) but as Ms. Hedren is in fact Ms. Griffith’s mom, she was probably easier to sign.
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