If you like movies where upper-middle-class white people suddenly find their lives turned upside down and torn apart by other white people, the 1990s was a glorious time for you.
Granted, movies that showed young urban professionals, a.k.a. “yuppies,” having all nine circles of Hell brought to their doorstep due to their own bad judgment or plain bad luck were made long before then (Deliverance being one of the earliest examples), but for those of us in a ’90s kind of world who were looking to enjoy a good scare for two hours that would have us on the edge of our seat wondering what would happen next, there were plenty of options to choose from. There were numerous TV movies that fell into this genre and aired regularly on network television, such as The Babysitter’s Seduction, starring Keri Russell and Stephen Collins (I know, readers, I know); Friends ‘Til The End with Shannen Doherty; and Mother, May I Sleep With Danger, starring Tori Spelling. For those who wanted a good scare with some sex and nudity that would make the film earn its R rating, that meant either a night out at the movies or a trip to the local video store, where there were also many options to choose from: Single White Female with Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh; Poison Ivy with Drew Barrymore and Sara Gilbert; Fear with Mark Wahlberg and Reese Witherspoon; Pacific Heights starring Michael Keaton, Matthew Modine, and Melanie Griffith; and Malice with Alec Baldwin, Nicole Kidman, and Bill Pullman.
As scary, sexy, and impressive as many of those films were (some more than others), there was one that stood out from the rest, and also did a really good job of scaring the crap out of parents looking to hire nannies for their kids. That film was The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, which opened in theaters on January 10, 1992.
Claire and Michael Bartel (Annabella Sciorra, Matt McCoy) are a happily married couple living in the suburbs of Seattle with their young daughter, Emma (Madeline Zima), and with a baby boy on the way. When Claire’s usual gynecologist retires, she schedules an appointment with Dr. Victor Mott (John de Lancie), which goes horribly wrong when Dr. Mott sexually assaults her. (This scene is brief, but remains very difficult and unpleasant to watch, especially knowing now that Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted Annabella Sciorra in real life, and how her life and career were nearly ruined as a result) Claire decides to press charges against him, which results in more of his patients coming forward about their own sexual assaults under the care of Dr. Mott, who dies by suicide rather than face the consequences of his actions. His pregnant wife, Mrs. Mott (Rebecca De Mornay), is informed that her assets will be frozen and her home will be seized, due to the charges against her husband, as well as the life insurance policy being rendered void since he took his own life. This all results in Mrs. Mott going into preterm labor, causing the death of her baby, and Mrs. Mott undergoing an emergency hysterectomy. Six months later, after Claire has given birth to her baby, she is on the lookout for a nanny to help out at home, and to her pleasant surprise, she crosses paths with Peyton Flanders, who befriends Claire and offers her services to the family after making an incredibly good impression on her and on the rest of the family. Unfortunately for Claire, Peyton is actually Mrs. Mott, and she is willing to do anything to destroy Claire’s life slowly and painfully before taking her family away from her.
The Hand That Rocks The Cradle isn’t the most original or exceptional of thrillers, but it is thrilling and entertaining enough to keep your attention throughout its nearly two-hour runtime. The screenplay by Amanda Silver, and the performances by the cast are all solid, particularly Sciorra as Claire; Ernie Hudson as Solomon, the mentally disabled handyman who becomes fiercely protective of the Bartels when he realizes the truth about Peyton; and Julianne Moore as Marlene, Claire and Michael’s best friend whose tolerance for other people’s bullsh-t (especially Peyton’s) is damn near nonexistent. The direction by the late, great Curtis Hanson was just as impressive and confident and stylish as in the other films he would go on to helm, including 8 Mile, The River Wild, Wonder Boys, In Her Shoes, and L.A. Confidential.
But if there’s one person who is largely responsible for making The Hand That Rocks The Cradle feel like a rollercoaster ride that slowly builds up the tension before it finally hits full speed, it’s Rebecca De Mornay as Mrs. Mott, a.k.a. Peyton Flanders.
From the moment the audience is introduced to her, in which she shoots the iciest of glares at an attorney who offers to help her out of her seat in a conference room, it becomes very clear very quickly that she is not to be f-cked with. When she introduces herself to Claire with a warm smile and even warmer demeanor, and is naively invited into her home, all we can do is bite our nails with antici……pation as we wonder what she will do next to inflict pain and suffering on Claire and her family.
From destroying Michael’s business proposal (in one of the scariest and most intense tantrums ever seen on film), to breastfeeding baby Joe when everyone else is asleep and causing him to reject Claire’s milk, to ruining Claire’s favorite dress right before a special night out with Michael and their friends, to planting seeds of doubt in Claire’s mind and making her think that Michael is having an affair with Marlene, and causing her to flip out and lose her sh-t about it at home when there’s a surprise birthday party (including Marlene) waiting for her in the next room. Oh, and convincing her and Michael that their daughter is being molested by Solomon in order to get him out of the way. (The hateful and disgusting way that Peyton confronts Solomon outside of the house when he catches her breastfeeding Joe? Chills, and for so many reasons)
What makes Peyton’s actions even more devious and deliciously evil is what De Mornay is able to do with her face throughout the film, and what she’s able to convey even for the briefest of moments. Whether it’s utter disgust when Solomon accidentally gets paint on the sleeve of her blouse and she pulls her arm back when he attempts to touch her, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it snarl of rage when Marlene confronts her about who she really is, or the absolute glee when she has just led Marlene into a deathtrap to protect her true identity and is then emptying every single one of Claire’s inhalers while humming happily to herself (and also smiling at her reflection in a nearby mirror while emptying an inhaler), or the fact that you can practically see an entire string of profanities in her eyes when she sees the police and an ambulance coming to Claire’s rescue after she has a near-fatal asthma attack that sends her to the hospital. (Look at and listen to the way Peyton says the word “asthma” when Claire has her first attack in front of her, as if she just took a bite out of a delicious T-bone steak and is savoring every second of it, as the gears begin turning in her head)
Then there’s the scene where Michael is outside in front of Claire’s greenhouse, distraught over Marlene’s death and Claire being hospitalized.
When Peyton brings him back inside from the rain and dries him off with a towel, the two of them then stare into each other’s eyes while standing very close to one another. Michael is shirtless, Peyton’s breasts are clearly visible through a soaked nightgown, and with sexual tension that is so thick you could cut it with a lightsaber, Michael simply tells Peyton that there is only one woman for him.
Peyton’s response? “That’s all you need.”
Despite the fact that she was hoping that the film would let her dive a little deeper into who Peyton/Mrs. Mott really was, and that there was more to the character than just her Roaring Rampage Of Revenge, it’s clear that Rebecca De Mornay is having a blast playing a villainess that you just love to hate. When she finally gets to go scorched-earth on Claire and Michael, resulting in Michael being incapacitated and Claire hell-bent on fighting back as she has her own “Get away from her, you bitch!” moment, that same sense of fun and excitement is felt by the audience, even as we see Peyton twisting the knife more as Claire suffers another asthma attack during their final confrontation. “When your husband makes love to you, it’s my face he sees. When your baby’s hungry, it’s my breast that feeds him. Look at you. When push comes to shove…you can’t even breathe.”
That kind of moment, and that kind of unrepentant villainy on display, is what has us cheering Claire on as the two of them battle each other tooth-and-claw to the death. Kudos to Rebecca De Mornay for being so brilliant and so damn good at going from angelic innocence to unspeakable malevolence in the blink of an eye. The last time she was able to use her stunning features to maximum effect like this (and still leave audiences wondering what her true motivations are whenever we see her onscreen) before The Hand That Rocks The Cradle was when she starred as sex worker Lana in Risky Business. And her performance as Peyton Flanders/Mrs. Mott reminded Hollywood of how talented she was, is, and continues to be.
If you’re in the mood for a suspenseful thrill ride that will probably have you wearing a “Trust No Bitch” necklace afterwards (they’re real and they’re out there), and thinking twice about hiring nannies the way Fatal Attraction had men thinking twice about cheating on their wives, and Jaws had damn near everyone saying “Hell no!” to swimming at the beach, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle is the perfect throwback for your viewing pleasure.
The Hand That Rocks The Cradle is available for rent on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, and Vudu.