The Film: Pacific Heights (1990)
The Principals: John Schlesinger (Director). Melanie Griffith, Matthew Modine, Michael Keaton, Mako, Beverly D’Angelo, Luca Bercovici.
The Premise: A young couple (Modine and Griffith) spend a lot of money purchasing and restoring a beautiful house in an affluent San Francisco neighborhood, with the intention of making the money back by renting two apartments on the first floor. Good plan, until a sinister weirdo (Keaton) moves in and fucks everything up.
Is It Good: Yes and no. In the “so-and-so from hell” thriller sub genre, it’s probably one of the most interesting and unusual examples by virtue of its extremely odd premise. And God knows Schlesinger believes he’s making a classy thriller out of Daniel Pyne’s vindictive screenplay. (Vindictive because he had problems with an inconvenient tenant of his own). But there is definitely something amiss in a couple of areas. The unusual premise, for example, is a double-edged sword. If you really think about it, Keaton’s Carter Hayes isn’t doing anything particularly evil or menacing. He’s just a pain in the ass. And that’s an odd lynchpin to hinge a tense, Hitchcockian thriller upon. … “Don’t let him move in to your house, he’ll….ANNOY YOU!” “Beware of CARTER HAYES… He’ll… CHANGE THE LOCKS and… REFUSE TO PAY HIS RENT ON TIME!”
So, in essence, Keaton puts his all into playing a villain that isn’t much of a villain. Certainly not by traditional standards. So the movie creates all these off-beat scenes. Carter Hayes sitting in his car in the garage, twirling a razor blade on his fingers, while smoking…IN THE DARK. Or him sitting in the apartment, letting a roach crawl on his knuckles, while he watches TV with the volume turned down…IN THE DARK.
In the third act, the story must contrive a way to all of a sudden make Hayes into an unhinged psychopath who will fire a nail into Melanie Griffith’s brain at the slightest provocation. The sudden shift, despite Keaton’s best efforts at being genuinely scary, doesn’t really feel believable. But, as you watch it, you know it’s a necessary dramatic construct in order for Carter Hayes to get his just desserts. But… Really? This is what he deserves? Daniel Pyne really hated that guy, I guess.
Added to that, there is the very vanilla presence of Griffith and (especially) Modine who never generate any real chemistry as a couple nor do they have the sort of charisma needed to make you sympathize with them. So you only root for them because you have to and not because you genuinely give a shit.
On the other hand, the movie is still a lot of fun because of that unusual premise and the way it all plays out. You have stuff like Mako and his wife (not his actual wife, the Japanese woman playing her) in the other apartment being the ideal neighbors until Keaton decides to infest their apartment with roaches (Oh no! Another horrible deed by CRIMINAL MASTERMIND Carter Hayes!), and that’s funny. Carl Lumbly (who you may recognize as a supporting player who has seemingly worked at one time or another in every TV series in existence since the 1970s) as the guy whose credit application is misplaced, making room for Carter Hayes to step in. And, lo and behold, he’s the official that Griffith and Modine end up having to seek help from when the shit hits the fan. “I guess now you’re thinking you should’ve given the apartment to the black guy, huh?” he says, with great panache, in one of the film’s best lines.
Beverly D’Angelo and Tippi Hedren both show up in cameos as Keaton’s lovers. The man has taste, apparently.
As mentioned, Schlesinger brings a sense of class to the proceedings. The finale, preposterous though it may be, is staged with flare and real tension. And there is something to be said for Hans Zimmer’s score, which combines Kenny G porn sax and erotic vocalizing (for the film’s quiet dramatic scenes), with thundering DUH-DUNNN bass lines and strings for the rollercoaster suspense sequences. It’s cheesy, but effective.
There’s enough here, basically, to let you excuse the film’s flaws and have a good time. And I’ve always had a real soft spot for this movie because of that.
Is It Worth A Look: I would say definitely yes. Even though the concept of the character he’s playing is patently absurd, Keaton does a great job. It’s one of his most creative, canny performances and it was a wise choice for him to follow Batman with this. It helped in the marketing of the film (if not its ultimate box office success, which was meager) and also to broaden his image and spectrum of roles. Added to that all the campy elements I mentioned and I’d say you could do worse than spin this disc on a rainy afternoon.
Random Anecdotes: Penn Jillette auditioned for this film.
Schlesinger asked him if he was afraid of cockroaches, which leads me to believe he was being considered for Carter Hayes. That would have been an interesting, if more low-profile, choice. Though I can’t see Penn making out with Beverly D’Angelo and running an ice cube down her torso. So, probably not.
Considering his situation at the time, he was most likely offered the Luca Bercovici role.
I would have wanted to see Michael Keaton punch him out.
* * * *
On a personal note…
Michael Keaton is probably still my favorite actor if anyone were to ask me point blank. But, back then, I was obsessed with him. I don’t want that to sound creepy. I was 13. I idolized him is what I mean. The “love affair” began with Johnny Dangerously and I never looked back. A lot of people were with their panties up in a twitch when he was cast as Batman. Not me. I was thrilled that my favorite actor was being given such a high profile role.
My point… I first saw the teaser for this movie on some Warner Brothers video release. I couldn’t tell you what it was. But it hit me like a freight train when I saw it. It was a weird, creepy teaser that made a big deal about Michael Keaton’s presence as the villain of the film. I couldn’t wait. It was my most anticipated release of 1990. This was before the internet. I copied whatever movie it was onto another tape. I did this frequently back then before “priced to own” was commonplace. (So did you… Don’t point fingers) But, in this particular case, it gave me the opportunity to watch the trailer again and again.
It was a late Summer/early Fall release, as I recall. My dad was away on business, so my stepmom took me to see it opening night at the Waverly Twin on West 4th St. (Is that place even still around?) in NY. My stepmom shielded her eyes and shrieked during all the scary parts. I think, due to one or two unfortunate incidents with roommates at our Chinatown loft, she might have identified with Griffith and Modine’s plight.
Then again, that silly climax really is a nail-biter.
Anyway, I went on a trip to La Paz shortly afterwards and continued to be obsessed with the movie, where I had the chance to see it again with my cousin, when it was released as EL INQUILINO. (Look it up) My cousin hated it, calling it one of the stupidest movies he’d ever seen and we argued about that for hours.
In retrospect, and after repeated viewings, I have to admit he’s probably right. It is kind of stupid.
Cinematc Soulmates: The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Unlawful Entry, Lakeview Terrace. (though, they’re all much more traditional thrillers… but you get the drift)