“Single White Female” (1992)
If “Fatal Attraction“’s success can be put down to the immediate premise “What if your side-piece was a murderer?,” it led to a series of other films putting other, similar domestic staples into stabbier contexts, and “Single White Female” has a doozy. After all, most of us in our 20s will end up living with a stranger of some kind, and who knows who that stranger might be, or the kind of terrifying effect they could have on your life? Barbet Schroeder’s thriller, based on John Lutz’s novel “SWF Seeks Same” (changing the title was a smart move…), sees 20-something Allie (Bridget Fonda) looking for a new roommate after kicking out her cheating fiancé (Steven Weber). She picks out Hedy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who initially seems like a potential new best friend, if a little overprotective, but Hedy soon seems to be eerily copying Allie and becoming increasingly sinister. It’s a knock-off, for sure, but in some ways improves on the template, being much less noxious in its gender politics, smartly written (one forgets that “The Opposite Of Sex”’s Don Roos was the screenwriter), and convincing in its psychology, particularly thanks to Leigh’s disturbing performance. It’s a movie so influential that, to this day, no two female friends can get the same haircut without one of them referencing it.
“Pacific Heights” (1990)
“This is a yuppie conceit; this is not interesting to human beings.” So reads a line from the Washington Post’s pan of John Schlesinger‘s eviction thriller starring Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith as the new owners of an expensive old San Francisco house who rent out a part of it to psychopath chameleon and cockroach-wrangler Michael Keaton. And sure, “Pacific Heights” is by no means a masterpiece — like many of these other titles, it falls apart in its third act, the dialogue and scripting is desultory at best, and the characterization is either villain or vanilla. But the WaPo’s pithy dismissal misses the point: it is very interesting to human beings who are interested in yuppies. Indeed, in playing so directly on the fears surrounding one of the most fundamental yuppie accoutrements — the dream home — it’s pretty much a foundational text. Like many films of this era, it’s actually pretty anti-yuppie in subtext: Keaton’s cuckoo in the nest might be a nutso serial identity thief, but there’s also an indictment of the attractive young couple who are so anxious to prove their upward mobility that they overreach, and are punished for it, as though by an act of God. It’s a shame the screenplay isn’t sharper, as the film actually loses impact by having Keaton play such an irredeemable cartoon baddie, but it’s very effective in its first half when it’s the young couple’s privilege, and their naive belief that the law will always be on their side, that he is exploiting.
You can see why Belgian thriller “Loft” has been remade not once, but twice (first in Holland, then in the U.S.), because its “The Apartment”-as-a-murder-mystery premise is a good one. Five married men (Koen De Bouw, Filip Peeters, Bruno Vanden Broecke, Koen De Graeve and, in his breakout pre-“Bullhead” role, Matthias Schoenaerts) share the ownership of a fancy apartment where they take their mistresses, only for a dead woman to be found in there, and none of the men owning up to being the culprit. It’s a clear child of “Fatal Attraction,” but the certain Euro-amorality sits more easily in Erik Van Looy’s original than in his ill-fitting, long-delayed English-language remake (which doesn’t work in part because of the eccentric casting: Karl Urban! the guy from “Prison Break!” Schoenaerts again! The clown dude from “Modern Family”!), and in part because it feels like the edges have been filed off. The plotting’s still a bit convoluted in the Flemish-language original (it was the biggest-ever homegrown hit at the time), but Van Looy brings a De Palma-esque sense of style and perversion to the proceedings that makes the film feel scuzzily enjoyable through its twists and turns.
“The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” (1992)
Of all the auteur directors who could easily have placed several times over on this list (restricting ourselves to just one David Fincher and just one Michael Haneke nearly had us locking ourselves into our panic room), it’s perhaps surprising that the only filmmaker to feature twice is Curtis Hanson, and for consecutive movies at that. But his late ’80s/early ’90s run of titles (up to and including whitewater rafting movie “The River Wild,” featuring a buff Meryl Streep) all get to the heart of the subgenre: covetousness. Most of the best entries imply that it’s the seeming perfection of the have-it-all yuppie lifestyle that invites envy, danger and violence from an outsider, often a have-not. If “Bad Influence” (see above) was the narcissistic male version, “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” is Hanson’s take on sinister female envy, made manifest in Rebecca De Mornay‘s definingly unhinged performance. As the fake nanny who interposes herself into the life of the woman (Annabella Sciorra) whom she holds responsible for her husband’s suicide and her own miscarriage, De Mornay is murderously insane, dispatching Julianne Moore‘s best friend in memorable fashion and waling on a bathroom stall. But she is also the embodiment of a specific type of yuppie panic (that the hired help who one pays to do the menial jobs will start to covet the lifestyle they’re there to serve), and this gives the film a more subtle texture than it’s usually credited with — at least until the silly ending, in which the saintly Ernie Hudson character, straying dangerously close to the “magical negro” trope, saves the day.
“The Guest” (2014)
Adam Wingard’s gleefully enjoyable grindhouse action/horror to some extent looks and feels quite different to some of the other films on this list: it’s drawing on a different set of influences stylistically, its ’80s vibe as much Carpenter and Cannon as it is “Fatal Attraction,” and its ultimate twist almost comic book-y. And yet there’s a direct line from it to the sort of film we’ve been talking about (and ones we haven’t, like “The Stepfather,” “Poison Ivy” or “The Temp,” too): the external influence who infiltrates the cozy family unit, seems appealing at first, but proves to be a serious danger. Here the cuckoo in the nest is David (a revelatory Dan Stevens), who turns up on the doorstep of the Peterson family to tell them that he served with their late son in Afghanistan, and promised to look after them, whether it’s flirting with daughter Anna (Maika Monroe), or teaching son Luke (Brendan Meyer) how to deal with bullies. Unfortunately, he’s also a brainwashed super-soldier, part Captain America, part Manchurian Candidate, and it soon has bloody consequences for everyone. Not everyone bought the stylish action/giallo third act, but despite that, and the more lower-middle-class socio-economic vibe of the family (we’d hesitate to call them yuppies at all), this is a fun and unexpected twist on the genre.