There’s been, as you might have noticed, a wave of ’90s revivalism in theaters in 2017, from remakes of “Beauty And The Beast,” “Power Rangers” and “Ghost In The Shell,” to this week’s decidedly “Reservoir Dogs”-esque crime comedy “Free Fire” (if you haven’t already, catch up on our ’90s series here). But this week also brings a stealthier form of 1990s throwback in the shape of “Unforgettable,” the kind of thriller that’s rare to see in theaters these days, but which used to be ten-a-penny 25 years or so ago.
The directorial debut of veteran producer Denise Di Novi, it stars Rosario Dawson as a woman who’s newly engaged to the man of her dreams (Geoff Stults), but who finds her potential happiness upended when her beau’s unstable, threatening ex-wife (Katherine Heigl) returns to the scene. It’s a return to what’s often referred to as the yuppies-in-peril movie: a thriller where a comfortable, bourgeois existence is disrupted, normally by a violent exterior factor, from stepfathers to landlords to renegade cops to spurned mistresses.
The sub-genre became popular in the late 1980s, as the boom years brought the “yuppie” into the public consciousness, and continued as a force through the 1990s, though as we’ll see, it’s never entirely gone away, though its more recent incarnations come somewhat disguised. Quite often, there’s a conservative moralism to these movies, but they also play to some extent to our desire to see the wealthy and happy punished for their success, usually, in these examples, by having their pets and/or best friends horribly murdered.
With “Unforgettable” in theaters, and TV’s “Big Little Lies,” which displays many of the characteristics, having wrapped up recently, we thought it was a good time to look back at the history of this undersung but secretly highly enjoyable genre, and so we’ve assembled a list of 15 of the most important, and best, examples. The degree of peril varies, as does the degree of yuppiedom, but together they represent a fine sampler menu of affluent, attractive, successful, aspirational people coming face to face with all their sublimated fears — because the more you have, the more other people want it, and the more you have to lose.
“Fatal Attraction” (1987)
In some ways, this was the film that birthed not just the erotic thriller sub-genre that proved to be a big deal at the box office in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but also the yuppies-in-peril genre that we’re looking at today (it certainly marks the template of sorts for this week’s “Unforgettable”). Still probably the most successful film of its type (it was the biggest-grossing movie of 1987 worldwide and won six Oscar nods, including Best Picture), its set-up is simplicity itself: lawyer Dan (Michael Douglas, the crown prince of yuppies) has an ill-advised affair with a woman, Alex (Glenn Close), who becomes stalkerishly obsessive over him, eventually to a murderous degree. Today, it’s a little tough in some ways to see how it became such a phenomenon: it’s a tawdry, trashy B-movie thriller, to be sure, and one that undeniably feels quite conservative and misogynistic in its depiction of Close’s character and the threat that she poses to the happy family life of Douglas and his wife (Anne Archer), up to the point that it coined the term “bunny boiler.” But at the same time, you can’t deny how goddamn effective it is: Adrian Lyne wrings tension out of every opportunity like a sort of flashy MTV Alfred Hitchcock, and the fine performances from all three leads find the humanity amidst the potboiler-y plotting.
“Gone Girl” (2014)
You wouldn’t necessarily associate the yuppie-in-peril genre with him at first thought, but David Fincher has consistently gone back to that well in intriguing ways: “The Game,” “Panic Room,” even to some extent “Fight Club” all see wealthy, comfortable characters thrown out of their bubble into danger, and to some extent punished for their status. But his most interesting foray into this sort of territory might have come with “Gone Girl.” Based on Gillian Flynn’s best-selling page-turner, it delves into the rotten heart of a seemingly perfect marriage after Nick (Ben Affleck) discovers that his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) has disappeared, seemingly after a violent struggle. At first, it seems to play into the fears that mark most of the films on this list: the invasion of the home, the threat to marriage, the exposure of secrets. But Flynn’s story has a twist in the tale: as with “Presumed Innocent” (see below), the threat here comes from inside the marriage, with Amy having faked her disappearance and potential murder to punish him for an affair. It works better here than it did in “Presumed Innocent,” partly because Fincher doubles down on the dark, twisted nature of the surprise (and reveals his cards earlier) without wringing his hands over its morality — Nick is being punished, but there’s a sort of glee in the way he is punished. And it’s partly because Fincher and Flynn bring wryly funny elements of social satire and an almost Paul Mazursky-esque portrait of marriage into the piece, too; there’s a reason its most famous moment is Amy’s “Cool Girl” monologue, which is expressly a critique of the shallowness and vapidity of the lifestyle to which we are all supposed to aspire.
“Unlawful Entry” (1992)
Jonathan Kaplan‘s thriller is, plot-wise anyway, about as uninspired and by-the-numbers as this kind of thriller gets, but it does feature unwarrantedly strong performances that make it feel at times like it’s adding up to more than the sum of its parts. In particular, we get a defining whackjob from Ray Liotta, and a turn from the hugely underrated Madeleine Stowe that actually makes something of her underwritten victim character. Stowe plays Karen, the beautiful wife of nightclub developer Michael (Kurt Russell, yuppified out of his blue-collar persona by the addition of glasses), and Liotta is Pete, the cop who first shows up in response to a home invasion, and then gradually becomes obsessed with Karen. Underpinning a lot of the drama is a subtle clash of class and masculinity, with Pete’s pathology making him certain that the relatively effete and cultured Michael is not man enough to protect Karen from the dangers of the world, while the complacent confidence that the couple have in law enforcement and in being on the “right” side of society is also revealed to be a thin facade. It degenerates, like many of these films, into a “psycho killer on the rampage” B-movie, but it has a pretty good time getting there, with Kaplan’s understated style (note how he shoots Liotta and Russell so that they almost seem like doubles) and the fine acting giving a little heft to its sensationalism.
“Bad Influence” (1990)
Before he was the Oscar-winning director of “L.A. Confidential” and the man who successfully brought Eminem to screens with “8 Mile,” Curtis Hanson was in some ways the king of the yuppies-in-peril movie: 1987’s “The Bedroom Window” (starring the unexpected pairing of Steve Guttenberg and Isabelle Huppert), “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” (see below) and “The River Wild” all to some extent fit the definition. But perhaps the purest entry he ever made in the sub-genre was “Bad Influence.” A sort of blend of “Strangers On A Train” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” it sees James Spader play Michael, a shy, nebbish-y cubicle drone who befriends the sexy, daring Alex (Rob Lowe), who helps his new pal come out of his shell, only to prove to be dangerous and psychotic. David Koepp’s script ends up more or less where you’d expect, but Hanson’s eye for character and specificity helps elevate the proceedings: it at times feels as close to something like the yuppie novels of Bret Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney as it does to a B-thriller. It helps that it’s perfectly cast, too. Lowe’s plasticky Ken-doll persona has rarely been put to more subversive use, and Spader is the ideal counterpoint: the submissive half of the friendship, but given that he’s played by James Spader, potentially even more pervy and scary once you dig beneath the surface a bit.
“One Hour Photo” (2002)
Mark Romanek‘s directorial debut is best remembered now for the chilling against-type performance from the late Robin Williams, who this same year had already appeared as the mild-mannered killer in Christopher Nolan‘s “Insomnia.” But where his supporting turn there was a neatly executed casting coup, in “One Hour Photo” he is the film: the story’s unflinching focus on this gray man and Williams’ embodiment of him as both more and less than a stock genre villain is what makes it all so singularly, bloodlessly creepy. This shifting of focus onto the threatening influence rather than the victims (here it’s Michael Vartan and Connie Nielsen playing the literally picture-perfect couple) almost pushes the film out of the realm of the yuppies-in-peril thriller, except for its themes of longing and lifestyle envy, not to mention its preoccupation with the voyeurism involved in looking at someone else’s photos and the narcissism involved in taking them. Here the lie of the family’s perfect existence, which is propagated in their photos, is so seductive that not only does it become a dangerous obsession to the lonely photo stall worker Sy (Williams), but when he discovers it’s just a facade, it’s a blow devastating enough to turn him potentially dangerous. It’s more stylized, artistic and considered than many of these potboilers, but “One Hour Photo” has a similar cautionary tale at its heart, albeit a sad one.