By Owen Gleiberman
Updated January 17, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

Back in 1987, Fatal Attraction tapped such a mother lode of anxiety about ”unstable” women and the fragility of the modern nuclear family that when the movie became a phenomenon, both at the box office and as a sociological touchstone, it was easy to forget what a richly textured thriller it was. A lot of what made the film so riveting was the way Glenn Close, in a brilliant performance, played the jilted Medusa as both victim and victimizer — a haunted icon of urban loneliness. For a while, she was intensely sympathetic; when she turned evil, we never quite forgot the human being at the monster’s core.

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle makes a similar bid to exploit contemporary domestic fears. The movie is about a vengeful, psychotic nanny who moves in with a nice Seattle family and attempts to destroy it from within. Is she a killer? Yes — but the hook is that she kills with ”kindness,” masquerading as the perfect, loving caretaker and attempting, through one devious gambit after another, to replace the mother.

The premise is so primal and juicy, so engineered to capture the anxieties of aspiring homemakers everywhere, that the movie is virtually guaranteed to become a hit. Watching it, though, I never felt anything like the shock of recognition — the paranoia and dread, the sense of a woman’s justifiable anger pushed over the edge into crazed malevolence — that I did at Fatal Attraction. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle keeps you watching, yet this oddly somber thriller is really just a transparent chain of contrivances; it’s all stunts, all concept. It’s like Fatal Attraction remade as a TV movie, and if it becomes a phenomenon, that will be only because appearing ”relevant” is an integral part of its marketing strategy.

Peyton (Rebecca De Mornay), the housemaid from hell, is married to a sicko gynecologist who commits suicide after being brought up on charges that he sexually molested his patients. When Peyton, as a result of the trauma, miscarries and loses her ability to bear children, she seeks vengeance by insinuating herself into the home of Claire Bartel (Annabella Sciorra), the happy wife and mother who first blew the whistle on Peyton’s husband.

Once inside the bosom of familyhood, Peyton unleashes a campaign of mind games and deceptions, slowly turning everyone against poor Claire. She sneaks out of her room to breast-feed the new baby. She quietly terrorizes the Bartels’ mildly retarded handyman (Ernie Hudson) and wins over their cute-as-a-button 5-year-old daughter, Emma (Madeline Zima), by scaring a bully at school. She chips away at the marriage, implying that the husband (Matt McCoy) has rekindled an affair with his old lover.

The trouble is, the movie never really convinces us that Peyton could get away with this stuff. Is it believable, for instance, that she would win little Emma’s trust in about five minutes, completely undermining the girl’s bonds to her own mother? Peyton’s schemes unfold conveniently, one after another, like a series of parlor tricks. They’re set up with a minimum of logic, and most of them are predicated on the fact that Claire and her husband never seem to discuss anything that goes on under their own roof.

Rebecca De Mornay, in a role that will probably give her the career boost she has deserved ever since Risky Business, makes an amusing zombie demoness. Beneath her delicate daze of warmth and concern, Peyton is all ticking calculation; she’s like one of the Stepford Wives. What’s borderline ridiculous is that, for major stretches, every member of the family seems like one of the Stepford Wives — especially the husband, who’s played by Matt McCoy as such a grinning dufus that his mealy-mouthed gullibility quickly becomes a camp hoot. Annabella Sciorra, the costar of True Love and Jungle Fever, once again brings her eye-of-the-storm serenity to the role of a passionately ordinary middle-class woman. Sciorra, as always, gives an accomplished performance, but the movie relies too heavily on her goody-goody earnestness. It’s easy to sympathize with Claire’s situation and not necessarily be drawn to her as a character.

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is clearly designed to lure women into the theater. The paradox is that it trades on the most retrograde images of women imaginable — they’re either ’90s Doris Days or murderous destroyers. The climax descends into pure demagoguery, becoming a kind of pro-wrestling match between good and evil homemakers. There’s no denying the movie gets a rise out of us, but it does so by mining the fears within our hokiest prejudices. B-

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

  • Movie
  • R
  • 110 minutes
  • Curtis Hanson