Let me start off by saying that I don’t really subscribe to the term “guilty pleasure.” Regardless of whether something is cheesy, silly, vulgar, or controversial, if you like, just own it!
That’s what I’m doing here. I am going to profess my utmost love for two 90s thrillers – The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992) starring Rebecca De Mornay and Annabella Sciorra and Fear (1996) starring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Walhberg. I love them not in spite of their ridiculousness but because of their ridiculousness.
We’ll start with The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, and next week, I’ll break down Fear.
(WARNING: Spoilers ahead, but if you watch this movie, you’ll see this stuff coming from a mile ahead anyway).
I was in elementary school when The Hand that Rocks the Cradle was released. My older sister and her best friend saw it in the theatre and came back raving about it. I’d been reading R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike thrillers for over a year, and I really wanted to be brave enough to watch R-rated scary movies. This one was especially exciting because it had been filmed in Seattle and Tacoma, and we lived in a rural small town two hours outside of Seattle. While the big city of Seattle seemed like some far off place where fancy people lived, it was still right here in our own home state!
In fact, the house where the fictional family lives is located in Tacoma and that infamous greenhouse that killed Julianne Moore’s character still stands too. (In the above photo, that’s me in front of it).
But back to 1992: My best friend and I convinced my sister to tell us the entire story of the movie, every single detail start to finish. It was the only way we’d be able to handle the suspense and scares. Next we convinced my mom to take us to the theatre. We were the youngest kids there, and the entire two hours was a thrilling and shocking and exhilarating ride.
On rewatch as an adult, it’s not quite as thrilling and shocking, but it is still quite fun and unintentionally funny. And since I fell in love with it as a kid, I still love it.
Here are the top six reasons why I adore this ridiculous movie:
- The entire premise of the live-in nanny is nonsensical
Claire (Annabella Sciorra) gives birth to a baby boy. Claire’s husband Michael is a businessman and their other child is a charming little girl who attends elementary school. Claire was recently part of a class-action law suit against an obstetrician who molested several of his female patients. Once accused, the doctor committed suicide. The whole incident was very upsetting to Claire, but she’s bounced back now.
Claire does not work outside the home, but she has recently decided to build a greenhouse in her backyard. Let me be clear. She is not opening a plant nursery as a business. She is not working in her greenhouse full-time. It’s a hobby and at most, she spends a few hours a day out there. So Claire decides to hire some childcare assistance, which is perfectly reasonable. Caring for a newborn is exhausting and everyone needs a break and yes, she does need time to work on her greenhouse. Except, wait…. she hires a LIVE-IN NANNY? Yes, she hires a woman to move into her house and care for her baby because she has a gardening hobby. Huh? Claire is not suffering from post-partum depression or any serious mental health issue that would explain why she needs round the clock 24/7/365 help. If she still has anxiety over the incident with the obstetrician, it’s not extreme. She literally just wants to hang out in her greenhouse a few hours a day.
Therefore, the premise of the entire movie is absurd. It’s basically about a woman who hires a live-in nanny so she can grow some basil in the backyard. Love it.
- Anyone can see that the nanny is batshit crazy
Claire hires a woman named Peyton (Rebecca De Mornay) who is very, very weird. Peyton speaks in a voice that’s a cross between a robot and a 1-900 operator. She walks around with a glassy look in her eyes, and she has no sense of humor and poor conversational skills. Every day she dresses in a business-like pencil skirt, a crisp white button-up shirt, and dress shoes (because babies are never, ever messy). This is a woman that Claire wants to bunk with? I’m sorry, but no normal woman would want Peyton to show up to her dinner party, let alone live in her house. She throws off a million red flags.
And that’s the second reason why I love this movie. Because Peyton is so deliciously weird to watch. Rebecca De Mornay slays this role.
- The mother is not very bright
There is a false molestation accusation story line that makes zero sense. Let me explain: Claire hires a mentally disabled man named Solomon to build a fence. He’s a big teddy bear and he loves her little girl, but you know, not in that way. But Peyton has an ulterior motive to destroy Claire and steal her family. Peyton is wreaking havoc wherever she can, because (cue music) Peyton is the widow of the obstetrician who sexually assaulted Claire and killed himself. Months ago, when the pregnant Peyton got the news that her husband was dead, she had a miscarriage. So that’s why Peyton wants to kill Claire and steal her family. You know, eye for an eye.
When Solomon sees Peyton breast-feeding the baby with her own milk, Peyton knows she must remove Solomon from the equation. So she casually mentions to Claire that she suspects Solomon may be touching the daughter inappropriately. Claire doesn’t ask Peyton to explain in detail what she means. Claire doesn’t get clarification of any kind. She doesn’t ask a single question.
Later when Claire talks to her daughter about the possible molestation, she also doesn’t ask her daughter any direct questions. Rather, she speaks in vague philosophical terms about secrets (because 7-year-olds are great at those types of conversations). And when her daughter finally makes an expression that indicates she might be about to open up, Claire cuts in and says, “You don’t have to say anything.” Wha-at? Potential confirmation of alleged molestation may be bubbling to the surface and Mom says “never mind.” If Mom’s inability to discuss this issue with her daughter is supposed to be the result of Mom’s own sexual assault, it’s not portrayed in that way.
- The father/husband is even more clueless
Let’s not let Michael off the hook though. Oh my goodness. Daddy really takes a liking to Nanny. Not unheard of, but as I highlighted before Nanny is Weird. Claire eventually notices that something about Peyton seems off, but Michael walks around completely oblivious, playing card games with Peyton, half-heartedly warding off her flirtations, and all the while wondering what his wife’s problem is. When Claire suggests to Michael that they take a family vacation without Peyton, Michael accuses her of “turning on” the nanny. I’d say this is more a case of the husband turning on the wife. But then, Michael’s main function in this movie is to say stupid things, such as smugly chastising his wife over her broken earring: “I’m always getting on her to get that thing fixed.” Really, Michael? You are? Because I think that most wives are surprised if their husbands even notice they are wearing jewelry and Michael is making it a priority to nag Claire about properly caring for hers? What a swell guy. He’s all about the finer points in life – like earrings – but wisely ignores the unimportant details, like that his nanny is evil.
- Julianne Moore is fun to watch
In one of her first ever movie roles, Julianne Moore plays Marlene, and she is so much fun to watch. Marlene is the straight-talking, feisty sister of Claire who first cracks the case of Peyton’s secret identity. Unlike Claire and Michael, Marlene has half a brain. She might be a bit lacking in social/sister skills, but Peyton isn’t pulling the wool over her eyes. Marlene also creates some tension throughout the story since she and Michael dated back in the day and still flirt a bit (note to self: It’s not a great idea to marry your sister’s ex-boyfriend). Marlene is the Queen of Making Obscure Connections when a set of very non-descript wind chimes that are probably sold everywhere reveal to her Peyton’s true identity.
Sadly Marlene never gets to tell Claire of her discovery… It really is too bad that with all that time on her hands, Claire didn’t build a safety mechanism into the glass roof of her greenhouse. It’s almost like she was inviting Peyton to kill her sister.
- The climax is golden
Claire finally uncovers the truth about who Peyton is and why she wants to hurt them, which takes us to the climax:
Claire and her husband have finally kicked Peyton out of the house. But that night, she breaks back in and cranks up the opera music, blasting it through the basement. (The opera music is a nice, creepy touch). Michael goes to investigate and here is one of my favorite parts:
Peyton hits Michael in the face with a shovel, seriously injuring him. Injures him how? Wait for it. The impact breaks his legs. Yeah, I’m pretty sure if you hit a man in the face with a shovel that it might break his nose but probably not his legs. At least not the way he falls on them in the movie. He maybe bruised one of his legs, but broke both of them? But then, I’ve never been hit in the face with a shovel, so what do I know?
After that, there’s lots of fun cat and mouse stuff as Claire tries to get to her children before Peyton can. It really is wonderful though when the man previously accused of molestation shows up to help save the day. What a great coincidence! I guess he must always go on an evening walk after dark and lucky, lucky that he was passing by when from the sidewalk, he heard the opera music and thought, THAT MUST MEAN PEYTON HAS FINALLY ATTACKED!
The climax also features one of the best lines in cheesy 90s dialogue. While Claire is crouched on the floor trying to catch her breath (she has asthma, as is established earlier in the film), Peyton gets in her face and says, “When push comes to shove, you can’t even breathe.”
Guess what, Peyton? Claire can breathe, enough at least. And you just got your ass shoved out a top story window. And that fall just got you impaled on that brand-new fence built by that guy you wrongfully accused of child molestation. Boom. Now that’s tying up a story arc, isn’t it?
Gotta love the 90s! If you enjoyed this article, be sure to read my blog next week when I profess my love of the 90s thriller Fear in which Mark Wahlberg turns totally psycho on Reese Witherspoon.
Hallie Shepherd is a writer, actress, and film producer. Follow her on Instagram where she celebrates the stories we tell.