By Justin LaLiberty
If ever there were a year to cement the status of the oft-ignored yet highly profitable Domestic Thriller genre of the ‘90’s, that year would be 1992. The year kicked off with The Hand that Rocks the Cradle in January, and then had a solid summer slate with Poison Ivy in May, Unlawful Entry in June and Single White Female in August. All but Poison Ivy would become profitable in their initial theatrical runs, the most successful being the surprise blockbuster status of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle with an 88 million dollar gross, placing it above other, more high-profile, R-rated films like Patriot Games and Under Siege for the year. And this was only the beginning.
’92 wasn’t exactly the start of the Domestic Thriller craze. I’d personally place its genesis with 1987’s The Stepfather and would include 1990’s Bad Influence and Pacific Heights and 1991’s Sleeping with the Enemy leading up to the pivotal year. But ’92 is where the pervasive trends would be established for what was to come throughout the 90s and going into the 2000s and beyond, some of which can be felt in cinema of even the past year with 2016’s When the Bough Breaks. What unites all of the films in the most base sense is the idea of domesticity, with the films taking place predominantly within the home; a home that is somehow turned upside down, invaded and/or dismantled – sometimes piece by piece. This could be easily confused for Home Invasion cinema, but the Domestic Thriller is much more intimate; the perpetrators almost always know the victims either as family or friends and/or are invited into the home.
The four film thread in ’92 offers up a good example of where the genre would go:The Hand that Rocks the Cradle features a family terrorized, Unlawful Entry utilizes a cop as the antagonist, Single White Female uses the urban peril of apartment sharing to its advantage and Poison Ivy establishes the invasive vixen, something it would run with for three sequels. The majority of titles that would come out in following years can easily be compared to at least one film from the Domestic Thriller Class of 1992 – and few would improve upon them.
Perhaps the most directly influential is both the lowest grossing and the only one to spawn three sequels (the only other to get a sequel was Single White Female 2 in an almost entirely unrelated DTV release in 2005), Poison Ivy. Starring a 16-year-old Drew Barrymore in a Lolita role in which she invades the life of a suburban family, naturally seducing the father and upsetting/assaulting just about everyone else. Marketed almost exclusively on Barrymore’s sex appeal – with the theatrical trailer featuring shots of her bare legs, a fingertip slowly tracing along a car and getting rain sexy with Tom Skeritt – the result is a surprisingly tame (yet potent) entry into the genre. What Poison Ivy may lack in excess, it makes up for in sheer bravado. Director Katt Shea was no stranger to genre cinema by this point – Stripped to Kill (1987) and Streets (1990) – and she keeps the pace tight and the surprises ample (some of which may be spoiled by the aforementioned trailer).
Despite not being a commercial success theatrically – it found a following on video, accompanied by a not much more scandalous unrated version with five minutes of extra footage – Poison Ivy would spawn three sequels that were all more excessive and none as good as well as inspire films to follow, including two films starring a young Alicia Silverstone: 1993’s The Crush and 1995’s The Babysitter. Featuring Silverstone as a 14-year-old hellbent on ruining the life of a newspaper reporter who moved in next door, The Crush plays out a lot like Poison Ivy only with more sleaze (a body double was used for Silverstone) and a slightly different tagline – “What Adrian Wants, Adrian Gets” as opposed to “What Ivy Wants, Ivy Gets.” The Babysitter is the least menacing of the bunch with Silverstone being an object of seduction for three different male characters – none of whom necessarily get what they want.
The Domestic Thriller genre would continue through the 90s with titles like Fear (1996), The Rich Man’s Wife (1996), Hush (1998), Wild Things (1998) and The Astronaut’s Wife (1999). All would owe something to the class of ’92 but would mix elements of neo-noir, sci-fi and horror to their advantage. Into the 2000s, the genre would become bolder, yet more niche, despite some mainstream output. Titles like The Glass House (2001), Domestic Disturbance (2001), Enough (2002), Disturbia (2007), and Lakeview Terrace (2008) – the latter a near remake of 92’s Unlawful Entry – would mostly fail to reach audiences, with the exception of the Shia LaBeouf starring Disturbia, which was a modestly sized hit with teens. The real saving grace of the contemporary Domestic Thriller genre arrived in 2009 courtesy of Screen Gems in the form of the Idris Elba and Beyonce starring Obsessed, an African-American targeted stalker film which would start a new boom in the genre with other films released by Screen Gems to follow: The Roommate (2011), No Good Deed (2014), The Perfect Guy (2015) and the aforementioned When the Bough Breaks (2016), which is very clearly inspired by 92’s The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. Where the genre goes now is anybody’s guess but the Domestic Thriller has been going strong for more than twenty-five years now, mostly thanks to four films released in 1992. It has been 2 ½ decades since Drew Barrymore seduced Tom Skeritt in the rain, since Ray Liotta gave people yet another reason to fear cops, since Rebecca De Mornay made nobody in America want to step foot into a greenhouse and since Jennifer Jason Leigh made damn sure that studio apartments were back in demand – and we’re still talking about them.