Film review: Hand That Rocks the Cradle, The

Published: Sunday, Jan. 12 1992 12:00 a.m. MST

If a suspense-thriller is scary enough it can often overcome inherent plot weaknesses and lapses in logic, and "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," at least much of the way, delivers the goods.

A revenge/slasher flick with a twist — and mercifully lacking the buckets of blood that usually accompany this genre — "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" also boasts some first-rate performances that help hold it together.

Annabella Sciorra, who drew attention in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" last summer, stars as Claire Bartel, a wife and mother who is, in the film's early scenes, sexually abused by her doctor (which may be a bit too stark in its portrayal). When Claire goes public with her accusations, the physician commits suicide.

After the trauma of her ordeal, Claire settles back into her life, which seems to be close to perfect, complete with loving husband (Matt McCoy), precocious young daughter (Madeline Zima) and a brand-new bouncing baby.

But life in the '90s is busy, of course, so it's decided that a nanny might be helpful. Enter Peyton Flanders (Rebecca De Mornay), who seems the ideal choice.

What Claire doesn't know, however, is that Peyton is the good doctor's widow, and she blames Claire for her husband's death and her own subsequent miscarriage. But to exact her revenge, Peyton has no intention of committing any overt mayhem. Rather, she ingratiates herself into the affections of each family member, quietly winning them over while undermining Claire's position in the household, and in subtle ways turning her husband and children against her. She is essentially rebuilding her own family by taking Claire's away.

The only characters suspicious of Peyton's motives are Claire's cynical, best friend (Julianne Moore) and her simple-minded handyman (Ernie Hudson) — but their revelations are too little too late.

The winning cast has a lot to do with the success of this film's tension quotient — Sciorra is quite good at creating a woman who has a tough exterior but is actually quite vulnerable, complete with a semidelibitating case of asthma; cute Madeline Zima as winning as Claire's daughter; Hudson pulls off an endearing acting turn as far removed from his "Ghostbusters" role as he can get; and Julianne Moore is great as Claire's wisecracking best friend.

But it is De Mornay's quietly sinister performance as Peyton that is most effective, showing her at first to be a pitiable victim, then gradually having her develop into a deranged woman who really has come to believe this family belongs to her.

Director Curtis Hanson has a sure hand at this kind of fare, having helmed "Bad Influence" and "The Bedroom Window" previously, and as author of the screenplay for excellent thriller "The Silent Partner."

But first-time screenwriter Amanda Silver, despite coming up with a succinct way of expressing the '90s feminine nightmare in metaphorical terms, lets so much logic fly out the window, offers so many loopholes and unanswered questions, that eventually the film strangles on its own conventions. Especially in its final scenes.

Still, there are plenty of chills along the way, and that may be enough for box-office success.

"The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" is rated R for violence, profanity and some brief nudity.

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