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Pacific Heights

Call it "Rental Attraction" or "Fatal Tenant"; it was not for nothing that the ad campaign for this thriller featured a critical blurb comparing it to Adrian Lyne's classic of middle-class paranoia FATAL ATTRACTION. In both films, basically bland yuppie couples are driven to murderous rage by sociopathic barbarians at the gates of their castles. Both films also have a common fault: if you stop to think about them for more than a minute, their plots dissolve before your eyes. Yet, if PACIFIC HEIGHTS is a trifle, under the direction of veteran filmmaker John Schlesinger (MIDNIGHT COWBOY; DAY OF THE LOCUST; MARATHON MAN), it is an uncommonly tasty one, a nerve-jangling Hitchcockian thriller that rises above the usual plundering of the Master of Suspense as a well-crafted homage. PACIFIC HEIGHTS' basic plot fits easily in a nutshell: After buying a multi-unit house they can't afford, Patty Palmer (Melanie Griffith) and Drake Goodman (Matthew Modine) are toyed with and tormented by tenant-from-hell Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton), a man of many aliases who has made a career out of pillaging real-estate properties for profit. Daniel Pyne's story, reportedly based on his own experiences as a beleaguered landlord, unfolds like a 90s amorality play. As the film opens, Hayes and a blonde woman (Beverly D'Angelo) are wrapped in each others arms, but their lovemaking is interrupted by the appearance of Hayes' latest victims, two angry rednecks who pound a passive Hayes to a bloody pulp. The action shifts to San Francisco, where Patty, who teaches horseback riding, and Drake, an entrepreneur who owns a kite factory, fall in love with a house in the prestigious but pricey Pacific Heights neighborhood. It will cost them all their savings to make a down payment and stretch their credit to the limit to move in. Naturally, their best friend (Dorian Harewood) advises them against the purchase. Nevertheless, after lying on their application ("It's expected," says Patty), the two get their loan. In no time, they also get their first tenants for the house's two rental units. A Japanese-American couple (Mako and Nobu McCarthy) take the one-bedroom apartment, and the studio is claimed by Lou Baker (Carl Lumbly), an African-American who balks at filling out a credit report. He's dismissed as a "minority scam artist" by Drake, who thinks he knows about such things. It's clear from the outset, however, that Patty is the real brains of the couple. She has misgivings when Drake dismisses Baker only to abruptly forgo a credit report when he rents the studio to Hayes after the prospective tenant flashes a wad of hundreds, makes up a cockamamie story about why he can't fill out the report, and promises to have six months' rent wired to Drake's account from his own bank. It comes as little surprise to Patty, then, that Hayes' money keeps getting "delayed" and that the personal references he provides fail to check out. In the house for barely a month, Drake and Patty are already in danger of defaulting on their mortgage due to the delinquency of Hayes' payment. Still, Hayes moves in, changes the locks, and boards up the windows, hammering and drilling at all hours, to the consternation of the other tenants. Hoping to drive Hayes out by turning off his utilities, Drake instead winds up in court, where he is ordered to lower Hayes' rent for violating eviction laws. Then a plague of roaches, spilling over from Hayes' apartment, drives the Japanese-American couple out of the building. With frustration overtaking his already-minimal common sense, Drake attacks Hayes and is rewarded with a restraining order that bars him from his own house. Adding insult to injury, Hayes files a civil lawsuit calculated to force Drake to give up the property. But the tables are turned when Patty learns the rules of Hayes' game, giving him a heavy dose of his own medicine, precipitating the film's climax. John Schlesinger brings a corrosive view of middle-class mores to his movies that is unequalled by contemporary mainstream directors. That view, more than anything else, is what distinguishes PACIFIC HEIGHTS from other, less successful attempts to emulate Hitchcock, who was never much of a proponent of standard middle-class values. Like Hitchcock's thrillers, PACIFIC HEIGHTS depends on a number of implausibilities to keep its plot moving. It also leaves Keaton's character confusingly underdeveloped, marring the climax slightly. But, as they do in Hitchcock's films, the flaws and implausibilities serve as means to an end. Innocent and ignorant at the beginning of their tenure as landlords, Drake and Patty are transformed by experience, and by the end of the film, they are as shrewd and manipulative as Hayes is. As a result, not only do Drake and Patty survive Hayes' onslaught, but at the fadeout, it appears likely they will sell their house for a tidy profit. By that point, few would argue that they haven't earned their little reward. Fewer still would argue that PACIFIC HEIGHTS is anything but a crafty, unusually complex thriller, acted with skill and conviction by a uniformly strong cast. It's also just plain nail-biting fun. Schlesinger, unlike Adrian Lyne, conceives movies as extended narratives, rather than as three-minute, music-video-style segments filled with smoke and lingerie. Beyond its canny deployment of Hitchcockian themes--primarily its ambivalent view of the heroes, Hitchcock's celebrated "exchange of guilt"--PACIFIC HEIGHTS also has plenty of in-jokes for fans of the master. First and foremost, there is the charged casting of Griffith alongside her mother, Tippi Hedren (star of Hitchcock's THE BIRDS); then there is Schlesinger's own Hitchcock-style cameo (as the guy who sticks his hand in the elevator door). Alternately grim, playful, and gripping, PACIFIC HEIGHTS breathes new life into what was becoming a moribund genre. (Profanity, violence, adult situations, brief nudity.)