Cinema loves a girl fight. From oldies like “What Happened to Baby Jane?” to newbies like “Bad Moms”, film is filled with examples of “Warring” women. In the 80’s and 90’s, the trope found its place in the domestic thriller, with a subgenre of women entering the lives of the lead characters and wreaking havoc. We see this in movies like ‘Single White Female’ and ‘Poison Ivy’, where even in the face of spousal betrayal, family tragedy, and harassment, the worst thing that can happen is the wrong woman coming into your life. And no film better exemplifies that than 1992’s ‘The Hand that Rocks the Cradle’.
HTRTC Unfolds like this: Annabella Sciorra is molested by her OB/GYN. She reports him, and the doctor kills himself. The doctor’s wife, Rebecca DeMorney is consequently broke due to lawsuits and settlements for the victims. She then suffers a miscarriage, losing her child and her ability to have children in the future. This leaves her bitter and hungry for vengeance against her husband’s victim- specifically the one that reported him. With Annabelle Sciorra’s face plastered on the TV, this task is made easy for DeMorney. She becomes the nanny of Annabella Sciorra’s family, with the intention of destroying her life and taking her place in the family. The end result is a final showdown in the attic and DeMorney’s death- impalement on a white picket fence.
Matt McCoy of Seinfeld Fame is the supportive and easy-going husband; Julianne Moore is the type-A career woman and best friend of Annabella Sciorra. Finally, Ernie Hudson gives a good, non-mawkish performance as a mentally challenged handyman. The movie is absurd overall, with plot-convenient stupidity and two over-the-top deaths. However, it is well paced, well-acted, and has a genuinely thrilling final battle.
HTRTC had controversy when it was released. There were claims that it played on the fears and guilt of working mothers, whom were still criticized for leaving their children in the care “of strangers.” In 1992, the year the film was released, Marilyn Quale gave a speech at the Republican National Convention, arguing against working mother, stating that “women do not wish to be liberated from their essential natures as women.” Annabelle Sciorra is not a working mother in the film, just a mother who has interests outside of her children and wants time to pursue said interests. No one in the film criticizes her for “leaving her kids” and while there’s concern that she might be doing too much, there is a sense of support. But when she hires Rebecca DeMorney, her best friend Marlene sees that she’s hired an attractive young woman and tells her “Never let an attractive woman occupy a power position in your home”, this sets the stage for the film’s central conflict, the rivalry between Rebecca DeMorney and Annabella Sciorra.
Full disclosure: I find this movie fun in a Lifetime kind of way. But the basis for the rivalry never sat right with me, and especially not now in 2016. The reason RDM seeks revenge is because she sees Annabella Sciorra as the root cause of her pain. The film does not go as far as to blame Annabella Sciorra for her assault-the scene of her assault is shown as being invasive and traumatic, and the doctor is clearly an abuser. But the film insinuates that the quadruple whammy of her molester husband’s suicide, the loss of her financial assets, the miscarriage she suffers and the resulting emergency hysterectomy cost Rebecca DeMorney her sanity. The film is trying to show both women as victims of trauma, but it ‘s a poor framing device. It ends up suggesting that DeMorney’s actions as understandable, while undercutting the trauma of Annabella Sciorra’s experience. “Yes, what Annabella Sciorra went through was awful, but look what the scandal did to Rebecca DeMorney’s life!”
This isn’t like the film ‘Fatal Attraction’, where both parties did wrong and have to answer for their actions. Annabella Sciorra’s only “crime” was going to a bad doctor and having the courage to report her assault, and she’s punished for it. Not by onlookers questioning how she might have brought on her assault, as we often see in contemporary rape culture, but by someone who shares a history with the abuser, and who’s instinct is to defend at all costs. It’s telling in an era when rapists like Brock Turner, and other “promising” or accomplished men but aren’t punished because of what it could do to them, their futures, and their families. This strikes to the heart of why Rebecca DeMorney seeks revenge, not only for herself, but on the behalf of her miscarried child and her now deceased husband who “took care of her. As Rebecca sees it, it was Annabella Sciorra- not her rapist husband-that disrupted their idyllic existence.
This all would not have disturbed me as much if the film itself actually found a way to call Rebecca DeMorney on her misplaced anger. This movies needs a scene where it comes full circle, where Rebecca DeMorney accuses Annabella Sciorra of ruining her life, and allow Sciorra to rightfully respond with “no, your husband did” respond before she shoves her out the window. I’ll give the director and writer credit for letting Sciorra punch DeMorney in the face and knock her over a table.
The other aspects of the rivalry are at least somewhat interesting, but ultimately still cringe-worthy. Annabella Sciorra and Rebecca DeMorney are set up as having something the other wants. Sciorra, unlike DeMorney, has children, a supportive husband, the nice house, but expresses insecurities as to her desirability post-children. DeMorney has beauty (of a specifically Nordic kind) and youth, at least on the surface – although in reality the two are around the same age. Despite the advantages Rebecca DeMorney has over Sciorra, she desperately wants her family, specifically, the baby. The movie plays on the idea that women that are younger and sexier are immediately threatening. The idea of being replaced by a “new model” is not new to domestic thrillers, be it in ‘The Stepford Wives’, with robots, or in or ‘Obsessed’, where a young temp, Ali Larter, tries to move in on Idris Elba, married to Beyonce in the movie-although in that case Beyonce wins. (Hey, sound familiar?). To Sciorra, DeMorney is a younger, sexier woman who could replace her- DeMorney even plays on that fear by framing her husband in an affair with Sciorra’s best friend -who his former lover and a sexy, confident career woman- while DeMorney goes after him for real.
I will give the movie credit for having Sciorra’s husband rebuff DeMorney’s advances. If anything, it actually counters the rape culture paradigm that men have no logical control of their lust around women.
Further, Rebecca DeMorney seeks a family and babies; usually, the younger, sexier woman signifies fertility in addition to increased desirability. Having had a hysterectomy, DeMorney can no longer have children, and feels stripped of what she feels is a desirable aspect of her womanhood- fertility. It’s telling that one of the first things she does is breastfeed Annabella Sciorra’s infant, who comes to prefer DeMorney for feeding, and being held. Her goal is to ultimately negate Sciorra’s motherhood, and make the baby “hers.” At the film’s climax, there’s a literal brawl over the baby, real mom vs fake mom. The movie ends as many of these thrillers do: The younger, sexier, fake mom who desired to steal a family is vanquished, in this case impaled on a white picket fence- a symbol of domesticity.
I do enjoy this movie. It’s a dumb thriller that you can watch for two hours just to laugh at the characters being dumb. But it’s also a fascinating movie to watch from the perspective of gender politics, especially as they relate to rape culture and the portrayal of women only wanting to fulfill “acceptable” desires of babies and families. It’s not as primitive in its ideas as it could be. In fact, it’s better than it has any right to be when one considers what unfolds within the film. But it’s also filled with tropes that we still see in these kinds of thrillers, which suggest even when women face the threat of violence from men, the ultimate threat is from other women.