The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, a ludicrous but fun thriller from 1992, stars Annabella Sciorra as Claire Bartel, a pregnant, affable housewife whose gynecological appointment turns disastrous after her doctor (John De Lancie) assaults her mid-checkup. Though not a confrontational person, Claire, concerned that he may molest another patient, files a lawsuit. Within a few days, a disturbing amount of women come forward with the same claim. Ruined, the doctor kills himself, leaving his pregnant widow (Rebecca De Mornay) so devastated that she has miscarriage.
Six months pass, and the Bartels hardly seem affected by Claire’s mishap. She has delivered a healthy baby boy, and her husband, Michael (Matt McCoy), is about to make a major breakthrough at work. But Claire, in the process of building a massive greenhouse in the backyard, is worried that watching her kids and doing the regular housework will become harder than ever with such a large project underway. So she hires a nanny, unaware that the woman who will be watching her children is actually her former doctor’s wife, seeking revenge.
Soap operatic but acceptably so, Amanda Silver’s screenplay allows for the audience to have their cake and eat it too. Though since most of what happens during The Hand That Rocks the Cradle’s running time is all due to a completely impossible meeting (Claire literally hires Peyton off the street), one can’t help but accept the scenario because it allows for such an endlessly gripping array of wild events. Sure, Claire isn’t much of a smart cookie if she randomly employs someone without even a hint of a background check, but Claire being smart would mean that the thrills that make up The Hand That Rocks the Cradle wouldn’t exist — and the thrills, so tangy and unpretentious, are far too enjoyable to make one want to question why they prevail in the first place. It’s a Lifetime movie gone right. We know it’s bad for us, but it sure is fun to hate a villain, to see how far they can go before a brawl goes down and they meet their much anticipated demise.
The film certainly wouldn’t have the same effect if not for Rebecca De Mornay, whose performance contains just enough camp to make her Peyton as hateable as she is absurdly likable — part of us wants her to get away with destroying Claire’s marriage, her friendships, and her relationship with her kids. But another part leaves us thirsting for her identity to be revealed: the second things go awry and her wrath is discovered, we can’t help but want to jump out of our seats. Notable is the way Mornay can go from sugar sweet to malicious in the snap of a finger without seeming completely ridiculous. It’s no easy task to pull off a role Joan Crawford might have perfected during her post-Mildred Pierce years, and Mornay delivers.
And with great supporting performances from Julianne Moore (as Claire’s ambitious realtor friend) and Ernie Hudson (as the Bartels’ mentally handicapped gardener), The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is a roundhouse kick of early ‘90s thrills. As long as you don’t expect high art, the film is a sort of junky masterpiece, kinda crappy but also kinda magnificent. B