Pacific Heights (1990)


I love a good thriller, and nothing is more entertaining than a fantastically trashy psychological thriller. One of the most delightfully campy thrillers I’ve seen recently is Pacific Heights, which is a bizarre film, because despite having one of the most brilliant filmmakers at the helm, and a very talented cast, it is a purely mindless and ridiculously trashy thriller at the core, and while many will see this as being a negative opinion of the film, I think it is quite the opposite – films are there to entertain us, and sometimes the most bizarre films do just that, and Pacific Heights is a film that can’t even be called “bad” or “mediocre”, because its not, but it isn’t a good film either. Yet I couldn’t find myself looking away, and it managed to captivate me more than most other films I’ve seen in a long time.

To be perfectly honest, the only reason I watched Pacific Heights was because I have some strange urge to watch every Michael Keaton performance. Keaton is one of my very favorite actors, and I feel like some sort of completist, because I think he’s got one of the most interesting careers. Having watched his great work in other films, I thought I’d give one of his more obscure films a chance, and even if the film was terrible, at least it would be worth it for Keaton, who seems to be incapable of giving a false step in any film, regardless of whether the film is good or not. Pacific Heights interested me because I am used to seeing Keaton play the anti-hero, or the vaguely nasty good guy. He certainly excelled at being the protagonist of many great films in the tumultuous 1980s, but up until that point, he had never played a full-out antagonist, and I was certainly interested in what he could do with a villain role (it can be said that his performance in Beetlejuice tended towards the villainous side, but I’d argue that he was rather a maliciously mischievous anti-hero in that film rather than a flat-out villain). Keaton had the rare ability to be as wise-cracking and generally rude as he wanted to be, and yet still be absolutely likable and have film audiences adore him. He was, after all Batman. I am not a defender of Christian Bale’s portrayal of Batman, but I think Keaton and Bale stand at the same level when it comes to Batman, because unlike other Batman actors George Clooney and Val Kilmer, Keaton and Bale were able to play roles that are both likable and charming, but also other roles that are dreadfully cold and dark. Keaton definitely does have a dark side, and while a great majority of his film roles concern him being a relatively nice guy in general, a film like Pacific Heights offers him the chance to hang up the costume of a protagonist and just be a completely terrifying and malicious villain, and Keaton excels at it.

Pacific Heights tells the story of a young couple, played by faded stars Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine (perhaps it is a bit cruel to call them “faded” stars, but both of them were poised to be the biggest stars of all time, but fizzled out in the 1990s – a bit like Keaton himself, the only difference being that Keaton is having his comeback, while the other two are still awaiting theirs), who buy a luxurious San Francisco home, and in order to pay the mortgage, they have to rent the two downstairs apartments. The first is occupied by the pleasant and lovely Watanabe family, a married Japanese couple that are the perfect tenants. The other apartment is occupied by a man known as Carter Hayes (played by Keaton), who literally forces his way into the apartment, and makes the life of his landlords living hell – and appearing as the perfect tenant, and having the innate ability to always manipulate events in his favour, he is a truly dangerous figure. Very soon, it is discovered that Hayes is not who he says he is, and he certainly has far more lurking under the surface, and the poor couple that had to encounter him are forced to deal with his creepy nature and the fact that he is a criminal intent on stealing their lives to get his own way.

Roger Ebert called Pacific Heights a “a horror film for yuppies”, and it most certainly is. Perhaps this generation won’t connect quite with the concept of yuppies (with that epitaph now commonly associated with hipsters in the contemporary age), it is certainly a film that shows the dark side of investing and enterprise. The central couple buys a house far higher than they should, and use their youth and cunning to make it work, which I have to say is something not quite common in the current age it seems. It certainly is a very terrifying film, mainly because it is an unconventional thriller film – it is about eviction, which is something I have not seen explored in a psychological thriller film at all until Pacific Heights. I have seen plenty of films about eviction, but they are normally heartwrenching dramas or wise-cracking comedies, rather than legitimately creepy crime thrillers. In this regard, Pacific Heights is actually quite extraordinary.

The director of Pacific Heights, John Schlesinger, was a director who made some truly wonderful films, such as Billy Liar and Midnight Cowboy. Perhaps his career didn’t end on quite the high note that the careers of his contemporaries did (I cringe when I think that Schlesinger’s parting gift was the dreadful Madonna/Rupert Everett romantic comedy, The Next Best Thing), so perhaps his involvement was not quite the boost of confidence in quality that this film needed. However, it at least guarenteed an interesting experience to say the least, and Schlesinger certainly delivered. I wouldn’t put this on his list of masterpieces, but it is a well-constructed thriller without a doubt, and when it comes to make a truly campy delight, Schlesinger was one of the very best, especially later in his career.

Pacific Heights is not a great film. It is, by most standards, fairly bad. However, it is such a tense and thrilling film, and features some great acting from its trio of leads, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is such a delightfully strange little film, and I truly adored it. Perhaps, decades later, it is mainly of interest to other Keaton completists that are enjoying his career comeback, or those who just stumble upon this strange thriller late at night. It is certainly one of those films that are impossible to look away from, and judging on overall experience, it is certainly not a dreadful film, because I did enjoy it. It is rightfully obscure, but nonetheless a wonderfully weird and trashy film that is just impossible to stop watching.


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