What really grounds 'The Hand the Rocks the Cradle,' and ultimately makes it an effective thriller, is Rebecca De Mornay's gripping portrayal as the demented, widowed nanny. She plays the sweet and innocent caretaker with such a convincing demeanor that her sudden shifts as a dangerously delusional woman with a murderous glare are rather shocking and even scary. Even though audiences are aware from the outset of her intentions to exact vengeance on the woman she believes destroyed her cushy life, her swift mood swings are handled with frightful ease and serve as a large part of the chilling suspense. It's also to De Mornay's credit that she's able to draw a small bit of sympathy from the audience as we slowly come to realize the character was already a damaged woman prior to the events which get the plot moving.
Despite being the center of attention in a story about a family threatened by the advances of an outsider, De Mornay is not the only actor delivering a memorable performance. Ernie Hudson, who viewers are probably quick to remember as Winston in the 'Ghostbusters' movies, is the developmentally disabled handyman, Solomon, a kind of gentle, tenderhearted giant who surprises as the benevolent guardian angel. That angle of the plot plays a bit heavily, but Hudson does a terrifical job in the role, especially for showing the depths of the nanny's evilness as he's continually intimidated by her. Annabella Sciorra also does great as a mother slowly losing the loving grip of her family, but she's overshadowed by De Mornay and Hudson's exploits. The same goes for Matt McCoy as the concerned husband and Julianne Moore as the best friend.
Structurally, the film is also worth admiring. 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' writer Amanda Silver, who's also now attached to 'Jurassic Park IV,' made her debut penning the screenplay. The revenge thriller plot is nothing new and 'The Hand that Rocks' has a very familiar air about it, but Silver's script is very well organized and careful to construct three-dimensional personalities we can enjoy spending nearly two hours with. Director Curtis Hanson ('Wonder Boys,' 'L.A. Confidential,' '8 Mile') brings the story to life and is equally methodical in its approach. With stylized photography by Robert Elswit ('There Will Be Blood') giving the film an ironic, dream-like quality, the story comes with a patient pace that slowly builds the tension to its breaking point. It works like a charm, making the final showdown thrilling and exciting.
With so many positives, it's interesting to examine the one but quite significant negative aspect as playing part in a fascinating cultural movement taking place during the time of its making. That year saw the release of three other major Hollywood productions with female characters as the main horror villain ('Basic Instinct,' 'Single White Female' and 'Poison Ivy'). This is noteworthy because plots of that type were more commonly found in the low-budget slasher arena — Clint Eastwood's 'Play Misty for Me' and Adrian Lyne's 'Fatal Attraction' being obvious exceptions — but were now becoming more widely accepted. Except, rather than toying with ideas of standing against the objectifying male gaze of the genre, these horror thrillers came with strong anti-feminist undertones, and 'The Hand that Rocks the Cradle' is probably the most guilty of them all.
Taking its title from the William Ross Wallace poem praising motherhood and its unrecognized power to shape the world, the plot is a thinly disguised morality tale on the evils of a female sexuality that corrupts mothering instincts while exalting traditional feminine roles as desirably virtuous. De Mornay's Peyton and Sciorra's Claire are clearly set against each other, the former is the contemporary woman as represented by her modern house while the latter is more of the conventional mother living in the customary home with a familiar, welcoming routine. Although we know she's a demented individual concerned with revenge, the film still portrays Peyton as envious of Claire's old-fashioned lifestyle, determined to steal it instead of making one of her own. In essence, she's a threat to the traditional family that must eventually be destroyed. Even Moore's career-driven Marlene is not painted in an entirely positive light.
Now, do any of these problematic concerns ruin the film? Well, no, because 'The Hand that Rocks the Cradle' is a very well-made and structured thriller, which can be enjoyed purely from a technical standpoint. The ethical implications, however negative and somewhat insulting they may be, only provide an added value, igniting discussion and making it worth studying as a product of its cultural period. Since first seeing it in theaters many moons ago, I'm pleasantly surprised by how well it's held up and still able to deliver the suspenseful goods.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment through its Buena Vista Pictures brand name brings 'The Hand that Rocks the Cradle' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD50 disc inside a blue eco-lite keepcase. The disc commences with a few skippable trailers for other Disney films before switching to the standard main menu with full-motion clips and music.
'The Hand' rocks the Blu-ray cradle with a strong and often excellent AVC-encoded transfer. Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the video arrives with an interesting visual design by cinematographer Robert Elswit, who's worked on many great films in the past twenty years. Keeping in line with the climate and overcast conditions of the Seattle area, the photography has a grayish tone and a deliberately subdued contrast, which has a slight effect on the color palette. Primaries are still accurate with some punch to them, but flesh tones are mostly pale and appear rather sickly in some spots. Black levels are generally true, but fluctuate a tad here and there, either going flat or coming off too strong.
There's also a light soft-focus appeal to the film that's intentional to give the story a welcoming, dream-like feel which is meant as ironic. Through this, fine object and textural details remain intact and quite distinct with revealing facial complexions. Daylight exteriors are particularly impressive with sharp, visible lines in the foliage and around the Bartels' home. A few scenes, however, dip somewhat in resolution and noticeably look less attractive than the rest of the film, but it's likely due to the age of the print used. Whatever the case, the high-def transfer is a great upgrade from previous releases.
Also showing a wonderful improvement over past presentations is this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that remains true to the original design. Much of the action is contained in the front soundstage, which feels very broad and warm. Imaging displays lots of fluid movement with off-screen effects that are convincing and terrifically engaging. Dialogue is precise and spot-on with excellent intonation of each character's emotional state, and channel separation is well-balanced. The mid-range is surprisingly sharp and detailed, providing the many great sound effects with room-penetrating intensity and distinctness. You can hear every note and instrument of Graeme Revell's original score, which bleeds very lightly into the surrounds, with amazing clarity and precision. Bass doesn't have a lot power behind it, but it's appropriate and palpable enough to give the music and action some depth. Overall, it's a great lossless mix.
The only available supplement is the film's original theatrical preview.
'The Hand the Rocks the Cradle' remains an entertaining, well-structured thriller from director Curtis Hanson twenty years later since its original release. With memorable performances from Rebecca De Mornay and Ernie Hudson, the suspenseful story about a deranged woman seeking vengeance arrives just in time for the Halloween season. The Blu-ray shows a greatly improved video presentation and excellent lossless audio. The lack of supplements is a very sad aspect of this 20th Anniversary release. Fans will be happy, others will want to check it out.