Michael Keaton Gets Nuts : "Pacific Heights" (1990) Movie Review
On June 23, 1989, Batman conquered the world and went on to become a global phenomenon, grossing over $410,000,000 worldwide and even much more in merchandise sale. The film made Tim Burton the king of Hollywood and Michael Keaton finally got the attention he deserved as an actor. He surprised everyone with his intense and brooding portrayal of Bruce Wayne/Batman and he remains my favorite actor to wear the cowl to this day. The success of the first Batman film meant that a sequel would be produced and so we got Batman Returns in 1992. However, between those two blockbusters, Michael Keaton would keep working and he starred in two smaller films that are somewhat underrated; Pacific Heights (1990) and One Good Cop (1991). Pacific Heights is particularly interesting and is one of my favorite movie of his. It's one of the few films he made in which he is portraying a completely evil character (1998's Desperate Measures is another rare example). In Pacific Heights, Keaton gets nuts, and I love it!
The film, released September 28, 1990, was produced on a $18,000,000 budget and grossed $45,000,000, making it a small box office hit. Reviews were average, with Roger Ebert saying it was a thriller for yuppies and having a 43% rating on Rotten Tomatoes as I'm writing these lines. I feel like the film doesn't get the attention it deserves among fans of Keaton or film-noir in general. I also believe Pacific Heights is a film Hitchcock could have made if he was still alive by 1990 due to its tone. The film's tagline (It seemed like the perfect house. He seemed like the perfect tenant. Until they asked him to leave.) sums up perfectly what the film is about. It centers around a San Francisco couple (Melanie Griffith & Matthew Modine) whose dream of owning a Victorian house turns into a living nightmare when they become terrorized by their sadistic tenant (Michael Keaton).
The highlight of the film is undeniably Michael Keaton himself. Audiences in 1990 knew the actor either as a funnyman (from 1983's Mr. Mom to 1988's Beetlejuice) or as a brooding and courageous hero (1989's Batman). In Pacific Heights, Keaton's character is much more nuanced, not unlike Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates from Psycho (1960). In the early scenes, he is a very seductive James Bond-ish gentleman that you immediately want to trust. Keaton's charm is terribly effective there and makes what follows even more surprising. Gradually, he becomes menacing and quite scary, such as in the scene when he sits in his car in the garage and only looks at Patty, or when he is alone in the dark playing with a blade. These could have easily been laughable but Keaton manages to always appear sincere. The final act sees him go full maniac and he attempts to murder Patty with a nail-gun (nothing less!). Again, this could have been laughably over-the-top but it remains believable. I was completely blown-away by Keaton's performance and he should definitely play bad guys more often. I'm so glad Keaton finally gets all the recognition he deserves since 2014's Birdman as I truly think he is one amazing actor.
The cast is completed by Melanie Griffith & Matthew Modine as the Goodmans. Both are very good in their roles and I believe they have terrific chemistry as a couple, which is crucial for this film to work. Both manage to make us care about what they are going through and we genuinely want them to escape from Hayes. Modine is perfectly cast as he can remain low-key and lets Griffith take the spotlight. He plays the sympathetic husband very well and is equally believable when he goes after Keaton physically. Griffith's Patty is the main character in this and the first name on the poster (but Keaton steals the show). She was in her prime then, just coming off the huge success of Working Girl (1988). Her character here feels like an extension of the one from that other movie (an everyday working woman put into an extraordinary situation). She looks and sounds very vulnerable and loving, making Hayes' actions even more revolting. I remember feeling genuinely shocked at the scene in which she loses her baby due to all the stress she is put under. As such, the final act is very satisfying. She goes after Hayes' herself and manages to get him arrested. Griffith makes a convincing victim AND courageous heroine, a bit like Sigourney Weaver (look at 1995's Copycat).
Pacific Heights wants to be a Hitchcockian thriller very much. As such, the film is set in San Francisco, just like Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo (1958) and Tippi Hedren portrays Florence Peters, Hayes next victim after the Goodmans. Hedren was Hitchock's muse for a while in the 60's, appearing in The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). She is also Griffith's mother ! Apart from those obvious references, the film is part of a resurgence of the film-noir genre in the early 90's that owes a lot to the master of suspense. If you enjoyed Pacific Heights and consider yourself a Hitchcock fan, then you should take a look at the Richard Gere film Final Analysis (1992).
This is not a perfect movie. Some scenes are cheesy, especially those with the Asian tenants (their portrayal is so stereotypical). There is at least one bad jump scare in there and one of the worst kind; a cat comes out of the dark (what a cheap trick!). Griffith's Patty goes from victim to complete bad-ass in a matter of seconds when she decides to go after Hayes herself, which I always thought was a bit forced. You also have to suspend your disbelief a bit regarding Hayes' scheme and motivations. I don't really understand why he empties the apartment and wrecks it that much. Also, how exactly does he steal Drake's identity? Those flaws are nothing too distracting and I believe Pacific Heights is otherwise a very effective thriller that is made with taste, without gratuitous violence or sex.
Hans Zimmer was hired to create the musical score for the film and what he came up with remains one of my favorite among the soundtracks he created. Pacific Heights was an early effort in his career, with him working on his first big budget movie with Rain Man in 1988. Fans will recognize the oriental motifs Zimmer used for Black Rain (1989) and the more bombastic synth sounds from Days of Thunder (1990). However, the composer did not merely copy-pasted his other works. For this film, he used saxophone and piano extensively in order to create a jazzy film-noir atmosphere that works surprisingly well on screen and is a joy to listen to on album. Of course, there is a lot of synth work here so it sounds quite dated now, but I believe that is part of the charm of all of Zimmer's early scores (I prefer his early work over most of what he is producing today...). The soundtrack CD release of Pacific Heights is worth seeking out if you consider yourself a film music fan. It is truly special and seductive. Zimmer must have realized that too, as his Sherlock Holmes (2009) theme sounds very similar to the main title music for Pacific Heights.
Watch it !
Following Pacific Heights, Michael Keaton would star in another small film, One Good Cop (1991), before playing Batman for the second and last time in 1992's Batman Returns. The second Bat-movie would also become a smash but a controversial one due to its tone and violence. Warner Bros decided to radically change the franchise with 1995's Batman Forever but Keaton was still supposed to star. However, due to artistic differences, he refused the huge paycheck offered and backed out. His next films were met with mixed success and he kind of went under the radar for a few years until 2014's Birdman and the well-deserved Oscar nomination that came with it. Keaton sadly only played bad guys in two other films as I'm writing these lines; Desperate Measures (1998) and RoboCop (2014). Both Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine's careers would slow down during the 90's and we seem them less often on the big screen now. Pacific Heights remains one of my favorite films mostly due to Keaton's amazing performance and it's general film-noir tone. Add to the mix a strong cast, great Hitchcockian references and an amazing soundtrack and you've got yourself a great night at the movies!
Thank you for reading!