When Romance Turns Deadly: The Modern Domestic Thriller

Cape Fear and Fatal Attraction

In 1971, Play Misty for Me became one of the first domestic thrillers, but the film that would define the genre came sixteen years later: Fatal Attraction (1987), which nobody wanted to make at first. It became a runaway success that would inspire thrillers for years.

Previous Article: http://filmexodus.com/when-romance-turns-deadly-humble-beginnings/

(Warning: this article contains spoilers for Domestic Thrillers.)

Glenn Close and Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction

Fatal Attraction

Adapted from English filmmaker James Dearden’s short film Diversion (1980), 26 directors passed on it, including John Carpenter and Brian De Palma. Carpenter felt the film lacked originality. De Palma actually was attached to the role for a long time, but left because he did not like star Michael Douglas in the leading role, calling the actor “unlikable.”

In all fairness, Douglas has a history of playing cool guys along the lines of Eastwood’s character in Play Misty for Me. He won an Oscar for playing slick antagonist Gordon Gecko in his other 1987 film, Wall Street. In Fatal Attraction, he plays Dan Gallagher, a sort of goofy everyman who gets involved with a dangerous woman, Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), a trope that would become a staple of the genre. After Fatal Attraction, Douglas would play men who get involved with dangerous women in multiple films (Basic Instinct (1992), Disclosure (1994)), leading Gene Siskel to quip in his review of Disclosure that Michael Douglas “has the worst luck with women he dates in the movies.”

Unlike Play Misty for Me, Fatal Attraction is a slow burn. Alex Forrest’s condition is creepy but not obvious until 40 minutes in when she slits her wrists. Up until that point, the film has a muted color palette for the city. The blood is the first real pop of color in the movie besides a set of flowers at a country home. The film also contains a lot of ideas that Misty discarded: a married hero, a gunshot killing the antagonist, etc. Eastwood felt that such decisions were not as interesting as what he ended up choosing to put in the film.

The sex is also a lot different in Fatal Attraction. Misty portrays sex as intimate, while Fatal Attraction portrays sex multiple ways depending on the partner. Sex with Alex is portrayed as rough and carnal, while the minimal sexual contact with Dan’s wife Beth (Ann Archer) is portrayed as warm, tender, and loving. Some of Alex’s sex scenes come across as comical rather than serious. Forrest represents excitement and the night life, while Beth represents comfort and home.  The director of the project, Adrien Lyne, had previously directed 9½ Weeks (1986) and went on to direct Indecent Proposal (1993), Lolita (1997), and Unfaithful (2002). The only film since 9½ Weeks that he has made that’s not erotic is Jacob’s Ladder (1990), and even that contained multiple sex scenes.

Finally, the film famously had its ending reshot after it tested poorly among audiences. The Original ending had Alex Forrest slitting her throat to the opera mentioned throughout the film, Madame Butterfly. Both screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (who revised the script) and director John Carpenter thought the scripted ending would not work. On the other side, Close was opposed to this change as it did not seem like something that character would do in real life. However, the filmmakers reshot the ending that appears in the film today and it became a smash hit. Filmmaker Sidney Lumet also lamented that the film led to many studios’ constant need to change the ending of a movie when they had no confidence in the movie.

With the new ending, Attraction went on to gross $320 million at the box office and nab six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress for Close, and Best Supporting Actress for Archer. It was the film that made the Domestic Thriller a commercial genre. With this new success, remakes and updates of older films similar to Fatal Attraction became in demand. Strangers on a Train, Cape Fear, and A Kiss Before Dying have direct descendants in three new films in the early 1990’s.


Unlike previous entries, this now commercial genre had a different style of editing, crazier visuals, more sexually explicit content, and a new theme: the destruction of the American family by an outside force. In Pacific Heights (1990), Melanie Griffith has a miscarriage. Single White Female (1992) opens with Bridget Fonda and Stephen Weber discussing how many kids they want. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1993) follows a demented nanny bent on destroying a family for revenge. All of the protagonists are bland and broad enough to represent the American family, while all the antagonists are colorful and specific enough to represent the other.

In these Domestic Thrillers, the antagonists shine brightest. The Protagonists tend to be too good and perfect to become interesting (Pacific Heights even has a protagonist named Drake Goodman). The films often open on the antagonist before cutting to the protagonists.

If the antagonist is female, the film tends to present them as mentally ill and tragic, while male antagonists tend to be presented as cold and ruthless in their goals. The original ending of Fatal Attraction plays more into tragedy than into thriller. In 2012, Arts reporter David Ng wrote an article for the LA times about how the film (and its original ending) were inspired by the tragedy Madam Butterfly, a fact that the film constantly references. Similarly, Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female is the best of the roommates. She seems shy and non-threatening when the film she first walks into Fonda’s apartment. It makes sense why Bridget Fonda would invite her apartment and also why she would eventually discover her flaws. Single White Female ends with Fonda forgiving her disturbed attacker. On the other hand, almost every film with a male antagonist (Pacific Heights, Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), A Kiss Before Dying (1991), Cape Fear (1991), Consenting Adults (1991)) has the hero or heroine killing them pretty remorselessly. While the story never changes, the way it’s framed morphs considerably depending on the antagonist.

Like Play Misty for Me, the films also feature comedic relief supporting characters. Fatal Attraction portrays all of Douglas’s co-workers in a pretty comical manner. Pacific Heights has Japanese downstairs neighbors and a parade of lousy possible tenants. Single White Female features  a montage of horrible roommates before getting to Jennifer Jason Leigh. Sleeping with the Enemy gives Julia Roberts a goofy boyfriend (Kevin Anderson) to lighten the tension in the film. All of the characters tend to be a small part of the film to lighten the mood before moving into darker aspects.

The films became popular for a couple different reasons. Most of these movies came out during and shortly after the criminalization of stalking in the early 1990’s. California first criminalized stalking in 1990 after a series of violent incidents against both celebrities and civilians (including the murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer and the attempted murder of actress Theresa Saldana), followed by the rest of the states within 3 years. In an article for The Guardian, Benjamin Lee found that the Domestic Thriller (called the “yuppie revenge thriller” by Lee) thrived because of the recession of the early 1990’s and that it came back in a big way after the 2008 financial crisis. Since young middle class couples were experiencing economic hardship, it was nice to see a film about a perfect couple forced to look past their materialistic world and fight for their lives. These factors in society helped the Domestic Thriller become the successful genre it was.

(Clockwise) The Cape Fear Remake poster, French Lobby card for A Kiss Before Dying (1991), American lobby card for A Kiss Before Dying (1956).

Same Story, Different Time: ‘A Kiss Before Dying’ and ‘Cape Fear’ (1991)

In 1991, two remakes of classic films inspired the domestic thriller came out: Cape Fear and A Kiss Before Dying. Cape Fear focused on a family being terrorized by a criminal, A Kiss Before Dying told the story of a ruthless young man trying to become part of a wealthy family. Cape Fear would go on to critical and commercial success, while A Kiss Before Dying would disappear from the public eye relatively quickly.

As part of an agreement with Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese remade J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear, which might be one of the best versions of this type of film. It stars Nick Nolte as Lawyer Sam Bowden and Robert De Niro as recently paroled Max Cady. Original stars Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, and Martin Balsam appear in cameos as Cady’s lawyer, an ethical police lieutenant, and a judge.

22 minutes longer than the original, the new Cape Fear adds new layers of complexity to the story. In the original, the family under attack is innocent. In the remake, nobody is innocent. Instead of testifying against Cady like in the original novel and film, lawyer Sam Bowden suppressed evidence as his lawyer, knowing full well that it would have freed the obviously guilty Cady. His daughter, Danielle (Juliette Lewis), has to go to summer school after she gets caught smoking pot. The film also makes the story more subjective by telling it from Danielle’s point of view.

Fatal Attraction screenwriter James Dearden made his version of A Kiss Before Dying with Sean Young as Dorie, the innocent rich daughter of Danish Copper millionaire Thor Carlsson (Max Von Sydow). Matt Dillon plays Jonathan Corliss (Bud in Ira Levin’s original novel and 1956 version), the ambitious creep who tries to seduce his way into her family. When Jonathan murders Dorie and frames it as a suicide, her skeptical twin sister Ellen (also Young) sets out to solve her murder. Little does Ellen know, the person she’s searching for is also her own boyfriend.

The film feels compromised at every turn. Dearden wanted to make a “film about a book” instead of remaking the 1956 film. Consequently, the remake feels like it takes place in both the fifties and the nineties and the plot point of a man murdering a woman over a scandalous pregnancy that would cut her out of her rich father’s will seems a little nonsensical in the 1990’s after the legal changes and feminist movement of the 60’s and 70’s. It also suffered the fate of Fatal Attraction in that it had its ending changed by the studio. The ending of the movie was supposed to take place in a copper factory (there are shots of it in the trailer); they reshot it on train tracks. These choices feel mediocre at best, but never amazing.

Unlike Scorsese, Dearden seems to see the film as the ultimate story of good versus evil. The film opens with the fire and brimstone of the copper plant, followed by a college professor lecturing on Nietzsche. Ellen is a rich heiress who does volunteer work for less fortunate individuals on the side, while Jonathan kills an orphan and steals his identity. Ellen also never has to struggle as a character in order to take down Jonathan, making the story feel a little flat. Unlike the novel and first film, it opens with Jonathan killing Dorie Kingship in order to focus more on Ellen’s story. While this is a strong narrative decision, it also destroys what made the original novel and film suspenseful and interesting: Jonathan acting a cruel and calculating manner to kill either Dorie or her baby. By doing this, Dearden makes the main conflict a forty-minute wait of Ellen discovering who Jonathan really is. To update the story further, this film combines the Virginia Leith and Jeffrey Hunter parts of the original film to make Ellen a stronger heroine.

A Kiss Before Dying French Lobby card

Like many remakes of films made before 1970, both the A Kiss before Dying remake and the Cape Fear remake add a more overt sexuality. A Kiss Before Dying adds a number of sexually charged scenes between Dillon and Young. The sex scenes are tender and loving when Ellen believes that Jonathan is a good guy and cold and uncomfortable when she learns his true nature. In the Cape Fear remake, Cady becomes a more pronounced sexual deviant. In both films, Cady goes to prison for rape and goes after Sam Bowden’s daughter. However, the time period of 1962 did not allow for the film to become too disturbing. One of the first films to discuss rape frankly, Anatomy of a Murder (1959), had only come out three years earlier and even that film had to make the concession of not using the word “penetration” to describe rape. Both Cape Fears scare the audience by having Cady show up at the daughter’s school. The original has Cady follow her menacingly, while the remake has Cady meet her in a Gingerbread house. The new scene feels scarier than the original in that it present Cady into a wolf in sheep’s clothing rather than as a wolf on the prowl. One of the highlights of the film, De Niro and Lewis would both receive Oscar nominations for their performances.

One of the biggest flaws of both these films is their antagonists seem a little obvious. De Niro’s characterization feels a little too obvious. In the original Cape Fear, Cady (Robert Mitchum) is sleazy and abusive, but he also seems like the type of person who could blend into a crowd and get away with something like this. Although De Niro has a more complex and detailed characterization, his character seems like a person who would stand out in a crowd and would be the first person the police would suspect and catch. Similarly, Dillon captures the ambition of Jonathan, but does not seem that charming. However, this has less to do with Dillon’s performance and more with the writing and directing. Dillon’s murders seem less clever and calculated and more brutish. He comes off more as a slasher villain than as a cunning villain who can execute a clever plan. He does not charm his victims into his plan like Robert Wagner does in the original film. While both of these films have their strengths, that is one of their biggest weaknesses.

Alfred Hitchcock inspired many filmmakers including Scorsese and Dearden. Both A Kiss Before Dying and Single White Female (1992) feature characters watching Vertigo (1958) on TV. Dearden also designed his sets to emulate Hitchcock’s. Scorsese’s directing choices in Cape Fear include an opening credits sequence designed by Elaine and Saul Bass (the latter of whom designed the title sequences for Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960)), a sex scene with visual effects similar to those in Vertigo, and composer Elmer Bernstein reworking frequent Hitchcock composer Bernard Hermann’s score from the original.

Vertigo (1958) in A Kiss Before Dying (1991)

Hitchcock’s films exist in a different more artificial time. The stories and events tend to be more ludicrous. The characterizations rely more on archetype and persona than on complexity. The action takes place mostly on sets rather than on real locations. Hitchcock also became a casualty of the new Hollywood style of filmmaking that emerged in the later 1960’s, which favored realism over expressionism and method acting to star persona. Starting on Topaz (1967), Hitchcock inadvertently stopped casting as many Hollywood movie stars, as he could not relate to the new generation of star as well as he could relate to Cary Grant and James Stewart. His last film, Family Plot (1976), is a light nostalgic film that yearns for a simpler time. In this new time, Hitchcock’s style seemed to represent a different era.

Similarly, the thriller became a more controversial genre. Critics perceived thrillers in the 1990s as a mean genre, especially towards minorities, homosexuals, transsexuals, and women. Silence of the Lambs (1991) received criticism over its Buffalo Bill character, a deranged transgender character. The book includes scenes in which a doctor addresses such controversy that was filmed, but then deleted. Another director inspired by Hitchcock, Brian DePalma became a target of such criticism multiple times in films such as Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Double (1984), and Raising Cain (1991). However, all of these traits that De Palma’s critics attacked him for were staples of the Hitchcock films. In his 1991 review of A Kiss Before Dying, Peter Travers noted the change in more sensitive times and pointed out that “Good thrillers, like Hitchcock’s, have a fun-house appeal. They heighten reality; they don’t reflect it. But we’re losing that perspective. Imagine the outcry today over the shower scene in Psycho, the homosexual subtext in Strangers on a Train, the wartime depiction of Germans in Life-boat. Dearden avoids that kind of controversy. For all the gore, the film is emotionally bloodless. Dearden has drained it of surprise, humor and humanity. His Kiss is a slick package that passes by our eyes without leaving a mark on our consciousness, much less our dreams.” With Hitchcock, the genre of the thriller worked because of its heightened aspects. With Both Scorsese and Dearden, the film heightens reality using Hitchcock’s methods with different results.

(Clockwise) Single White Female, Sleeping with the Enemy, Pacific Heights, Consenting Adults

The Power of Style: Sleeping with The Enemy, Pacific Heights, Single White Female, and Consenting Adults

Between 1990 and 1992, four domestic thrillers came out, each focusing on four distinct subjects of American life. Pacific Heights (1990) examines housing and gentrification (it tells the story of a couple who decides to rent to scam artist Michael Keaton instead of a black man). Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) focuses on the lasting effects of abuse. Single White Female (1992) examines how society treats women. Consenting Adults (1992) focuses on masculinity and competitiveness (it opens with a shot of skiing and has the male leads engage in boxing, biking, and jogging). Of these four films, Single White Female works the best in that it never feels like the film has a false moment. That being said, their styles also determine how well they work as thrillers.

With these films, many of the directors create some of the most stunning visuals. Single White Female (dir. Barbet Schroeder) has scenes that resemble German Expressionism. Every location feels larger than life and helps sell the absurdity of the story. Joseph Ruben directed Sleeping with the Enemy (1991). With actor Patrick Bergin and cinematographer John Lindley, Ruben creates an almost mythical antagonist. Wearing a black cloak and lit like a menacing silhouette, Bergin appears almost as Darth Vader or an angel of death rather than as an abusive husband. He would also play the devil in Highway to Hell (1992). The film also features one of the creepiest carnival sequences since Some Came Running (1958). John Schlesinger (director of Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Marathon Man (1976)) also puts amazing visuals in Pacific Heights. His direction makes Michael Keaton resemble a parasite more than a real person. All of the visuals create a heightened version of reality.

With Domestic thrillers, the visuals seemed to get better when the film did not treat them in a realistic manner and no film confirms this better than Consenting Adults. While not a blatant remake of Strangers on a Train, Consenting Adults features the same premise, except instead of swapping murders, the hero and the antagonist swap wives. The story of Strangers works much better. Adults hinges on protagonist Richard Parker sleeping with the antagonist Eddie Otis’s wife, while Strangers hinges on protagonist Guy Haines meeting antagonist Bruno Anthony. Although director Alan J. Pakula worked as a producer (To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)) and director on many projects in many different genres, he became known as a director of Thrillers (Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974), All the President’s Men (1976)). One of the reasons his thrillers worked is because the audience watches the characters like a voyeur, adding to the paranoia. The film’s one sex scene plays out in a long wide shot and it makes the audience view the scene almost as if it happens on a stage. This style of filmmaking does not work as well for Consenting Adults, in which a style meant to make the audience feel uncomfortable with a situation does not endear them to the characters and their ludicrous situation. The only surreal part of the film comes in the blood red walls in the antagonist’s house. With a style like Hitchcock’s or DePalma’s, this leap of faith might have been more possible, but Pakula’s style ask the audience to think logically about an illogical situation, making it harder to get involved.

Like Hitchcock’s films, the style seemed to help dictate the success of the film.


Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, and Kerry Washington in Lakeview Terrace (2008)

Reemergence in the 2000’s

In the late 1990’s, the domestic thriller became less popular. Fear (1996) and A Perfect Murder (1998) came out to financial success, but neither were runaway successes like Fatal Attraction. A Perfect Murder also had its ending reshot. By the early 2000’s, only a few domestic thrillers came out. They include the John Travolta vehicle Domestic Disturbance (2001) featuring Vince Vaughn as the shady creep, Michael Apted’s Enough (2002) and David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002). Of these films, Fincher’s was the most successful commercially and critically.

In recent years, the theatrically released domestic thriller became seen as a tawdry genre. The genre became popular on the lifetime channel, with films like Adopting Terror (2012), A Mother’s Nightmare (2012), and Cyberstalker (2012). In terms of Theatrical releases, films such as Obsessed (2009), The Resident (2011), No Good Deed (2014), The Perfect Guy (2015), When the Bough Breaks (2016), and Unforgettable (2017) came and went pretty quickly. Described as similar to The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, When the Bough Breaks originally had Halle Berry attached to star and Paul Verhoeven attached to direct. Only Lakeview Terrace (2008) seems to have any kind of following.

The theatrical releases featured black casts or leads (Morris Chestnut plays the male romantic lead in Bough and Perfect Guy, while Idris Elba starred the protagonist in Obsessed and the antagonist in No Good Deed). Lakeview Terrace took the basic premise of Unlawful Entry (1992) (Cop harasses nice suburban couple) and added a racial component by making the leading couple interracial and the cop black. Terrace was also inspired by real-life events. Obsessed and Unforgettable feature a white woman trying to destroy the life of a person of color, while When the Bough Breaks and No Good Deed feature criminals as the antagonists.

The new thrillers also tended to be competent yet unimaginative in terms of locations and cinematography. Gone were the expressionistic touches of earlier directors. The decadent settings of Fatal Attraction and Single White Female were replaced with sitcom locations that looked and felt a little too nice. It’s true that the locations of the old films were decadent, but the unrealistic styles made them work well. Even the most egregious illogical stories were saved by how the style worked. The more realistic and workman-like style seemed to make the films harder to like.


By the time the domestic thriller seemed to wane in popularity, it had been through many revisions over a twenty-year period. The films ranged from good to terrible. By the early 2000’s, the once popular genre seemed to have run out of steam. However, this gave rise to a new type of domestic thriller.

Post-modern domestic thriller: September 14





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