The F*cking Black Sheep: Pacific Heights (1990)

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!

PACIFIC HEIGHTS (1990)

DIRECTED BY JOHN SCHLESINGER

Here’s an honest head-scratcher for y’all to ponder: personally speaking, what is your all-time favorite Michael Keaton genre joint? The easy go-to answer has to be BEETLEJUICE, right? Or maybe it’s his subsequent collaborations with Tim Burton in the dark and brooding BATMAN flicks? Hell, one might even go with later supporting efforts in JACKIE BROWN or OUT OF SIGHT as minor-Keaton works that remain the most beloved and eminently watchable to this very day. Tough call, I know, but spill some mother*cking blood on the matter below (unless you answer with WHITE NOISE)!

Now, how about the late great director, John Schlesinger? MIDNIGHT COWBOY aside (his best film), he’s largely responsible for creating one of the first techno-thrillers in the classic 1976 film MARATHON MAN. But is that movie your favorite of his? If not, what is?

Forgive the roundabout preamble, but we started with such to drive home a point. See, we’re willing to bet donuts-to-dogsh*t that not a single one of you thought to mention PACIFIC HEIGHTS, John Schlesinger’s criminally dismissed and authentically unnerving domestic thriller released in 1990, as the answer to either query. And yet, like a forgotten domicile chiller released at the height of their popularity, as a rarely-discussed John Schlesinger film, and as a seldom villainous Michael Keaton genre-piece, PACIFIC HEIGHTS is one of the biggest F*cking Black Sheep of the past 30 years!

For the uninitiated, let’s start with the basics. Inspired by a real-life incident experienced by scribe Daniel Pyne, the kernel of the idea began with him renting an apartment to a person he was ultimately unable to convict. As for PACIFIC HEIGHTS, the film picks up the idyllic livelihood of unmarried couple Patty Palmer (Melanie Griffith) and Drake Goodman (Matthew Modine), who decide to live together for the first time by overextending their financials to purchase a dreamy corner-Victorian in San Francisco. To make up for the large price tag of $750,000 (which couldn’t buy you a broom closet in SF in 2020), the couple decides to rent out two units of the abode while residing in the main cabin. Drake and Patty rent the first unit to an equable Japanese couple and expect to rent the remaining studio unit to an unidentified cop named Dennis (Dorian Harewood). However, when the Watanabes (Mako and Nobu McCarthy) move in, Denni’s background application gets lost in the process, opening the door for Carter Hayes to move into the vacant studio.

Rolling up in a cherry Porsche, Carter Hayes (Keaton) oozes an air of brimming confidence. He flashes a wad of thousand dollar bills to woo Drake into forgoing the application process, accepting a bribe, and allowing Carter to move in by skirting the law. Drake wisely resists, despite the temptation to take the much-needed cash to keep afloat. Patty is out of work, meaning Drake is the sole breadwinner at the moment, putting added stress and strain on their financial standing. The first time Carter meets Patty is cringe-inducing in how gauchely intense it feels. His magic charms don’t work on Patty, and she treats him as the unwelcome intruder he proves to be in the end.

Soon, Carter starts acting erratically and wildly untethered. He locks himself in his apartment, switches the locks without permission, makes incessant noise after midnight, and worse of all: simply refuses to leave. When Drake finally learns Carter is a conman who makes a living by swindling new homeowners, he seeks help from the law, only to learn Carter has every legal avenue mapped out to remain out of trouble. With escalating violence, Patty and Drake must do whatever necessary to rid the odious interloper from their new property!

The first thing one must consider when postulating that PACIFIC HEIGHTS is a F*cking Black Sheep is the year in which it was released. Remember, Keaton had just won the world over with BATMAN in 1989 and would reprise the role of Bruce Wayne/The Caped Crusader for Tim Burton in BATMAN RETURNS in 1992. Well, Keaton made two films in between those two seismic mega-blockbusters. One featured a benevolent Keaton in the feel-good dramedy, ONE GOOD COP, and the other saw a malevolent Keaton PACIFIC HEIGHTS, in which the actor daringly eschewed his adored superhero persona in order to play a frighteningly unhinged and fraudulently devious madman.

Think about that. In 1989-1992, BATMAN was pretty much the only comic-book movie in town. There was no MCU and a new superhero movie every month like there is today. Therefore, Keaton was the ONE guy, the one trusted person worldwide audiences looked to as the heroic day-saver, a man they could look to when in dire need. So to completely undo and risk alienating that public trust by opting to play Carter Hayes, a mendaciously manipulative maniac with a murderous M.O., Keaton deserves just as much credit for choosing the role as he does in nailing it!

And just as the picture portrays him literally nailing Patty to near death, f*ck yes, Keaton slams the point home with his powerful performance as Carter Hayes. We’re all so very used to Keaton as the affable funnyman who wins our hearts through laughter and slapstick comedy, so to see his diametrically opposed countenance as a kind gentleman on the exterior hiding a deeply damaged and deleterious interior is really quite something to behold here. Keaton absolutely owns the role of a man who preys upon the naiveties of inexperienced property owners, going to lethal lengths to ensure his own financial enrichment. He plays the suave and debonair side just as credibly as he does the vile and vicious side, making for a truly well-rounded turn that solidifies the film as a supremely slept-on thriller of the highest order.

Another reason to believe PACIFIC HEIGHTS got lost in the fray, besides BATMAN’s oversized shadow, is the undying spate of domestic thrillers released at the time. Movies like MALICE, DECEIVED, CONSENTING ADULTS, THE JANUARY MAN, UNLAWFUL ENTRY, PRESUMED INNOCENT, SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, MORTAL THOUGHTS, SHATTERED, etc. were flooding the market right when PACIFIC HEIGHTS was released, making it appear as another run-of-the-mill married-couple thriller most people were likely already sick of by then. This surely affected how the film was perceived upon release, although it did make nearly $30 million at the U.S. box-office against an estimated $18 million budget (the film earned a third of its budget back on opening weekend with $6 million in tickets sold).

Of course, we’d be of no real service without mentioning perhaps one of the greatest jump-scares ever filmed. Ranked #93 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Moments list, the scene when Patty returns home after Drake has been placed in the hospital and assumes Carter is long gone deserves such a rank. Just as Patty enters her bedroom, Carter, hidden behind the door, rapidly throws the door shut and reveals his presence before proceeding to lunge his arms out to strangle Patty. The startling image is punctuated with a mortifying sound effect redolent of that odd rattling noise from THE SHINING climax, which is perfectly overlaid at precisely the right moment to induce maximum terror (the movie also references DR. STRANGELOVE, so this connection is likely intentional).

Finally, where PACIFIC HEIGHTS really stands above the rest of its ilk is how the Carter Hayes subplot plays like an afterthought to the primary conflict in the film: owning property for the first time. The chief concern for Patty and Drake, which is made compelling far before Hayes is even introduced, is the difficulty of buying a first home, managing finances, renting out to compensate for mortgage payments, finding suitable tenants, figuring out what legal avenues you’re afforded, knowing what rights you have and more importantly what rights your tenants have. All of this subject matter is made inherently engaging by Schlesinger, who then is able to ratchet the dramatic tension once Carter and his duplicitous demeanor are introduced. PACIFIC HEIGHTS works as a drama first and foremost, evolving to reveal itself as what one critic called “the first eviction thriller” ever made. Watch it again, PACIFIC HEIGHTS is a F*cking Black Sheep on multiple fronts!

GET PACIFIC HEIGHTS ON BLU-RAY HERE

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

5379 Articles Published

Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.