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Bad Influence (1990)

Before hitting big with LA Confidential, Curtis Hansen – who made his debut with the dire Tab Hunter psycho sleaze picture Sweet Kill - spent the best part of twenty years directing solidly okay little mad-killer thrillers like The Bedroom Window, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. This is probably the best of that run. Scripted by David Koepp from an original story which had already formed the basis of Martin Donovan's artier Apartment Zero, it's an off-key psychological mystery which intrigues up to the slightly cop-out ending. James Spader, who always wears rimless glasses when he wants to play a wimp, is Michael Boll, a cringing computerised yuppie, aimlessly engaged to a stuck-up glamourpuss (Marcia Cross) and downtrodden at work by his nastier rival. In a bar, he is saved from a pounding by charismatic Alex (Rob Lowe), who moves into his life to help him sharpen up his image and avenge himself on his enemies, but then turns out to be impossible to get rid of. Alex gets Michael into more and more trouble with his compulsive lying, violent episodes and manipulative ways, but only when it seems that he is framing the poor sap for the murder of a floozie does Michael – helped by his doped-up elder brother Pismo (Christian Clemenson) – fight back.

As a thriller, this is far more competent than Apartment Zero, and the two stars are fine in their roles: Spader does another yuppie nightmare turn as the culpable innocent, and Lowe follows the Richard Gere-Internal Affairs route by clawing back acting credibility by jettisoning his then-shopworn niceguy act for showy villainy. As with Internal Affairs, this has the added advantage of making the film palatable even to people who had grown fed up with Lowe's screen image - especially in the light of his then-current video sex scandal, which is wittily evoked by the script - by turning it around to reveal wickedness under his too-ready grin. It's a predictable tale, with a slow start and too few plot twists, but the playing, writing and direction are perfectly acceptable. Plus, there's one trick with the brake lights and the petrol tank that is worth remembering if you ever have to go on a vengeance crusade. A supporting cast full of interesting faces includes Lisa Zane, Roslyn Landor (the little girl from The Devil Rides Out) and Kathleen Wilhoite.

First published in this form here.

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