Screening the recent Hammer film The Resident
starring Hilary Swank and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, I experienced a strong feeling of deja vu.
In particular, I had flashbacks of writing Horror Films of the 1990s.
This occurred, no doubt, because The Resident is an old school “Interloper” movie like Blue Steel (1990), Pacific Heights (1990), The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992), Single White Female (1992), The Temp (1993), or The Crush (1993).
The tenets of the Interloper film are by-now familiar, I hope. The Interloper or horror “thrillers” of the 1990s are the A-list films that supplanted the 1980s B-movie slashers. The Interloper films featured mad killers, but in settings ostensibly more “civilized” and “grown-up” than teenage sleepaway camps. These Interloper killers, unlike Jason or Michael Myers, also liked to talk, not merely slash. And the most important quality of the Interloper is that/he is often invited into the life of the victim…at least a little.
Give the Interloper an inch, and he or she will take a mile…
In Horror Films of the 1990s, I pinpointed the four conventions of the Interloper film as I detect them. These are: 1.) We’re All Accountable. 2.) What’s Your Childhood Trauma? 3.) Big Problems Start Small. And finally, 4.) Your Life is Up for Grabs. In ways big and small, The Resident trots out all of these familiar conventions, so much so that it actually feels like a film produced in 1992.
In The Resident, an emergency room doctor living in Brooklyn, named Juliet Devereux (Hilary Swank), seeks a new apartment after breaking up with her unfaithful boyfriend, Jack (Lee Pace). She quickly settles on a too-good-to-be-true building under renovation by hunky handyman, Max (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). He seems to live alone in the old structure with no other tenants, save for his ancient and apparently surly grandfather, August (Christopher Lee).
Before long, Juliet grows attracted to Max and, after a romantic walk, kisses him on the lips.
Next, she invites Max into her bed…but then puts on the brakes right as the two are about to…get busy. Her reason for holding back with Max involves Jack. She fears she isn’t fully over him yet.
Though Max is understanding, at least on the surface, the film reveals to us — in a dramatic visual rewind — how Max, a spider, has lured Juliet, the fly, into his web.
Before long, Max the Interloper is insinuating himself deeper and deeper into Juliet’s life. He spies on her while she masturbates in her Victorian tub. He drugs her wine with Demerol…and then takes grievous advantage while she slumbers. Then, when Jack re-enters the picture, Max resorts to bloody violence.
Above, I mentioned the Interloper playbook, a blueprint which you can apply to virtually all examples of the sub-genre. In The Resident, for instance, Juliet is at least partly accountable (convention #1) for her troubles, since she rather dramatically leads Max on, and then drops him like a hot potato when she changes her mind about pursuing a relationship. My problem isn’t that Juliet says no to Max, it’s that afterwards she is so blase and unconcerned with his well-being or feelings. In other words, Juliet lets Max too far into her personal life and then arbitrarily seeks to instantaneously re-establish appropriate emotional distance, without considering his feelings.
In Pacific Heights, the Interloper transgression occurred after Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine “fudged the numbers” to get a mortgage, refused to rent space to a black man (Carl Lumbly), and failed to get a credit check on Interloper Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton). In Poison Ivy (1992), family values conservative talk show host (Tom Skerritt) had sexual intercourse with underage Lolita, Ivy (Drew Barrymore). The point, as I wrote in Horror Films of the 1990s, is that modern folks put their own interests first, thus putting someone else’s interests second. And for that, they bear some responsibility…and the consequences, especially if the slighted personality is twisted or demented.
Secondly, Max’s traumatic past
(convention # 2, What’s Your Childhood Trauma?) is highlighted in The Resident,
and we learn that his father shot his mother, and then killed himself. Audiences witnessed this convention in Cape Fear
(1991), with Max Cady (Robert De Niro) alluding to his Pentecostal, snake-handling father, in Single White Female,
with Hedy’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) twin sister having drowned at a family picnic, and in Mother’s Boys
(1994), wherein Judith (Jamie Lee Curtis) saw her father commit suicide.
The issue here is that, in modern society, we don’t always truly know the people we meet. This isn’t small town America anymore, where everyone knows everyone. Instead, the people we meet — and over share with — may be monsters. They may be born out of trauma and terror…
The third convention of the Interloper film is that big problems start small. In The Crush, Adrian (Alicia Silverstone) scratches the word “cocksucker” into the classic car belonging to the film’s protagonist, Nick. Similarly, Judith in Mother’s Boys paints the word “whore” on the car of her perceived competitor, her ex-husband’s new girl.
Often times, an attack on a family pet is the opening gambit of the Interloper (Cape Fear, Single White Female, Man’s Best Friend
, and The River Wild
), and ignored for far too long.
In The Resident, Juliet spends the first half of the film hearing strange noises in her apartment, and waking up groggy from an inexplicably hard slumber, and yet she does nothing. Eventually, she installs a surveillance system in her apartment, but by then, the problem has grown almost geometrically, and she is being (unconsciously) raped nightly.
In the last case, “Your Life is Up for Grabs,” Interlopers threaten professional standing (The Temp), ruin financial fortunes (Pacific Heights), encourage legal jeopardy (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle), and threaten identity, even (Single White Female). In the case of The Resident, Max’s nightly drug injections threaten Juliet’s reputation at the ER. He also kills Jack, destroying Juliet’s chances for a reconciliation with the man she loves. What Max seeks is to make Juliet his own, in every way possible. Max hopes to assert a permanent dominance over Juliet, in some fashion like the murderous dominance his father established over his mother.
Even The Resident’s general vibe — that of a woman living alone in the Big City — seems piped in directly from the Clinton Era. Today (at least post-Giuliani), cities don’t seem quite so scary as perhaps they once did, and we have a shared history in the cinema of seeing capable, independent women (Panic Room , The Brave One , etc). Accordingly, I’m not certain that The Resident’s atmosphere really works in the same effective fashion as the historical Interlopers like Blue Steel or Single White Female, two of the best of this particular format.
And ultimately, The Resident demonstrates a bit too much tact and restraint in showcasing Max’s invasion of Juliet’s personal space. The film opens with flourishes of spiky visualization, but then it drops off into generic “thriller” territory. For instance, Juliet strips down a lot in the first half of the film, and director Antii Jokinen isn’t bashful about lingering on Swank’s physical attributes. As mentioned above, we even get a scene of Swank masturbating in the tub.
But about half-way through, The Resident rather blatantly chickens out. Tension builds as Max invades Juliet’s vacant apartment, sinks down comfortably into her tub and unzips his pants. It looks like you’re about to see him masturbate…
But the movie tactfully goes no further. A convenient distraction occurs, and we’re spared the prospective, disturbing imagery.
Similarly, Juliet uncovers video surveillance footage indicating that Max has repeatedly raped her in a drugged sleep, but not one of the nocturnal encounters actually showcased in the film ever hints that intercourse occurs. Instead, one night, Max sneaks into Juliet’s bed room and — wait for it — sucks her fingers.
Another night, Max sneaks in, approaches the bed…and holds Juliet in a loving, tender embrace.
But strangely, when Juliet finally watches the surveillance footage, she sees him stripping down to his skivvies, and approaching her bed. Even here, the movie chickens out. The movie cuts away before he ever gets on the same bed with his victim.
It’s not that I desire to see physical violence perpetuated against Juliet, but the movie dances so poorly and confusingly around Max’s exact transgressions that we can’t even be sure what he did, when he did it, or precisely what Juliet saw on the surveillance tape. The very facts seem foggy. How many nights did the invasion occur?
Did they graduate over time from finger licking to sexual intercourse? And why does the last video footage show the beginnings of an ostensible rape (with Max dropping trousers) when the movie’s actual depiction of that night merely showcases Max holding Juliet tenderly?
I submit that, in an Interloper film, a failure to clarify the nature of the invasion is a cheat. Cape Fear certainly didn’t back away from featuring disturbing or harrowing imagery. Remember Max Cady biting a chunk out of Ileana Douglas’s cheek during a motel assignation turned violent? Or recall Single White Female, wherein Hedy snuck into her roommate’s bed, performed oral sex on her boyfriend, and then murdered him with a high heel to the eyeball?
This ain’t bean bag.
At some point in these horror films the repulsive and horrible nature of the transgression must be visualized, so we can understand the full breadth and scope of the personal invasion. The Resident tiptoes around the unsavory aspects of the Max/Juliet relationship, to its own detriment. Disgusting or disturbing moments might debauch us, but the best horror movies must trouble our slumber. The Resident chooses to play it safe and not reveal the central attack. This would be like not featuring the rape scene in Straw Dogs (1971), A Clockwork Orange (1971), or Last House on the Left (1972). Instead, The Resident wants to spare audience sensitivities, and that’s absolutely the wrong impulse for a horror film of this particular type. The movie didn’t need to be graphic about it. It just needed to be clear about what actually occurred, and when it occurred.
Despite the cowardly aspects of The Resident, some of the movie works just fine. The setting, an apartment building being renovated, comes to reflect our understanding of the Max character: handsome and well-put together on the surface, but a mess underneath. And Christopher Lee is marvelously effective here as old August. He does a terrific job of not revealing exactly how much of a threat August is, and to whom he is dangerous.
At some level, The Resident also wants to present a debate about privacy and technology in the 21st century, a nice ancillary aspect of all Interloper tales. Max shuns Twitter and Facebook, he says, because he believes that a person’s secrets should remain secret.
Ultimately, however, he is defeated because Juliet embraces technology — surveillance cameras
— to catch him.
Far from being a victim of our modern, technological age, Juliet guards her privacy with the the help of technology. In fact, technology is the great equalizer in her crisis, the thing that finally puts Juliet onto Max and his twisted ways.
Given that interesting leitmotif, it’s a shame that The Resident’s last act descends into utterly predictable, utterly undistinguished he vs. she violence. We get the victim turning the tables on the attacker, the sting-in-the-tail/tale, and even a (thoroughly ridiculous) jump scare involving a bathroom room mirror. You’ve seen it all before. Many times.
Capably shot and edited, The Resident is familiar enough to breed contempt. If you’ve seen other Interloper films, you’ve lived in this particular edifice before, and will know, almost instinctively, where all the bodies are buried…