Home Video Hovel: Bad Influence, by Alexander Miller
Bad Influence draws from a well of familiar material; the story is derivative of Strangers on a Train but the result is an energized, noir-inspired thriller. Writer Koepp and director Hanson tip their hats to the master of suspense but maintain a tone of originality by seducing our senses with this stylish production and handsome cast.
In the best sense of the words, this is a modern thriller. The story is dependent on preexisting thematic material, and by 1990 Hitchcockian was a well-known sub-genre. Brian De Palma’s brilliant and unabashedly sleazy fare has the dominant share in this territory but Curtis Hanson followed his Rear Window inspired thriller The Bedroom Window with Bad Influence, proving to be another skilled filmmaker capable of operating in the master’s shadow.
Michael (James Spader) is a nebbish analyst with the all too perfect upper-class life who seemingly has everything except a backbone. Despite the high profile job, slick apartment, and high-tech suavities, there’s no excitement in his life. This takes an immediate turn when Michael is rescued from a potential bar fight by a suave stranger named Alex. This chance encounter sparks a friendship and Alex (Rob Lowe) teaches Michael to stand up for himself and take chances in life. Suddenly Michael is sticking it to rivals at the office, hanging out at chic bars and bedding beautiful women; playing with our moral compass for the first act properly lures our sympathies. After all, the “new” Michael’s upgrade from wriggle to walking tall is commendable but, of course, it comes at a cost. Michael’s walk on the wild side quickly devolves once he realizes, probably a bit too late that Alex is a sociopath. The arguably overdue shot of exhilaration Alex administers to Michael escalates from boozy debauchery to armed robbery and beatings.
Emblematic of upper-class entitlement, these adrenaline junkies get their fix by robbing convenience stores and shoving guns in people’s mouths; so much for skydiving or bungee jumping.
Michael’s moral objections to Alex’s hijinks backfire as he was complicit in his crimes, providing Alex with all the makings for a web of blackmail and deceit, turning Michael’s life into a nightmare.
Like I said, we’ve seen this before, the cautionary tale of an everyman seduced by the dark side, a story you can transplant to almost every genre. When you weigh this movie out and connect the various influences and elements the writer-director team is working from, you can’t help but ask yourself the question, “With so much familiarity, how original can this be?” Hanson exhibits he can proficiently imbue a tonal likeness to Hitchcock without slumming or resorting to imitation, Koepp’s script flows at a brisk pace, and the direction shows discipline and control of stylistic flourishes, neither side overplay their hands and the pacing and execution showcase an active writer-director collaboration. Every scene builds the narrative and (almost) every line of dialogue fuels the story. Bad Influence comes from a unique time when day for night shooting meant tints of contrasting blacks and steely blues and chiaroscuro lights cut through Venetian blinds. Outwardly suggestive of its noir forebears, cinematographer Robert Elswit’s use of graduating shades of black and white (in a color film no less) reinforce a sharp sense of style.
Ideally suited to this late eighties era when mature, psychological thrillers were in abundance (Pacific Heights, Body Heat, Basic Instinct, Something Wild) are the two enigmatic leads, Spader and Lowe. On the surface, this might seem like broad typecasting, but Spader’s ascension from bookish analyst to righteous avenger is convincing; his character can’t shed his nervy anxiousness, but he’s gathered enough edge from his outlaw tenure with Alex, to show some fang. Rob Lowe is perfectly cast, he’s been the spurious and suave antagonist in other movies, but in Bad Influence he just nails it as the cool and collected lunatic, Alex is a fashionable upgrade of Ted Bundy. His rollicking malevolence is carried out with a slight degree of fearfulness, but you can tell Lowe is having a blast playing a bastard. The best villains are the smart ones, who access our sensibilities laying on the seductive nature of evil; Alex charms us along with the protagonist. Despite one stupid line of dialogue (that felt like a forced quip) Lowe is a captivating villain without mustache twirling or scenery chewing.
The story is simple and we know more or less how things will play out. Instead of déjà vu, though, I felt absorbed throughout. It’s like a good magic trick; I know that there’s a trap door but the showmanship is superb.
Bad Influence is an efficient and slick thriller that’s entertaining every step of the way. Shout! Factory transfer looks great, and a title like this widens their breadth of cult items with a more straightforward thriller. An interview with screenwriter David Koepp is an added treat as well.