On Screen: Fatal Attraction

Written by James Dearden

Directed by Adrian Lyne

A Paramount Release

Fatal Attraction may be the first psycho/slasher horror movie made for the readers of New York magazine. It’s that smart and that shallow. Both its victims—a well-heeled lawyer and his wife and child—and its victimizer—a book editor for a successful publishing firm—certainly might be subscribers to the magazine. In between stalkings, stabbings, and various paroxysms, the characters eat in the coziest cafes, dance in the trendiest night spots, do business in the most Scandinavian modern of board rooms, and shop for houses in the best neighborhoods just outside New York City.

The very look of the film, its spotless plastic decor and quick-silver editing, is that of the chic ads on TV that advertise sleek cars and Hanes pantyhose (“And then there are her legs.. . Ah, Jennifer’s legs. . . .”). In fact, the look and feel of the film’s early scenes are so “adult” that I suspected the filmmakers wouldn’t allow themselves the cheap tricks with which slasher films keep jolting their audiences.

I was dead wrong. There isn’t anything director Adrian Lyne and scriptwriter James Dearden wouldn’t stoop to use. They even revive that by now hoary device of having the villain, seemingly dead, leap out of nowhere for one last mad charge at the hero or heroine. (Remember Alan Arkin in Wait Until Dark?) Such relentlessness results in a base, mechanical triumph. You may either laugh in contempt at what’s happening on screen or you may whoop it up with the rest of the audience. You won’t spend any time peering at your watch or worrying as to whether you left you car’s headlights on. But, once the film is over, you may possibly feel a bit had.

This queasiness doesn’t arise from the fact that you’ve been manipulated. Manipulation, after all, is what film thrillers are all about; it’s why one goes to them. But Fatal Attraction‘s makers have included elements that you usually don’t find in a simple thriller, and yet they haven’t used these elements to make a complex thriller. What they have achieved is a chic horror show in which psychological complexity initially captures your attention only to attenuate gradually and finally disappear as the violence accelerates. Watching Fatal Attraction is like reading an issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine only to discover that pages from the National Inquirer have been pasted inside.

In the first third of the movie a young lawyer, Dan (Michael Douglas), whose firm advises a publishing company, meets and has what he thinks is a weekend fling with one of the publisher’s female editors, Alex (Glenn Close) while Dan’s wife and little daughter are away on vacation. The editor seems so hungry and hip that Dan assumes that she’s only seeking a diversion. That’s all he wants. Both speak the current jargon of self-exculpation perfectly: “We’re both adults, aren’t we?” But, by the end of the weekend, he begins to realize that Alex wants to be a permanent fixture in his life and will stop at nothing to achieve that. He tries to reason with her and finds the current jargon a bit inadequate for such reasoning. “You knew the rules,” he lectures. “What rules?” she asks. And she means it. Then Alex reveals that she’s pregnant. Things get grimmer, shriller, and finally violent.

There are wonderful possibilities in this material. Fatal Attraction, through the exploration of its two leading characters, could have been a study of the emotional boundary-jumping that sexual feeling often leads people into. The more one tries to compartmentalize sex, to keep it limited to some tiny safe area, the more danger there may be that it will find a subterranean channel into some part of our lives where it wreaks havoc. Emotions that we never realized we possessed may be triggered, making us behave in ways that later appall us. In the grip of sexual obsession, people can come to know themselves in the most painful way possible.

But though the conventional character of Dan can be established adequately (though too tidily) in a few minutes of screen time, the more complex, volcanic Alex would have had to be taken very seriously by her creators in order that she be something other than a monster. Basic questions about her would have had to be explored dramatically.

Who is this homewrecker and does she actually think of herself as a homewrecker? Where is she coming from and where is she trying to go? How many men before Dan have suffered her loving fury, and what did she learn from their advances and their retreats? Does her career in the book world mean a great deal to her or is it just a way to pass time when she isn’t with men? Has she herself brought about her seeming solitude (we never see her with a friend of either sex) or have mere circumstances brought it about? Does the married state itself attract her or does she simply want to be close to one man, with or without marriage? In other words, what is the root of her fatal attraction to Dan?

If director Lyne and writer Dearden had taken these questions seriously, they might have produced exactly what the subtitle of the film declares it to be: “a terrifying love story.” But what is actually achieved is a contemporary Grand Guignol featuring Vamp With A Knife. In an undeniably effective performance, Glenn Close, her eyes alternately gleaming and deadening, her golden hair constantly backlit by the cinematographer to produce an ironic halo, her mouth twisted slightly to one side, is just as much a ghastly and simple-minded figure of horror as Jason in the ski mask of Friday the Thirteenth. Her liberated career-woman persona is just a come-on, away of playing upon the fears of people (of women as well as of men) that attractive, unmarried women nearing the end of their child-bearing days will descend like harpies upon happily married but jaded husbands.

The violence with which Alex threatens Dan and his family is female predatoriness gone berserk. The shrewd cheapness of Fatal Attraction lies in the fact that Alex finally exists on screen only to commit this violence. Her creators aren’t interested in what drives this woman. They only use her to drive the audience into a state of delicious panic. By film’s end, the crowd is screaming for her blood and cheering when they get it.

But what a shrewdly made piece of junk it is! The filmmakers keep tossing out hints that Alex isn’t just a monster but a complicated, weirdly fascinating case study (Freudians sit up) or a victim of our male-dominated society (feminists lean forward). But, in truth, Alex’s character is composed of nothing but a series of gimps. A gimp, as defined by critic Manny Farber, is a gimmick which the hack director, possessing no real insight into character, “need only jerk. . .and behold!— curious and exotic. . . images are flashed before the audience, pepping things up at the crucial moment, making you think such thoughts as ‘The hero has a mother complex’ or. . . ‘He chomps angrily on unlit cigarettes to show he comes from a Puritan environment and has a will of iron.’”

Lyne and Dearden never run out of gimps.

Thus: after Dan has playfully scared Alex in Central Park by pretending to keel over with a heart attack, she shames him by saying that her father died of a heart attack before her eyes. Dan looks stricken, but then Alex laughs at him: “I made it all up.” Several scenes later, while ransacking her apartment, Dan discovers a press clipping that reveals that her father did die in front of her, of — gasp! — a heart attack.

Expected Audience Reaction: Oh, wow. No wonder she’s so sick! Buzz. Buzz. Electra complex. Buzz. Buzz. Wants subconsciously to punish her father for abandoning her. Buzz. Buzz. Identifies Michael Douglas with her father. Buzz, etc.

Thus: when an exasperated Dan confronts Alex, who’s been harassing him over the phone, and asks her what she really wants of him, Glenn Close looks him in the eye and, her voice iron with Victorian dignity, replies, “I want you to face up to your responsibilities.”

Expected Audience Response: Oh, wow. She may be nuts but she’s only asking for what any woman asks of any man. Alex is like a modern Medea confronting Jason. Buzz. Buzz. See, there’s a real feminist undercurrent to all this. Buzz, etc.

Thus: Alex, feeling neglected, sits alone in her walk-up while Dan has a reunion with his wife. She fiddles with a cord light switch and the overhead bulb keeps going on and off. We see her, then we don’t, we see her, we don’t. First in long shot, then in close-up. Her face seems divided into areas of dark and light.

E.A.R. : Oh, wow. Is that ever sicko! I mean it shows the way her mind is all twisted and messed up and half of her is good and the other half stinks, etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

In fact, Fatal Attraction is just one gimp after another, and to see how well they work (at however low a level) you have only to contrast this movie with one that had a very similar story: Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty For Me. There, the woman scorned, played by Jessica Walters, also murderously pursued the man who had trifled with her (Eastwood). But Eastwood, directing as competently as Lyne, used very few gimps in his story. His script was shamelessly manipulative but only in the way all thrillers are, playing fast and loose with coincidences, scary shadowy places into which innocent boobs wander, and last minute rescues. But Eastwood did not mess around with psychology or feminism. His villainess was a dragon pure and simple, and Eastwood probably cast Walters less for her acting ability than for the high-decibel screams she was able to emit with each knife thrust.

Consequently, though audiences shrieked and applauded during Misty, they then went home and more or less forgot about it. It never received the awed reviews that Fatal Attraction is getting (“One of the most gripping, chilling, romantic movies in years . . . filled with suspense, surprises, secrets. . .”), nor did it get a heated, mixed-up audience response.

Fatal Attraction may be the subject of many an argument at many a dinner party but, compared with a really terrifying love story like Hitchcock’s Vertigo, it doesn’t exist. It’s a yuppie thriller. It gives an audience all that it expects. But a good thriller, like any good work of art, gives an audience precisely what it could never have expected.


  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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