Pacific Heights, starring Michael Keaton as a psycho swindler who terrorizes a Nice Happy Couple (Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine), offers a ’90s twist on the mysterious-intruder genre. The dramatic tensions here aren’t psychological — they’re not about gamesmanship and territoriality (as might have been the case in, say, the late ’60s). They’re about real estate. Patty (Griffith) and Drake (Modine) are an unmarried, vaguely bohemian couple who decide to sink every penny they have into buying and renovating a handsome Victorian house in San Francisco. To make ends meet, they need to rent out the two rooms downstairs. Enter an ominous charmer named Carter Hayes (Keaton), who shows up in a black suit and a Porsche to match.
Carter, it’s soon apparent, is some sort of sinister, hustling phony. He refuses to pay the rent, makes noise at all hours, breeds an army of roaches, and won’t even answer the door if anyone complains. Drake tries to get even by turning off Carter’s electricity. But this is a legal no-no: Suddenly, it’s the well-meaning landlords — and not their devious tenant — who are in trouble with the law. Before Patty and Drake know it, they’re trapped, their dream of home-owning bliss turned to a nightmare.
Pacific Heights certainly succeeds at arousing feelings of vicarious frustration. It’s like one of those Pink Panther cartoons in which the Panther does battle with a testy housefly and ends up destroying his entire home. Since Carter’s threat is, at root, financial (it’s not as though he and Patty and Drake have any sort of personal relationship), the movie, though reasonably well directed by John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man), is weirdly unsuspenseful. Even when we discover what it is Carter is up to, his ”scam” is so convoluted — and self-punishing — that it never really makes sense. With most villains, the big question is, ”Will they get away with it?” With Carter, I kept thinking, ”This is a living?”
Keaton has it in him to play an archly perverse, menacing tormenter. His sloped eyebrows are made for villainy, and he uses his hipster’s deadpan — it’s the voice of someone who looks up to disc jockeys as role models — to make Carter seem both unstable and vaguely pathetic. Yet the performance doesn’t come to much; there are too many senes of Keaton sitting ominously in the dark twirling razor blades. In general, the actors are stranded with a perfunctory, deadwood script that’s all concept and no follow-through. Pacific Heights should have been a tricky little cat-and-mouse thriller rooted in the quirks of its characters — a yuppie version of the apartment-house creep-o-ramas Roman Polanski used to direct. But you can’t make a good thriller when the most pressing issue is whether the protagonists will have to default on their mortgage payments. C