One of the most unusual thrillers of the early 90s, Pacific Heights updates the suburban horror formula for the yuppie generation. At its heart are Patty Palmer (Melanie Griffith) and Drake Goodman (Matthew Modine), a young upwardly mobile couple who decide to purchase a classic Victorian house in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighbourhood as a fixer-upper. While Patty and Drake seem to be pretty well off, the house is still a risky investment, since they need at least two tenants to pay the mortgage. As a result, they decide to rent out part of the property as a studio apartment, and part of the property as a one bedroom apartment in order to stay afloat. Over the first part of the film, we see Patty and Drake considering a wide range of potential tenants, who represent virtually every demographic imaginable, with the glaring exception of white, straight, upwardly mobile couples like themselves, which is the demographic they appear to be really searching for. Accordingly, they settle for an Asian American couple for the one bedroom apartment, while Drake leases out the studio to one Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton) without references or credit, and without even consulting Patty, because he seems like the right person for the apartment, as well as the right person for their own lifestyle.
As might be expected, by the end of the film Drake has been proven wrong, and has learned a valuable lesson about taking people at face value. Nevertheless, Pacific Heights doesn’t exactly seem like a cautionary tale about discrimination so much as a way of coming to terms with the growing viability of the inner city as a legitimate venue for aspirational white property owners, and the way in which this rendered it necessary to engage with a wider range of people than might occur in regular suburbia. In particular, the film evinces a profound anxiety about gay neighbours, especially gay male neighbours, who seem to be a particularly prominent presence in Patty and Drake’s corner of Pacific Heights. Not only do many of the exterior shots feature pride flags draped on the outside of Victorian residences (in pointed contrast to the whitewashed exteriors), but Patty and Drake’s most vulnerable moments as a couple usually take place outside, where they tend to be witnessed by any number of gay neighbours, who feel equally omnipresent and alien in their distant scrutiny. Accordingly, one Carter’s first questionable act is moving in his own flatmate – a man – and refusing to explain or contextualise the nature of their relationship, creating a kind of bisexual panic that eventually balloons out into a more general sense of suspicion.
In that sense, Pacific Heights is quite prescient of the fact that gay people, visible in a new way in the early 1990s, could be agents of gentrification in previously old-fashioned neighbourhoods, even as they might be perceived to undermine the bourgeois family values of those neighbourhoods at the same time. As a result, Patty and Drake seem to evince a kind of cautious respect for their gay neighbours, aware that their presence somewhat validates their real estate choices, but also careful not to engage with them sufficiently to permit them to transform the area into a gay ghetto either. At the same time, however, it feels as if these gay neighbours are only newly – barely – visible, at least against this more domestic, residential backdrop, and that Patty and Drake are still processing their sheer existence in the first place. Given that Schlesinger himself was gay, it’s hard not to see a playful, parodic strain in these early depictions of Patty and Drake – and Drake in particular – with their oblivion making it almost too easy for Carter to take advantage of them and commence the reign of terror that preoccupies most of the film.
Inevitably, there’s something comic about this vision of suburban horror for the yuppie era, in which it isn’t your neighbour, or the lone stalker, but your tenant who is the greatest source of terror. In that sense, Pacific Heights often seems to reach back to the shlockiness of 50s science fiction in its vision of an invader from within, although in this case it isn’t the alien, but the squatter – another kind of alien – who spreads his seeds of chaos over the narrative. More generally, Schlesinger also draws upon films about suspicious house guests, peppering Pacific Heights with references from The Lodger to The Tenant, even as he updates it for the contemporary San Francisco real estate market. It’s no coincidence that the film takes place in Pacific Heights, which became one of the key areas of yuppie investment in the 1990s, and would turn into one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the United States by the 2000s. Apparently, its situation and aspect within San Francisco even ensures this enclave its own microclimate – clearer light, fresher air – and that’s very much in evidence here, with even Patty and Drake’s most agonised financial handwringing unfolding against a backdrop of luminous gentrification and pellucid privilege.
As might be expected, that yuppie backdrop changes the suburban horror formula quite considerably, with Patty and Drake proving quicker to judge Carter than even the most paranoid of traditional suburban patriarchs. In retrospect, I’m not sure exactly what I expected of Pacific Heights, but I certainly assumed that Carter would reveal his ominous side more gradually, not unlike Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in Single White Female. Yet Carter is antagonistic from the moment he moves in, immediately bunkering himself in his apartment, changing the locks and refusing to pay rent. By half an hour into the film, Patty and Drake have determined to evict him, as the prospect of a more traditional suburban slasher is quickly subsumed into a non-compliant tenant who lowers the whole tone of the household and neighbourhood. In other words, Pacific Heights plays into yuppie anxieties about the necessity of tenants in an inner-city residential market, offering a series of increasingly preposterous and paranoid visions of the (apparently) slippery slope between tenancy and “taking possession” that culminates with a local policeman cautioning Patty and Drake that “If he’s in, he has rights – that’s how it works.”
Above and beyond Carter’s more psychopathic tendencies, then, Pacific Heights is horrified at the prospects of tenants being able to dictate terms to landlords, just as Patty and Drake are horrified at the spectacle of their tenant treating their property as his own property, and preventing them making good on their investment in the process. As the film proceeds, Carter becomes more and more entitled, to the point where it would probably only take one more incursion into Patty and Drake’s personal space to turn it into a dark comedy, or a satire of yuppie insularity, so hallucinatory and hyperbolic do his provocations become – playing death metal at night, taking out a restraining order on Drake, getting a reduction in rent (which he is not even paying) after Drake and Patty illegally attempt a forced eviction, making “repairs” to the apartment without any consultation and, finally, forcing his landlords to take out a series of high risk loans in order to stay afloat. By about halfway through, it is almost as if Carter himself has become the landlord, and Patty and Drake have become unwitting tenants in their own homes, as they start to realise that Carter has done this before, and is a professional “occupier” who just happens to invest in property in a more innovative and aggressive way than themselves.
Nevertheless, for all this Machiavellian plotting, Carter is strangely absent from the film as well, as if merely personifying the horror of having tenants in the first place, along with all the dark forces that might converge from outside when yuppies are forced to open up their homes to tenants. Whereas Modine and Griffith are continually framed in mid-shots and close-ups, usually wearing brilliant white clothes against brilliant white backdrops, Keaton tends to be mirrored and distorted in glass and metal surfaces, less a character than a primal force bent on ruining Patty and Drake’s domestic sanctity. Indeed, one of the couple’s key reasons for buying the house is to solidify their finances enough to get married and raise a family, but it quickly becomes clear that this is out of the question while Carter is around, with Drake eventually moving out after learning that it is (apparently) Carter’s legal right to shoot him on sight if he tries to “trespass” into his tenant’s apartment one more time. As Drake finds himself living with a male roommate but having to conceal the reasons from the world at large – exactly the conditions that initially rendered Carter so suspicious – Patty is left alone in the house with Carter, who has disposed of the other tenants by flooding their apartment with cockroaches. As if that weren’t enough, Patty has also recently miscarried, in large part due to the stress of Carter’s campaign of attrition, and in lieu of both husband and child she now finds herself displaced from any stable source of paternal authority and agency, set adrift in a strange and dreamlike space in which Carter momentarily comes to feel like father, husband and son all in one.
It’s during these scenes, in particular, that Pacific Heights finds it most difficult to discern whether Carter is a stalker, a slasher, or just a shrewder investor, as he alternates between operatic gestures of concern for Patty and a more threatening and sinister passivity, occupying the epicentre of all Schlesinger’s lavish set pieces even though we rarely see him do anything especially criminal. Simultaneously, Drake acclimatises more and more to his new living arrangements, and his distance from Patty, as the film taps into some deep and visceral – or cisceral – fear of white couples being splintered and absorbed into same-sex living arrangements. Nevertheless, despite this period of estrangement, which lasts about a month, Patty and Drake finally managed to get a statutory notice of eviction, thanks in part to a canny (and very expensive) property lawyer, played parodically against type by Laurie Metcalfe. By the time Drake finally returns home, Carter has departed, taking all the fixtures with him, while in a final twist, the policeman who investigates the case turns out to be one of the original African American applicants for the apartment. It’s the final shame for Patty and Drake, whose property was supposed to consolidate their de facto relationship into a fully-formed family, but has instead somehow, irrevocably, dissociated them from their liberal fantasies of each other, which is perhaps why it feels as if Drake still hasn’t really come home, the relationship still hasn’t been restored, and we are still cast adrift in the same, strange, domestic dreamspace between Carter and Patty that occupied the second act.
It’s at this point that Pacific Heights starts to take on a very different direction, with Patty taking advantage of her alienation from Drake – and aiming to remedy it – by investigating Carter herself. Whereas the first two acts of the film are stiflingly contained by the house, things now start to get more expansive, as Patty locates Carter (whose real name is actually James Danforth) and trails him around the city in order to discover something about his motivations and background. As her dreamlike domestic proximity to Carter distends and suffuses the whole city, the atmosphere becomes more and more languorous, and quite redolent of Vertigo, with Patty tracking and trailing her target all over San Francisco until she finally arrives at his family home. There, in the real twist of the film, it turns out that Carter isn’t a penniless grafter, or a grasping opportunist, but the wayward son of a billionaire businessman, replete with a whole swathe of properties in his name, a trust in perpetuity, and a thrill for risky, aggressive acquisition of upmarket investment opportunities.
In other words, Carter isn’t an exotic outsider but a rival investor, a discovery that prompts Patty to take her revenge as mercilessly and irreverently as she would with any other financial competitor. Having trailed Carter for a couple of days, she eventually occupies his suite at the JC Marriott much as he originally occupied her house, waiting until he has left the hotel, tricking the reception desk into giving her his key, and then scouring his room for evidence before ordering a full dinner banquet to greet him upon his return, only to narrowly miss him in the elevators on the way out. As Patty weaves her way in and out of the hotel corridors, and Griffith becomes the sole focus of the script, the film morphs into a homage to Brian De Palma’s lush, lavish sense of space, as Patty realises that the only way to take revenge upon Carter is to use his own ingenious spatial violations against him. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Carter returns to find his room in disarray, and responds by taking his own revenge upon Patty and Drake. For the second time in the film he enters their house, but this time it’s as a full-blown slasher rather than a prospective tenant, as he conceals himself in the closet like Michael Myers and then threatens the couple with a nail gun across a series of scenes that feel drawn straight from De Palma’s Body Double.
Whereas the original slasher was a vision of the wrong kind of person in your neighbourhood, this new, yuppie slasher is more like a vision of someone who belongs in your neighbourhood even more than you do. Less the threatening outsider than the threatening competitor, Carter’s presence in these final scenes suggests that it is not exactly the absence of fatherly authority that animates yuppie horror so much as the prospect of not being able to consolidate property investment enough to produce functional fatherhood in the first place. Even here, then, Griffith is still dominant, just as it is only after disposing of Carter – and disposing of him in their own house – that Patty and Drake can restore their relationship and achieve enough closure to move on to another investment. Nevertheless, as with traditional suburban horror, the villain also offers the paternal authority the family are lacking, albeit in a more concentrated, monstrous form, and so it’s hard not to feel that Patty and Drake have internalised something of Carter’s investment aggression by the end as well, extracting something from him in the process of fighting him to the death. For that reason, the final scene, in which they show a pair of prospective buyers through the apartment, seems just a little bit too normal, or a little bit too close to the opening, making it feel as some final horror is about to occur, or as if Carter is still present in some way.
In part, that’s because Patty and Drake are hardly forthcoming about their reasons for selling, blithely assuring the interested couple – a carbon copy of themselves at the beginning of the film – that nothing out of the ordinary occurred here and that they have simply decided to take advantage of the market to sell and move on. Whether because Patty and Drake have realised that they can’t exist as a normative nuclear couple with tenants, or because they have realised that they need to be more aggressive as property owners, it’s clear that they have somehow continued Carter’s legacy in the very act of refusing to disclose the part that he played in their decision to sell the house. Perhaps that’s why it finally feels as if Carter himself has been subsumed back into the market, or back into the learning curve that is necessary for all aspiring baby boomers. For a film that is so operatic and melodramatic at moments, then, Pacific Heights ends on an eerily upbeat and unreflective note, folding Patty and Drake’s encounter with Carter back into a life lesson that the audience are allowed to experience without having to go through it themselves. Made at a time when inner city dwelling, rather than suburban dwelling, was starting to become a sign of class and status, the film is both a warning against the Carters of the world but also an injunction to pre-emptively internalise their values so as to successfully combat them when they do occur, in about as pure and unrestrained a yuppie manifesto as you could possibly envisage, and a real historical curio some thirty years into the future.