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MOVIE REVIEW : Little Juice in Pulpy ‘Pacific Heights’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Pacific Heights” (citywide) is a primal horror movie for yuppies. In “Fatal Attraction,” which was also a yuppie shockfest, the battleground was sex. The battleground in John Schlesinger’s new film is a stunning, turn-of-the-century Victorian house in a fashionable San Francisco neighborhood.

Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine are Patty and Drake, the unmarried lovebirds who buy and renovate their dream house. To make ends meet, they rent out the two downstairs apartments--one to a companionable Asian couple (Mako and Nobu McCarthy), the other to a landlord’s worst nightmare. As Carter Hayes, the psycho slickster who insinuates himself into the apartment and then wreaks havoc with his landlords’ lives and property, Michael Keaton is the Renter From Hell.

He’s so wised-up to the legal loopholes that, when he’s threatened with eviction, he forces physical confrontations that leave him in a position to take control of the property.

According to the yuppie ethos, you are what you acquire. Materialism is the true sex appeal. Unfortunately, this idea isn’t played for laughs in “Pacific Heights,” not even scary-funny laughs. As with “Fatal Attraction,” the film’s high gloss and grade-A cast try to camouflage what is essentially a pulp yarn. (It’s rated R for violence and brief female nudity.)

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Schlesinger doesn’t really have the low-down skills to pump up the pulp. He’s so concerned not to relinquish his credentials as a “serious” director that the film, instead of seeming serious, seems mostly silly--not scary enough to function as a crackerjack thriller and not complex enough to work as a psychological drama.

Schlesinger, and his screenwriter Daniel Pyne, don’t have enough fun with the plot’s inherent absurdity, and they don’t make Carter’s machinations nightmarishly believable, either. Were the filmmakers perhaps worried that a more detailed delineation of how Carter operates would lead to a rash of renter takeovers in the Bay Area?

There isn’t enough atmosphere in this movie. It’s a good inspiration to locate a deranged-renter plot in the supernal San Francisco hills, but the city is used as a touristy backdrop. The beauty should be integral to the film’s horror, but our revulsion at its violation never takes hold. It’s like watching the defacing of a post card.

None of the characters has much of a life apart from the warfare. With Carter, his anonymity at least serves a plot function, but Patty and Drake are conceived as stick-figure yuppies. She’s an equestrienne, he runs a kite factory. We see so little of their relationship before Carter’s arrival that, when their lives are torn apart, it’s a rote rending.

Matthew Modine doesn’t exactly pull his own weight in the film--he’s surprisingly ineffectual--but Melanie Griffith certainly knows how to work up a full-scale characterization out of dribs and drabs. She’s an A actress with a knack for bringing out the resonance in B material, and the gift serves her well in “Pacific Heights.”

Michael Keaton is such a freakishly talented actor that he gives Carter’s oily malevolence a deep-down shine. He lends this film a core of genuine horror even when he’s called upon to be a cartoon meanie. Whether he’s casually fingering razor blades or watching listlessly as one of his imported roaches scampers across the buzzing blank TV screen in his apartment, Keaton’s Carter is both zonked and aware.

The shiny black Porsche he drives seems like a metallic extension of his character’s psychological armor. It’s a deft, chilling performance, and you want the movie that surrounds it to measure up. Keaton supplies the vibes for what might have been.

‘PACIFIC HEIGHTS’

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A 20th Century Fox release. Executive producers James G. Robinson & Joe Roth. Producers Scott Rudin & William Sackheim. Director John Schlesinger. Screenplay Daniel Pyne. Cinematography Amir Mokri. Music Hans Zimmer. Production design Neil Spisak. Costumes Ann Roth and Bridget Kelly. Film editor Mark Warner. With Melanie Griffith, Matthew Modine, Michael Keaton, Mako, Nobu McCarthy, Laurie Metcalfe, Beverly D’Angelo (unbilled).

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (strong profanity, occasional graphic violence, brief female nudity.)


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