Manipulative, effective tale of the tenant from hell. Keaton, well-dressed, polite, aces out other tenants and rents one of two apartments in an old Victorian house that a yuppie couple, Modine and Griffith, have just gone deeply into hock to buy and have lovingly refurbished. The couple have maxed out their loan capability and need to rent both apartments in order to meet the mortgage on their $750,000 home in San Francisco. Griffith is also pregnant, so their entire future is riding on this investment.
Things begin well enough. The Watanabes rent one of the apartments and Keaton the other, although there is some problem with his credit check. Still, he weasels his way in by eliminating the application of another prospective tenant and by making earnest promises to pay soon. He also takes immediate possession of the apartment without formal invitation.
Then things go downhill fast. Hammering and electric power tools can be heard from Keaton's apartment day and night. He seems to have an unsavory, surly roommate. He changes the locks on the door so Modine can't get in. The Watanabe's complain that the noise is keeping them awake at night. Nobody answers Modine's increasingly frantic knocks on the apartment door. A horde of cockroaches that have been hatched in Keaton's apartment invade the rest of the house, driving the Watanabe's away. Griffith has a miscarriage. Not even loan sharks will lend them enough money for the mortgage payment. When Modine shuts off the electric to Keaton's apartment, Keaton calls the police.
If you want to know why I used the word manipulative in describing this movie, the scene when the police arrive during the confrontation between the couple and Keaton is a good example. We've all seen this situation before. Innocent people accused by an evildoer in the presence of skeptical cops. ("How much wine did you have to drink before you think you saw a murder next door?" That sort of thing.) Modine, the victim in this case, of course would be most effective if he calmly explained what had happened, matching Keaton's smooth and reasonable-sounding lies. Instead he goes all to pieces, shouting obscenities at Keaton, sounding like a raving looney, until the cops have to haul him off to the side and tell him Keaton is within his rights and that he, Modine, should get a lawyer.
He and Griffith do so, and the lawyer turns out to be sympathetic, helpless, and expensive. Debt is piled upon debt, and nothing's coming in. After the loss of their unborn child, Modine and Keaton are visited by a phonily contrite Keaton in person, who has just called the police and alerted them to an assault that is about to take place. It does. Modine beats hell out of Keaton and throws him through a glass door. The police arrive, cuff Modine, and he winds up in jail, unable to make bail and facing a civil suit from the slimy tenant. Keaton also has a restraining order put upon Modine, so that Modine must leave his own house and stay 500 feet from it while Keaton is present. An ominous phone call from Griffith brings him back illegally, only to be met in the hallway and shot by Keaton.
But Griffith manages to discover Keaton's identity and establish his MO, thereby getting him into trouble. Keaton attacks her at night, attempting to nail her head to the floor with a staple gun, but is impaled upon the sword of justice, I mean the protruding bolts provided by the scriptwriters.
More examples of manipulative techniques that are now utterly standardized. When entering a room in which there is reason to believe danger lurks, the victim doesn't turn on the lights. A previously somewhat dim-witted ordinary bourgeois turns into a virtual sleuth in the blink of an eye. The villain's motive is sloughed off as unimportant -- all he really winds up doing is stealing some appliances, although he's already rich as Croesus.
Still, for all the implausibilities, there's a lot of tension as the screws tighten on the yuppie couple. (They have to sell the house in the end, but don't worry -- they make a tidy profit.) The movie has a glossy modern sheen. The old house looks just fine sitting up there on a hill in Pacific Heights. It gives us violence but no shootouts or car chases or explosions. The main source of dread is one that any of us could feel -- of having overreached ourselves, of buying shares of Enron and watching it nosedive, of having gotten in over our heads, of losing our jobs, of being victimized hatefully by a total stranger. If you want to see the story in its raw form, without the newly applied bone white latex and the Kohler faucets, rent the original "Cape Fear."