March 14, 2013

Early '90s thrillers as a sign of the cocooning shift

Just saw Sleeping with the Enemy, a somewhat watchable example of the paranoia thriller genre that was so pervasive in the early 1990s.

In the paranoia thrillers of the mid-'70s, the danger came from conspiracy and corruption at the elite level. The fact that such a genre was so popular then speaks to how little trust there was in The Establishment -- whether it was elected politicians, police departments, corporations, or the local business power players. The '80s thriller would add a source of danger that was supernatural, not-quite-human, or otherwise outside of the circle of normal people you know and trust.

In either case, the fact that the danger is coming from some outside group, even if they're physically near your in-group, raises the audience's awareness of how they need to be more trusting of others from their group who reach out to rely on them, and to not feel awkward in reaching out to them as well. Whether this mutual support ultimately gets them out of harm's way or not, they have no chance if they go it alone.

In contrast, the early '90s thrillers are designed to make you fear your own neighbor, spouse, and best friend. And the fact that they saw such great success at the box office shows that average Americans had already started to withdraw their trust even from those closest to them.* Their protagonists may get a little help from true friends, but mostly they survive by going it alone, having been burned so badly by betrayal.

During this early stage of social atomization, the movies don't make a virtue of total self-reliance. People in the audience have just started to perceive everyone else as untrustworthy, and are seeking validation of their desire to cut themselves off. It's easier to rationalize that decision if you see yourself in the place of characters who are isolating themselves more out of urgent necessity than as some kind of perfectionistic test of self-sufficiency.

Later into the '90s, the plummeting trust levels are felt to be something here to stay, not news anymore, so they're just accepted and part of the background of thriller / noir type movies.

The early '90s was therefore a divorce period, where people felt that a social bond that had been going on for quite some time needed to be severed. You exaggerate how awful the other side is in order to make it easier and faster for you to cut the ties. Once you're split apart, though, you can calm down from the heated, accusatory phase, and move on in your own separate ways with the understanding that you're never getting back together again. Lack of fellow feeling is now taken for granted, and if you do float the idea of re-connecting, you'll be reminded that the togetherness is over.

That's more or less where we are now, and sometime in the next 5-10 years I think we'll see people turning around and saying, Maybe we were too uncharitable toward each other -- it really did use to be more fun and rewarding when we were together, wasn't it? And the cocooning period will change course as it did before in the late 1950s, after the Age of Anxiety and drive-in restaurant atomization.

I don't feel like reviewing the movies themselves, let alone from both the '70s and the '90s. It seems like the '70s paranoia thriller is a well understood genre already. But it is worth drawing attention to the phenomenon of early '90s paranoia, since you rarely hear about it -- not wanting to re-live the bitter divorce phase, I guess. I suspect there's a similar string of movies from the early-mid-'30s during the divorce from the Jazz Age, and before the calmed-down "separate ways" phase of the '40s and '50s.

At any rate, here's a quick list with a few comments. Again these hit thrillers have to center around betrayal by someone socially close, and the tendency toward "going it alone" by the protagonist. Hopefully this is close to exhaustive, going over the top 100 at the box office for each year, and judging either from memory or a plot summary if the title sounds suggestive.

Presumed Innocent (1990). Not a strong example because we don't even learn about the betrayal until the very end, though the audience still takes the message away with them afterward.

Sleeping with the Enemy (1991). A melodramatic blow-up of the hysteria about date rape / wife-battering.

Deceived (1991). Haven't seen it or even heard of it before, but it was #47 at the box office that year, and the plot summary fits the mold.

A Kiss Before Dying (1991). Haven't seen it either, but it was #75 and sounds like it fits too.

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992). Never saw it. Shows the early days of helicopter parenting, exaggerating the threat posed by any kind of "allo-mothers."

Unlawful Entry (1992). Not an anti-establishment movie, even though the villain is a cop. His job doesn't tie into a theme of corruption or conspiracy -- it's just what he happens to do.

Single White Female (1992). 'Nuff said, as they used to say.

Consenting Adults (1992). Haven't seen it.

The Fugitive (1993). Of all in the genre, definitely made the "trust no one" point the strongest. Not because so many different people were in on the frame-up, but because it had the greatest emotional force. As with Presumed Innocent (also starring Harrison Ford), we don't even learn who the close betrayer is until very late.

The Firm (1993). Not an anti-establishment movie, even though the danger comes from a group of law firm employers. They lured the protagonist away from an East Coast Establishment job by gaining his trust, unlike a faceless corporation or bureaucracy.

Malice (1993). Haven't seen it.

The Good Son (1993). Kind of laying it on thick by having the kid from Home Alone play a psychopathic family member.

So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993). A more comedic, ironic take on the genre.

The Crush (1993). If you were a red-blooded male born in the late '70s or early '80s, 1993 was all about Alicia Silverstone. Now there's an axe murderer we wouldn't mind marrying.

Disclosure (1994). Can't remember this one too well, but might fit. Looks like the last desperate attempt at the genre.

After the single entry from '94, I find nothing from '95 or '96, meaning I'm not going to bother with years after that. This review really makes you appreciate how quickly and therefore intensely the divorce period was. In movies, it gets going in '91, picks up during '92, takes it to the max in '93, and is basically over with by '94. The mid-'90s was when apathy among young people and complacency among middle-aged people began to set in, no more fever pitch.

Which of them are worth seeing? My friends and I watched The Crush a lot on video / cable TV, but that was more from our brains drowning in hormones. I remember enjoying The Fugitive each of the 3460 times I saw it that summer, but haven't seen it in awhile. And as mentioned, it doesn't dwell on the theme of betrayal by someone close like the other movies do, saving that for the end. Not as much of a downer.

* The General Social Survey shows that trust levels have steadily declined after a local peak in the late '80s.


  1. Another way is to describe it as a shift from the social to the personal.

    A good contrast is the Dirty Harry Movies of the 70's and 80's. The Enforcer (1976) was about a left-wing terrorist group who kidnaps the mayor of San Francisco. Sudden Impact (1983) was about a relatively young women seeking revenge for her and her sister being raped 10 years previously.

    The transition from social to personal seemed to have occurred within a very short period - 1979 to 1981.

  2. That was just Sudden Impact. The Dead Pool went back to the serial killer. The slasher and crime flicks of the '80s almost always have outside threats. That's directly social in the case of Lethal Weapon, but indirectly social in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Supernatural criminals.

  3. Does the Fatal Attraction thing fall into this?

  4. That was just Sudden Impact. The Dead Pool went back to the serial killer. The slasher and crime flicks of the '80s almost always have outside threats.

    No. What I meant by personal was that the bad guy was a private individual driven by personal issues, rather than any kind of organization driven by a social/political agenda.

    The 60's and 70's was the age of social anger. The early 80's and beyond is the age of personal anger.

  5. Hard to see that. The original Dirty Harry has a serial killer, no organization or larger agenda. The Enforcer has a small group of rogue vigilante cops, not part of a larger vigilante cop organization or phenomenon, although they do have a small-scale political agenda.

    Bonnie and Clyde features no larger organization or agenda. Neither does Taxi Driver, just Travis Bickle's delusions that he winds up not acting on anyway. Chinatown is more local corruption than organized conspiracy.

    Black Sunday fits. A Clockwork Orange too. The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, All the President's Men, Soylent Green, Logan's Run, Planet of the Apes, Assault on Precinct 13...

    Action/thriller type movies from the '80s and 1990 that feature antagonists who are organized and have a larger political / social / economic agenda. This includes organized crime.

    Die Hard (albeit cynical gimme dat cash terrorists)


    Total Recall

    The Terminator


    The Running Man

    Lethal Weapon series


    Aliens (Burke and the suits)

    Blade Runner

    Black Rain (Yakuza)





    Escape from New York

    ...and many more. But you get the idea. Most dystopian movies show broader social forces at work.

    So the '70s and '80s look pretty similar for focus on social / organized villains. Though by the '80s they're more out-there, not restricted to terrorists.


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