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(1998) (Jessica Lange, Gwyneth Paltrow) (PG-13)

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Suspense/Thriller: A young pregnant woman must contend with her overbearing mother-in-law whose obsession with her own son may endanger the woman's life.
Helen (GWYNETH PALTROW) and Jackson (JOHNATHON SCHAECH) are a happy, unmarried couple living in New York. He takes her home for the holidays to Kilronan, a sprawling Kentucky horse farm. There she meets Martha (JESSICA LANGE), his doting mother, who has singlehandedly run the estate since her husband's untimely death when Jackson was a boy. Martha wants Jackson to move back home to manage the estate since she's finding it more difficult to do by herself, but he and Helen are happy in New York and decline the offer.

After Helen gets pregnant and later has an encounter with a mugger, however, they decide to return to the more peaceful farm lands. As they fix up Kilronan to sell it later, Martha slowly begins pitting Helen and Jackson against each other. After meeting Jackson's grandmother, Alice (NINA FOCH), Helen begins to learn the truth about Martha and her obsessive ways. As their in- law relationship further strains, Helen begins to worry for her safety as Martha seemingly will stop at nothing to keep her son from leaving her again.

If they're fans of someone in the cast (particularly Paltrow of "Great Expectations" and "Emma"), or are fans of suspense/thrillers, they might. Few preteens, if any, however, will want to see this film.
For some violence, sensuality and brief strong language.
  • JESSICA LANGE plays an overbearingly obsessive mother who smokes, drinks, and will do anything to keep people from ever leaving her home.
  • GWYNETH PALTROW plays a young woman who finds herself pregnant, gets married, and then must deal with a psychotic mother-in-law.
  • JOHNATHON SCHAECH plays the husband/son who has premarital sex with Helen and gets her pregnant.


    OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
    It used to be that men played the villains in movies -- after all, historically and statistically they've always been the more likely of the genders to be murderers, thieves, or psychotic stalkers. While women have often played the femme fatales -- the sexy seductress who lures men into their eventual downfall -- not many women have gone full-out looney tunes on the big screen.

    Then along came Glenn Close in 1987's "Fatal Attraction." Playing a jilted lover who obsessively stalks Michael Douglas, Close's Oscar nominated performance was widely talked about and spurred a round of similarly psychotic characters. There was Oscar winner Kathy Bates as an obsessed fan in Stephen King's Misery (1990) and Rebecca de Mornay as the crazed nanny in 1992's "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle."

    Now, six-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Lange joins that "esteemed" group of actresses who have thrown all caution to the wind to play a psychotic character. Of course as noted above, some of those performances have generated critical acclaim for the actresses, so it's actually surprising that more women aren't looking for such roles, particularly when any "good" roles for older actresses are in high demand but short supply.

    Lange, who's always had a mysterious side to her performances, no matter what kind of movie she's appeared in, seems perfect to play a lunatic. She's got that sultry Southern mode down pat as well as a tough, determined streak in her that play well here in creating a slow-burning psychotic character. Of course one has to be careful not to go too far with such behavior so as to keep from "hamming" it up, but Lange does a decent job in that balancing act.

    It would have been nice, though, if the filmmakers hadn't made her so obviously evil from the beginning. As she slithers around like a coiling snake, we never have any doubt as to her intentions. It would have been nice -- at least early on -- if things that aroused Helen's suspicions could have been explained in a variety of ways to keep both the characters and the audience off guard about what was really occurring. While Lange's one-track character makes it easier for the audience to root against her, it would have worked better had we not always been one hundred percent sure that she was behind all of the "evil" that transpires during the story.

    It's also too bad the script isn't a lot better. While it should please audiences who thrill at having superior position (knowing ahead of time what the character's don't) and who groove on such films, it eventually gets downright preposterous, especially during the last twenty minutes or so. Of course it's pushing out the adrenaline pumping, manipulative qualities that should keep many moviegoers from noticing such problems during the fact, but afterwards all of it will probably leave a bad aftertaste in one's mouth.

    The laughable parts come when a very pregnant Paltrow -- who's expected to give birth any day now -- makes her escape attempt from Close's deranged mother character. Along the way she four-wheel drives through massively bumpy terrain and then, once stuck, gets out -- barefoot and pregnant -- and runs through the woods and finally up a steep hill to get to the highway. There's also the implausibility that Jackson would leave his wife -- who is due to deliver at any moment -- to go to a horse race, or that Helen -- in the middle of artificially induced labor, wouldn't just call 911 instead of tromping around looking for her mother-in-law whom she can't stand.

    A conveniently placed, plot revealing locket (that doesn't come as any surprise, except for its absurd location) and some well-noted newspaper articles that would prove everything about Martha but are inexplicably never used, are just a few of the other ill-conceived moments in the film. Most of those elements work for generating the suspense, but the problem is that they're just not believable. While they easily could have been fixed with some script changes -- Martha has severed the phone lines to prevent Helen from calling for help, etc... -- they weren't.

    Then there's the ending -- that we won't give away -- but suffice it to say that Paltrow's character, who nearly died from blood loss and other atrocities during childbirth, looks remarkably better a mere twenty-four hours later. Not only does she miraculously look radiant -- one must remember, of course, that she is a Hollywood star after all -- but she's also surprisingly physically fit and mentally able to take care of her wacky mother-in-law in the big conclusion.

    Up until those points the movie is okay -- and again it tremendously works if you turn off your brain -- but anything built up to that point it thrown out the window by the ridiculous ending. At least they don't blow away Lange's character at the end (you obviously know she's going to get her comeuppance in some fashion), which is a welcome change from the stereotypical endings of most stories dealing with psychotic villains.

    Paltrow is okay in her role as the nervous and then defiant daughter-in-law, but doesn't get to shine as she's done in previous roles such as "Emma." Johnathon Schaech, the uptight but talented musician in "That Thing You Do," plays the stereotypical character who's torn between his mother and wife and also does an okay job, but isn't able to deliver anything outstanding due to the limited way in which his character's been drawn. The best character by far is played by Nina Foch who inhabits Jackson's feisty grandmother. Given the best lines in the movie, she's a delight to watch and gives the movie some much needed comic relief.

    This is co-writer/director Jonathan Darby's first theatrical feature, and his lack of experience shows. While he and co-writer Jane Rusconi have fashioned a moderate crowd pleasing thriller, there are just too many easily contrived and/or ridiculous moments to make this a film that will be long remembered in the genre. Although this movie will have some people yelling out to the characters on the screen to "Watch out" (as they did in our screening), it will later have many people thinking back to the implausibilities through which they just sat.

    If you can manage to watch this without thinking logically at all about what's happening, or by getting a hoot out of Lange's occasionally over-the-top performance, then you might just enjoy it, but nothing will come as a surprise. Otherwise, you might be better off renting one of the "older classics" in the genre. That way you can yell "Watch out!" in the privacy of your own home and not worry about people sitting near you telling you to "hush." We give the similarly titled movie a 4 out of 10.

    This film gets its PG-13 rating from some profanity (including 1 "f" word and several others), violence (an intruder slices Paltrow with a knife), some implied sex (nothing's seen) and very brief nudity (bare butt and side of breast). Other things to note are the mother-in-law's psychotic behavior that becomes homicidal toward the end, as well as her heavy smoking throughout the film. An in-house pregnancy scene later shows quite a bit of blood for those who don't like such scenes. Since some kids will want to see this (due to Paltrow's presence), you may want to look over the content to determine if this film is appropriate for them, or for anyone else in your home.

  • Martha has several cocktails during the movie.
  • People drink champagne at a New Year's party.
  • People drink wine/champagne at a wedding reception.
  • The family has wine with dinner.
  • Martha spikes Helen's dessert with Oxytocin, an equine strength, labor-inducing drug.
  • We hear Helen throwing up (from morning sickness) and then see some vomit on a man's arm.
  • An intruder slices Helen with a knife and we see a bloody wound as well as blood on her hand.
  • Some dead and rather bloody rats fall from an attic access door onto Helen.
  • After giving birth, Helen's clothed crotch and surrounding bedding is very bloody. The baby is a little bloody, and we then briefly see Martha cutting through the bloody umbilical cord.
  • We see a needle go into an arm.
  • Martha has both as not only is she overbearing and manipulative toward Jackson and others (telling them lies about his and Helen's plans), but she starts to tell Helen what she can and cannot do, as well as becomes menacingly threatening to her. In essence, she's behind everything bad that happens during the story.
  • Some viewers may not like the fact that Martha comments that she "terminated" an earlier pregnancy of hers due to "abnormalities" (which we later assume means it was a girl since she's so set on having boys in her family).
  • Martha spikes Helen's dessert with Oxytocin, an equine strength, labor-inducing drug.
  • Martha makes Helen give birth all by herself (screaming and all) while she calmly sits across the room.
  • An intruder grabs Helen, threatens her, and finally slices her with his knife, wounding her.
  • From about the midway point on, the entire film starts to get more suspenseful as we know that Martha is planning something bad for Helen and we must wait for it to happen.
  • Martha menacingly threatens her mother-in-law, and we think that at any moment she'll kill her.
  • Helen, experiencing labor pains, goes looking for Martha and we expect something bad to happen.
  • Helen, near giving birth, tries to escape from Martha's farm, has an encounter with a scary fellow, and then sets out on foot looking for help.
  • Martha makes Helen give birth all by herself (screaming and all) while she calmly sits across the room. She then prepares to kill her while Jackson gets closer to arriving at the house.
  • Knife: Used by an intruder to threaten and then cut Helen.
  • Phrases: "Bitch" (said by both women once toward each other), "Old fart," "Damn you," and "Shut up."
  • It's implied that Martha tampered with (damaged) Helen's diaphragm so that she'd get pregnant.
  • Alice, who's in a nursing home, feeds her medication to the ducks in a pond.
  • Martha spikes Helen's dessert with Oxytocin, an equine strength, labor-inducing drug.
  • An intruder suddenly grabs Helen.
  • Some dead and rather bloody rats fall from an attic access door onto Helen.
  • There is a heavy amount of suspenseful music, particularly toward the end of the movie.
  • None.
  • At least 1 "f" word, 4 "s" words, 5 damns, 2 hells, 1 ass, and 14 uses of "Oh my God," "3 of "My God," 2 each of "Oh God" and "God" and 1 use each of "G-damn" and "For Christ's sakes" as exclamations.
  • We get a very brief glimpse of Helen's bare butt and the side of her breast as she races back under the covers after meeting Martha for the first time. The fact that she's nude and in Jackson's bed implies that they had sex.
  • It's also implied that Jackson and Helen have sex before going to church (but we don't see anything).
  • We see Helen's diaphragm (in its open case) in the bathroom.
  • Helen and Jackson fool around (taking off some clothing and kissing, but no nudity) in the foyer and it's implied that they have sex.
  • Martha tells Jackson (about Helen), "Sometimes during a pregnancy, making love can be uncomfortable, physically and emotionally."
  • Martha smokes throughout the film.
  • Helen mentions that her parents died when she was younger.
  • We learn that Jackson's father died when he was seven and that he feels responsible for his father's death (accidentally causing him to fall down a flight of stairs).
  • There is a lot of tension between Martha and Helen that then creates tension between her and Jackson.
  • Overbearing relatives.
  • An intruder grabs Helen, threatens her, and finally slices her with his knife, wounding her.
  • Martha tries to kill Helen with a large injection of morphine.
  • Helen smacks Martha to the floor.

  • Reviewed March 4, 1998

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