Every Parent's Nightmare

Trend spotters, take note. There's a new motif in villainy rumbling through the collective unconscious of Hollywood. The New Ogre, a clever devil, sets out to destroy its enemy by homing in on its enemy's children. This ogre doesn't harm kids; it seduces them into preferring the villain to their own parents. This was Captain Hook's tactic with Peter Pan's kids in "Hook." It was an aspect of Robert De Niro's revenge in "Cape Fear." And it is a primal ploy in the evil scheme of the wicked nanny in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, a thriller that cannily toys with the fears and guilts of baby-boomer moms.

Screenwriter Amanda Silver (box) and director Curtis Hanson exploit the nanny's powerful but ambiguous position in the household to unnerving effect. Invited to share the Seattle home of the nice young Yuppie couple Claire (Annabella Sciorra) and Michael (Matt McCoy), she is both rival Mommy and-as embodied by the milkily sluttish Rebecca De Mornay-sexual threat. Smelling trouble, Claire's friend Marlene (Julianne Moore) warns her: "The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world."

She doesn't know the worst of it. Peyton, as the nanny calls herself, is a woman on a demented mission of revenge. She blames Claire for the suicide of her husband, a gynecologist whom Claire had publicly accused of sexual molestation. After his death, financially ruined, Peyton suffers a miscarriage. Now, cooing and smiling, she methodically sets out to destroy Claire and usurp her position in the family. She's a psycho, but De Mornay doesn't play her for camp shrewishness. For the most part--before she starts wielding a nasty shovel--this nanny's sadism is psychological. One of the film's virtues is its relative restraint.

There's no point in overpraising "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle." It'd a scary but predictable genre piece that telegraphs its every move. The moment you meet the family's sweet, mentally disabled handyman (Ernie Hudson), you can confidently lay money on his subsequent function in the plot. What sets this formulaic thriller apart from the pack is a number of resonant details one doesn't usually see in the horror genre, because these movies are usually told from a male point of view.

Claire's visit to the sleazy gynecologist, at the story's start, shows us a violation we haven't seen on screen before: the crossing of the thin line between the medical and the sexual. It's not a horror-movie scene, and that makes it all the more creepy. You can hear half the audience stiffen with outraged identification. Later, the sight of Peyton breast-feeding Claire's child strikes a novel note of unease: she's like a reverse vampire, nurturing her way to domination. Peyton plays upon Claire's deepest anxieties-her sexual insecurity, her fear of child molesters-to vicious effect. Hanson and Silver manipulate our anxieties no less adeptly, but a good deal more playfully.