Among the hot items at my local video store these days is a recent Hollywood thriller called The hand that rocks the cradle. A successful instance of what might be called the yuppie nightmare film, this particular contribution to the genre also manages to exploit a tear that must trouble every mother who has temporarily handed over the care of her children to another woman - not the dread that the caretaker will harm or neglect them, but the anxiety lest she win their love away. An early scene of the film adroitly converts one kind of anxiety to the other, as the audience watches the new nanny, pillow in hand, threateningly approach the baby's cradle as if to smother him, only to discover that she is intent instead on a secret session of breastfeeding. At the climax of the film, mother and nanny battle to the death in the attic ('It's my family!' the heroine exclaims), while the man of the house lies immobilised with a broken leg three storeys below. The hand that rocks the cradle capitalises on several sources of female anxiety: the entire chain of events begins when the heroine reports her obstetrician for having sexually abused her during an examination, while before the elaborate plot has run its course, it also feints with the threat of the other woman in the more familiar sense, in the guise both of the husband's former girlfriend and in that of the nanny herself, who repeatedly attempts to seduce him. But the real horror of the film clearly emanates from the nanny's insidious campaign to supplant the biological mother in the affections of her children.
LRB 20 August 1992 | PDF Download