Bad Influence had a great promotional hook attached to it when it was first released: star Rob Lowe had been embroiled in one of the first real sex tape scandals, the result of a ménage à trois video involving him making the media rounds. Bad Influence references that in a cheeky way: a video camera plays an important role in the plot, there’s a gag involving a sex tape being shown at the wrong time and Lowe even overtly acknowledges his scandal by appearing in a scene involving a threesome.
That said, don’t mistake Bad Influence as a mere throwaway film that got by on a cheeky promo hook: it’s actually a tidy Hitchcockian thriller where the script, performances and direction all sync up to create a small-scale classic.
The premise is kind of like a postmodern Strangers From A Train. Michael (James Spader) is a nebbish who is pushed around at his white collar job and trapped in an marital engagement he doesn’t really want. Things change when he meets up with Alex (Rob Lowe), a slick grifter who takes Michael under his wing. He teaches him about being more aggressive at work and in love and Michael revels in it until Alex begins egging him on to escalating acts of crime. Michael tries to back away from Alex but Alex won’t let him go so easily — and cat-and-mouse suspense ensues.
Bad Influence weaves a spell because it is clever and stylish without ever straining for effect. It was an early script for David Koepp, who quickly become a top-rank Hollywood scribe, and his work here shows the craftsmanship skills that have taken him far. The plot lays out its hooks carefully, giving a familiar scenario a new level of reality via well-observed details of Los Angeles and corporate life and never allowing hero or villain to become superhuman. The menace shown here is human-scale and all the more effective for being believable.
Director Curtis Hanson was fresh off a suspense thriller hit The Bedroom Window and he does similarly strong work here, respecting the script’s low-key approach to suspense by subtly building the suspense and setting the action against a backdrop of stylish yet austere locales. His work evokes the atmosphere of the unpredictable nature of its Los Angeles setting, teasing out the menace beneath the glossy surfaces.
Hanson also does great work with his cast. Spader and Lowe are both cast against type and they clearly relish the opportunity their roles provide: Spader does a convincing job of creating a meek soul who has to find his inner manipulator and Lowe digs into the decadence and sly cruelty of his character, summoning up a surprising intensity it the latter half of the film. There’s also an ace supporting cast that includes Kathleen Wilhoite as a charmingly nervous secretary, Christian Clemenson as Michael’s neurotic older brother and Lisa Zane as a mysterious party girl who beguiles Michael during his escapades with Alex.
In short, Bad Influence has aged quite well. Long after the scandal it capitalized upon has faded from memory, it remains a potent little thriller about the dangers of letting your sociopathic side run wild.
Blu-Ray Notes: Scream Factory just released a new blu-ray for this title. The MGM-sourced transfer does well by the “color noir” style of Robert Elswit’s photography, capturing the muted colors and moody night photography effectively. The audio sticks to the original 2.0 stereo mix: it is presented in lossless form and sounds nice and clear.
The major extra here is an interview with screenwriter David Koepp (29:04). It’s an excellent and highly informative chat in which Koepp intersperses talk of how he wrote the script and got it made with his philosophy of screenwriting. Budding screenwriters will relish getting to hear the latter, which includes a lot of practical advice and some discussion of his writing techniques. The other extra is a trailer whose high-octane approach belies the film’s quiet intensity.