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 BadInf-bluplot, 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 InfluBadInf-01ence 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 atmBadInf-02osphere 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.

BadInf-03Blu-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.