Pacific Heights at 30: the San Francisco sexy thriller that still scares

Many classic sexy thrillers have been set in the city of San Francisco. Most notably, the classic Vertigo, Basic Instinct and John Schlesinger’s house horror Pacific Heights which turns 30 this week. On it’s 30th anniversary, I see a movie I continue to enjoy that still sparks realistic fears.


San Francisco set thrillers typically integrate their setting into the story. Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie followed his subject via cable cars. Detective Nick Curran engaged in car chases across the city’s famously steep streets. In Pacific Heights, couple Drake Goodman and Patty Palmer have purchased a Victorian home. They plan to renovate while renting out the downstairs apartments. Everything initially seems idyllic for the young couple.

But when they pick Carter Hayes as their new tenant, both their life and new home literally starts to fall apart. Hayes has the air of a successful, reliable business man. But we’re witness early on to his unsavory and nefarious lifestyle.

Michael Keaton’s Carter is a different kind of movie villain. He doesn’t carry a can or knife, but plots against Drake and Patty using their home as part of his reoccurring real estate scam. He subjects the couple to endless torture. Including releasing roaches (which also drives out their other tenants) and rips up the apartment making it virtually unlivable. All while never paying one cent for the space.

No matter what they do, eviction laws protect Carter, allowing him to continue the abuse, tearing the couple apart in the process. Drake begins to drink, their financial woes increase, and they even lose a baby. At one point Carter instigates a fight that lands Drake in jail, further solidifying his own tenant rights. It’s hard to imagine that he can do this much damage and still be protected by the law but it’s this excessiveness which helps the film move along quickly and build suspense.

It’s just a matter of time before our protagonists are going to fight back. But in Pacific Heights, it’s not the man, but the woman who is the aggressor. Drake fought Carter, but it’s Patty who is the film’s real hero.

She has more tenacity and passion in returning the fight against their abuser and strikes back hard to keep both them and their home together. She follows Hayes, learns his real name, the truth about his family and who he really is, eventually using it against him. Watching Patty go after the villain herself is one of the best parts of the film and it’s where Pacific Height’s shines.


Pacific Heights at 30 is a film that still resonates long after it’s debut. It’s kept its standing in the both adored, and reviled category of 90s thrillers. It doesn’t have the sexy edge of Basic Instinct or 1995’s erotic thriller Jade. It’s also missing the mystery angle that defines most similar films of the genre. But while there’s no killer, or actual murder to solve Pacific Heights does bring the suspense.

Apartment horror movies like Rosemarys Baby focus on the evil that can lurk inside a community, and provide subtle warnings against befriending your neighbors. The Hand that Rocks the Cradle is a cautionary tale about vetting your childcare. And Pacific Heights in the same vein warns against not properly researching your tenants. Or even having tenants in your home at all if you can help it.

There aren’t many tenant thrillers about the dangers of real estate. But Pacific Heights takes a broader topic, the idea of settling down and buying a home, and instills tension by creating a fear that while unlikely, is still possible.

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