In the 1990s, moviegoers flocked to a string of glossy thrillers that one critic of the era memorably dubbed the "from hell" genre. All their plots could be reduced to a single pungent phrase: "the roommate from hell" (Single White Female), "the tenant from hell" (Pacific Heights), "the nanny from hell" (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle). The protagonists were always attractive yuppies, living the dream until they made the mistake of trusting a psychopath who had designs on their goodies. Bunnies were boiled, innocents were terrorized and lessons were learned about the general scariness of the less fortunate.
Such films haven't been seen much since the Clinton administration, except on Lifetime. But they make a brief theatrical comeback with When the Bough Breaks, an enjoyable camp fest best described as "the surrogate from hell." Reproductive technology may have advanced since the '90s, but the formula of these films hasn't changed a bit.
Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall play John and Laura Taylor, an early-forties New Orleans couple with a ravishing restored home and glamorous jobs (lawyer, high-end chef). The only thing they lack is a baby, so they seek out a surrogate.
Young Anna (Jaz Sinclair) has meek posture, dewy eyes and a shy smile that oozes sincere desire to help the infertile couple. So, of course the Taylors choose her as the receptacle of their precious last embryo. Of course they welcome her into their home when she seeks refuge from an abusive boyfriend (Theo Rossi). And of course — I don't think I'm spoiling much here — Anna turns out to come straight from hell.
The fun of such movies is in seeing how the hellishness will reveal itself. Will the infernal antagonist have plausible motivations, perhaps even a legitimate grievance? Or will she be simply a class-A sociopathic bee-yotch, the kind who likes to torment an older, richer rival by stealing her clothes and looking great in them?
Anna is basically the latter. The film raises questions about the ethical and legal issues involved in surrogacy — does the woman carrying the child have any say in its future? — only to toss them aside once it's clear she's off the rails. The script by Jack Olsen gives full moral authority to John and Laura, who are nice people but not fleshed-out characters, despite vague hints that they've had to "work on" their marriage.
All the best scenes belong to Sinclair; equally convincing as a mousy waif and a diabolical vamp, she struts around the house in dishabille, leering suggestively at John, and ends up walking away with the film. Chestnut does his best to suggest some inner conflict while fending off her advances, but his character remains on the drawing board.
Most of the film takes place in the Taylors' home, and director Jon Cassar, a veteran of TV's "24," uses its billowy curtains and shadows to create a moody atmosphere of suspicion and voyeurism. While its middle section stretches long, When the Bough Breaks shows an admirable willingness to "go there" when it's time to unleash hell. The circumstances under which Anna's water breaks are probably enough to guarantee the film a future place in Lifetime's rotation of minor camp classics about domestic peril.
Like virtually every entry in the "from hell" genre, the film ends up affirming that "The family that kills together stays together" (as Pauline Kael put it, reviewing genre progenitor Fatal Attraction). Movies like these affirm their own kind of family values, offering viewers the assurance that, whatever travails they may experience at home, at least they'll never have to explain to their kid that he emerged from the loins of the surrogate from hell.