Sleazy, stylish, aggressive, and relentlessly homoerotic, Curtis Hanson’s Bad Influence is trashy fun. Leonard Maltin noted that it falls well short of being Strangers on a Train, but that’s not really the field it’s playing on. This is more like a pulpy Lifetime thriller in overbearing cologne form–Lifetime: For Men–and the movie it most resembles, Fight Club, wouldn’t come out for almost another decade, making Bad Influence surprisingly ahead of its time. And it generally succeeds on its own terms (as does Hanson’s later The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, which has similar potboiler ambitions).
Michael (James Spader) has an American Psycho life without having an American Psycho personality; he’s trapped in a tense welter of corporate backstabbing and nerve-wracking professional competition, and his wedding planning is proceeding with all the passion of booking a dog-grooming appointment: October’s no good for her, but how does November look for him? There’s a lot of frustration building up in him and spilling over the edges.
Then he meets Alex (Rob Lowe), who intervenes when Michael is getting pushed around in a bar. Right from the start, we see that Alex is the kind of guy who brings a broken bottle to a fistfight, who takes an almost radiant glee in escalation for its own sake–but hey, he gets the guy hassling Michael to back off. If he’s on your side, it’s worth trying to believe that he’s not a thrill-seeking psychopath but a decisive problem-solver or maybe a master of the audacious bluff. Michael is understandably drawn to him, and Alex rewards that fascination by becoming a kind of satanic life coach. His help is corrupting–99% of it involves urging Michael to act like an asshole–but it’s also seductive: screw whoever you want, fuck over your enemies, never apologize. The rush of it all is powerful enough to briefly turn the movie into a pitch-black comedy, one where Alex waves red flag after blatant red flag while Michael is too blitzed on toxic masculinity to take any of it seriously.
What finally wakes him up is an act of violence against a peer, which breaks the white-collar code enough for Michael to realize that he’s becoming unfit for the world he inhabits–a pariah, even if no one knows it but him. He’s nauseated by his own actions, and everything he gets is now spoiled by what he did to get it. He wants Alex out of his life.
Unfortunately, once you’ve invited a demonic spirit in, it’s hard to get rid of it. Lowe is the best part of the movie, playing Alex not as a character but as the living embodiment of a kind of malicious, contemptuous curiosity, entirely capable of destroying someone’s life simply because he was bored and it seemed like fun. He nails a particular kind of psychopathy–thrill-seeking, indifferent to danger, and possessed of infinite confidence and facile charm. In his world–and probably our own–that’s enough to get him just about anywhere, and one of the small, ridiculous pleasures of Bad Influence is how inventively bad Alex’s fake accents are and how many people they inexplicably fool. They want to be taken in, so they are.
The pacing in the last third of movie is flawed, as if the horror involving a homemade videotape is too great and too well-executed (and well-paced in its own right) for the film to know where to go afterwards. And the material involving Michael’s loyal sad-sack brother, Pismo (Christian Clemenson), never quite gels–though it does have a good final beat. But this is worth watching for Lowe’s sparkling malevolence alone, especially since he gives you one of the best evil smiles and laughs in the business.
Bad Influence is streaming on Amazon Prime.