Michael Keaton Is Terrifying In This Domestic Horror Film You Can Stream Now

Michael Keaton is terrifying as a psychopathic tenant in Pacific Heights which is streaming on Peacock.

By Nathan Kamal | Published

Michael Keaton has had one of the more fascinating careers in modern Hollywood: after making his name as alternately a zany comedian and a familiar everyman, he became as big of a star as anyone in show business could be with the success of 1989’s Batman (soon to be reprised). His long period of undistinguished movies in the 2000s finally gave way to a career rebound in the 2010s, but there is one thing he has rarely been: a villain. His finest and most terrifying performance as a bad guy is in the 1990 psychological thriller Pacific Heights, which can be streamed on Peacock

michael keaton

Pacific Heights stars Michael Keaton as a man introduced in an erotic, semi-nude embrace with a blonde woman (an uncredited Beverly D’Angelo of Vacation fame). The opening seems to be presenting Michael Keaton as the protagonist of the film, and then two men burst into the dimly lit apartment and beat the tar out of him. Strangely, he seems to take it utterly in stride, which is a little foreshadowing that something is off with this guy. 

The movie then switches to a young couple played by Matthew Modine (later of Stranger Things) and Melanie Griffith (then coming off the success of Working Girl). The two are being shown around a Victorian house in the very posh Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. It is clear that purchasing it will be a financial stretch, but with plans to rent the downstairs apartments and squeeze every penny, they make it happen. 

For a few minutes, it seems like Pacific Heights will be the kind of movie in which two young people in love (though it is made clear they are unmarred) refurbish a house and make their dreams come true. However, Michael Keaton is then seen ominously observing them from an expensive black Porsche and it becomes clear he has some kind of nefarious plan. Soon, he is charming Matthew Modine and offering to pay months of rent in advance in lieu of a credit check. 

A key aspect of many a psychological thriller (and its predecessor genre, the film noir) is that someone has an opportunity to do the right thing, but they instead take the easy route. In this case, accepting Michael Keaton’s offer leads to a domestic nightmare for Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith as their new lodger moves in quickly, his payments bounce, and it turns out that he has immense knowledge of tenant law to use against them. 

The real nightmare of Pacific Heights is not that Michael Keaton turns out to be a murderous, identity-shifting psychopath, but that the law can be so swiftly turned against two attractive, upwardly mobile, very white professionals. Even though Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith know they are being terrorized by someone in their own home, Michael Keaton is always a few steps ahead. Matthew Modine, likely motivated by the knowledge that this is on some level his fault for bringing this man into their home through greed, swiftly goes over the edge and physically attacks him in front of witnesses, exactly according to plan. 

michael keaton

Soon enough, Michael Keaton is infesting the house with cockroaches to torment them and, in one especially unnerving scene, seems about to attack the couple’s adopted, fluffy white cat with a razor blade. Eventually, Matthew Modine is gutshot in a way that Michael Keaton manages to make look like self-defense and Melanie Griffith eventually manages to turn the tables after some sleuthing work.

Pacific Heights has an impressive pedigree, which makes sense for the 1990s when psychological thrillers were at their height of cultural respect. The film was directed by John Schlesinger, who won a Best Director Academy Award for Midnight Cowboy, and written by Daniel Pyne, whose extremely varied resume includes the Michael J. Fox comedy Doc Hollywood, the Willem Dafoe murder mystery White Sands, and the Al Pacino football drama Any Given Sunday. Pacific Heights was Michael Keaton’s first film, post-Batman, which should have given it a bigger audience than it got.

As it is, Pacific Heights made a tidy $55 million on an $18 million budget, but nothing like Batman numbers. It received mixed reviews from critics (currently holding 50% on Rotten Tomatoes), most of whom felt its plot leaned on stale tropes. However, it cannot be denied that Michael Keaton pulls off one of his best and definitely most chilling performances in Pacific Heights. It is one of the most surprising roles that he has ever gone for, but he absolutely nails it.