The Cohen Case Files: Invasion of Privacy (1996)

Screenplay by Larry Cohen

While watching Invasion of Privacy, I had a striking realization that in retrospect, is so obvious, I feel like an idiot for not noticing it sooner: Despite his running obsessions with religion and corporate/government abuse of power, the main theme that threads through Larry Cohen’s work—both as a writer/director and screenwriter for hire—is a fear of having children. The It’s Alive trilogy, God Told Me To, Perfect Strangers, Special Effects, Misbegotten, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, Bone, and A Return to Salem’s Lot all feature different angles on this idea. And that list is just off the top of my head. Of course, Invasion of Privacy cheats quite a bit by playing like a remake of Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, so the similarities in theme and the lead characters make sense. But still, the fear of having a child with someone you hate or fear is a powerful struggle to enact on the screen. It is too bad that Invasion of Privacy turns out to be such a lousy movie when it has so much it wants to say—both emotionally and politically.

Teri (Mili Avital) is a lovely young florist who has a meet cute with dashing stranger, Josh (Johnathon Schaech). It takes approximately five minutes for Cohen and director Anthony Hickox to have the couple fall in love, move in together, get pregnant, and establish that Josh is far from charming—he is actually a nut job with a hair-trigger temper. Considering the cover on the video box features a glowering Schaech, a frightened Avital, and a suspicious Naomi Campbell (playing Teri’s best friend, Cindy), it is a little refreshing that the film quickly gets to the point where Josh goes full movie psycho instead of trying to draw out a false mystery.

At first, Teri is happy to discover her pregnancy, but then Josh reveals his true colors and rapes her (thankfully, off screen). The next day, Teri returns to her doctor, asking to abort the pregnancy. Her doctor is surprised and reveals that Josh called to tell him how much he was looking forward to being a father. Frustrated and angry, Teri moves out, cancels the lease on the apartment she shared with Josh, and leaves to take a vacation at a secluded cabin by a mountain lake while awaiting her appointment for the abortion. When she calls her mother to tell her of her plans to be away for a while, she learns that Josh has told her mother of the pregnancy and that they plan to marry.

Considering his anger issues, his habit of raping her when mad, and the creepy way he has of contacting people in her life and telling them of plans in which she has no intention of taking part, Teri really should not be surprised when Josh shows up at the cabin. Josh tries to convince her one more time to have the baby so they can be a nice, dysfunctional family. But instead of taking into consideration that Josh is clearly unhinged and the cabin does not have a working phone, she gets angry with him and orders him to leave.

Of course, Josh does not leave. He takes Teri hostage in the cabin, locking her in the bedroom. His plan is to keep her captive long enough to get to the point where state law will not let her get an abortion due to the length of her pregnancy (pointedly, the film was filmed in and set in the state of Utah). It is an absurd plan, but to the film’s credit, it commits to that absurdity. Once he has reached the magical point where an abortion would be illegal, Josh drives Teri back to town and releases her.

From there Invasion of Privacy veers wildly into a courtroom thriller with what should be heavy political overtones regarding the abortion debate before returning to psycho thriller territory for a chaotic, but boring third act.

That plot description probably makes the movie sound more ambitious than it actually is. Unfortunately, Hickox barely pays lip service to the political bombs that Cohen throws at a legal system that makes blaming rape victims a favorite defense in court and restrictive legislation that makes it nearly impossible for women to get access to abortion services in some states. Instead, the director mostly ignores those far more interesting—and ballsy—ideas and dilutes the film into a generic, straight-to-video thriller that allows Schaech to go ridiculously over-the-top.

But even that generic thriller is devoid of any entertainment value. Schaech’s performance is certainly showy, but should never be mistaken for good. He has two modes: smiling asshole and screaming asshole. He bounces between the two at the drop of a hat and nearly blew out the speakers on my TV as I scrambled with the remote to turn down his sudden roaring. The screaming asshole mode would have been more effective if his smiling asshole mode was not so flat. Josh is supposed to be able to put on a convincing front as a nice guy. That is how he convinced Teri to fall in love with him and how he charms seemingly everyone in the movie—aside from the policeman (David Keith, doing solid work) on the case. But Schaech never comes off as charming or friendly. Grinning maniacally while staring with wide eyes only makes him look even more like a psycho than his angry mode. Any chance of convincing the audience to believe that he could charm so many people quickly goes out the window.

But blaming Schaech entirely for the movie’s failure is unfair. There is plenty of blame to go around, as much of the cast (including an absurdly over-qualified Charlotte Rampling as Josh’s attorney/lover) either phone in their performances or try to match Schaech’s aggressive attempts at over-acting. But much of the blame has to fall on the shoulders of Anthony Hickox.

Hickox has had a disappointing career arc. Starting his feature directorial career with the very fun horror film Waxwork, he seemed like a genre specialist to keep an eye on. He hit a few rough patches with glimpses of better movies in the middling horror-comedy Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat, the entertaining follow-up Waxwork II: Lost in Time, and the one-two punch of unloved sequels Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (where he became the man responsible for the CD-headed Cenobite) and Warlock: The Armageddon. Thankfully, after that film, he stopped making so many movies with colons in the title. But the trade-off is that he fell into the straight-to-video arena where he specialized in films starring a who’s who of B and C-list stars (Steven Seagal, Dolph Lundgren, Vinnie Jones, Eddie Griffin, and Armand Assante, just to name a few). I have not seen the films he made after Invasion of Privacy, so I cannot speak to their quality, but if he directed them in the same way as this film, it is probably safe to assume they are better left unseen.

Not only does Hickox seemingly not offer any direction to his cast, he shows no feel for linking scenes, tonally clashing cuts (they’re too sloppily done to be called edits) together at random. And the less said about his habit of trying to go outdo De Palma by randomly using split screens that go from two shots to four shots to eight shots, the better.

But the biggest sin that Hickox commits is wasting a quite good Larry Cohen idea. As I said earlier, Invasion of Privacy plays like a remake of Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting. That film, while it had its issues, was an interesting thriller that was surprisingly forward thinking when it came to the subject of abortion (especially when you consider it was made when the procedure was still illegal). Updating the basic plot of a young woman who wishes to end a pregnancy that would tie her to a psychopath was a good idea. Comparing the two films, it’s interesting to see how attitudes in the older film are far more understanding and non-judgmental than in the one set almost thirty years later. In Invasion of Privacy, Teri constantly finds herself being screamed at and shamed by “pro-life” protestors and “father’s rights” activists as Josh uses public vitriol to his advantage. It’s a striking idea for a film and the second act courtroom scenes should be overtly political. Instead, Hickox rushes through this section of the film, barely touching on the larger drama available so he can get back to Josh screaming and foaming at the mouth.

No matter how much I try to find worth in Invasion of Privacy, the finished film is simply bad. There was definite potential for a politically challenging thriller. Instead, Hickox wastes all that potential on a lot of screaming, clumsy attempts at directorial flourishes, and a forced third act that is ridiculous in its attempts to shift tone and plot nearly 180 degrees. You are better off watching Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting again.

You can contact me at obsessivemovienerd@gmail.com, read all the extraneous crap that goes through my head by following me on Twitter, and keep up with all of my viewing habits by following me on Letterboxd.

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