Invasion of Privacy (1996): Baby Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting

Matty sinks his teeth into a brilliant thriller from director Anthony Hickox and writer Larry Cohen, and ponders the similarities it shares with an earlier work by the legendary scripter. 

Debuting in the U.S. on HBO on Friday 15th November 1996 and hitting North American cassette via Vidmark in March ‘97, INVASION OF PRIVACY is the crown jewel in a run of Larry Cohen-penned stalker flicks that littered video stores and cable TV in the mid-‘90s; a slate rounded out by the Mark L. Lester-helmed double of The Ex (1996) and Misbegotten (1997), and Sidney Lumet’s theatrically released Guilty as Sin (1993). As a collective, the four feature a great deal of conceptual and structural overlap in Cohen’s usual manner. After all, the It’s Alive (1974) creator has never been shy about recycling or, rather, re-exploring previously used ideas and beats. Just look at how Maniac Cop (1988) begat Uncle Sam (1996), or how Phone Booth (2002) spawned Cellular (2004) and Messages Deleted (2010). Fittingly, Invasion of Privacy’s roots — and, indeed, those of The Ex, Misbegotten and Guilty as Sin — are as deep as Phone Booth’s.

A famously long-gestating project, Cohen conceived Phone Booth in the ‘60s: the same decade that saw the release of a picture he had written called Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (1969). Essentially serving as a blueprint, each of Cohen’s ‘90s thrillers crib from Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting as much as they do each other — though Invasion of Privacy is closest to it in terms of topicality, plotting, and ol’ Larry’s dissatisfaction with the finished product. 

Like its forebearer, Invasion of Privacy — which Cohen wrote as ‘Head Games’ — tells the story of a smart, independent woman whose life is upskittled by a dangerously psychotic man. In Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, the coupling is Cathy (Carol White) and Kenneth (Scott Hyland). In Invasion of Privacy, it’s Theresa (Mili Avital) and Josh (Johnathon Schaech). The trajectories of their relationships are identical in pace and presentation. Cathy and Theresa are initially swept off their feet, but their whirlwind romances quickly become nightmares when their suitors, both of whom had abusive mothers, reveal their diabolical true nature in a series of scenes and situations that play as mirror images: the use of a literal ascent — up the side of a building and a rockface, respectively — to visually signify Kenneth and Josh’s dizzying mental instabilities; an argument over money and contribution in the apartments that only Cathy and Theresa foot the bills for; and a nasty confrontation in a pair of restaurants after Cathy and Theresa fall pregnant. However, it’s here where the films fork. 

In Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, Cathy dumps Kenneth; terminates her pregnancy; and, later, meets, marries, and has a child with another man, ambitious local politician Jack (Paul Burke), as her unhinged ex hounds her, demanding she kill the nipper as penance for aborting his baby. In Invasion of Privacy, Theresa dumps Josh… But he captures her before she can have her abortion; attempts to keep her prisoner in a woodland cabin until she either changes her mind or is passed the legal limit; and when that doesn’t work, takes the by-now heavily pregnant lass to court to stop her getting a late-in-the-day termination. Set in San Francisco and written at a time when deaths from illegal abortions were spiking in California due to the state’s criminalisation of the procedure [1], Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting’s secondary tension — i.e. that beyond the effective stalker stuff — is fostered by Cathy’s secrecy. In a typically idiosyncratic touch, Cohen gives her the opportunity to get the help of her husband early doors. Alas, with Jack, a proud Republican, trying to scale the political ladder, Cathy refuses to divulge her history with Kenneth for fear of a career-wrecking scandal. A wealth of Invasion of Privacy’s suspense, meanwhile, is conjured in a mid-section comprised of some of the finest courtroom drama ever captured on celluloid; a sharply written, performed, and executed stretch where the frighteningly charismatic Josh becomes the poster boy for the Pro-Life brigade. As with Cohen’s best work, this chunk of Invasion of Privacy’s gripping narrative fizzes with a social and cultural consciousness at once era specific and chillingly timeless. Abortion remains a hugley contentious issue in America — and Cohen’s pokes at fame-hungry opportunists; the belief that women should not have autonomy over their own bodies; and the media’s power to manipulate and turn even the vilest of people into folk heroes feels as relevant as ever. 

Basically three pictures in one, Invasion of Privacy also succeeds as a stupendous thriller and, in its denouement, a deliciously glossy slasher movie. The cuckoo-in-the-nest dynamic of Fatal Attraction (1987) and its cousin, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), is echoed in the film’s basic footing — primarily, Schaech’s seductive yet increasingly ghoulish depiction of Josh. That said, Invasion of Privacy’s actual aesthetic influences are more old school and left-field than Adrian Lyne and Curtis Hanson’s yuppie shockers. Lensed in Utah in summer ‘95, director Anthony Hickox, fresh from his solid neo-noir Payback (1995), is firmly in De Palma mode for much of the film. Already a tremendous and highly accomplished stylist, Hickox utilises a restless, probing camera and deliberately show-y tricks and editorial devices to ratchet up the frenzy with knuckle-whitening precision. The homagery is flagrant; you can literally pin-point which bits are lifted from De Palma, Hitchcock and, even, Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park (1969). But when it’s as brilliantly done and as visually stunning as Hickox makes it, such cinema-savvy posturing is a delight to yield to, sensorially and thematically (point of view is a key — if ultimately underdeveloped — component in the plot’s make-up).   

“I always wanted to do something with split-screen,” Hickox told me in 2014. “Invasion of Privacy gave me the chance to do it, and I happily threw it in. It wasn’t in the script or anything. But I thought it would be really exciting and, visually, a cool thing to look at. I loved the challenge of it too. You have to think it all out: you’re basically shooting, like, three or four scenes at the same time and you need to get them to match up so everything was very carefully planned and storyboarded and choreographed, everything  that would appear in those little screen boxes.”

“For the rest of the film, I was trying to do Polanski. I shot it on 35mm and I was kind of doing Rosemary’s Baby (1968). If you look at Invasion of Privacy’s sets, none of the sets have ceilings; and if you look at Rosemary’s Baby, you never see a ceiling. So I considered Invasion of Privacy my little tribute to Polanski, and the sort of weird relationships that he loves to explore [2]. But, hey, I’m a horror guy and I just went a bit too much into my ‘90s slasher head at the end with the lightning and rain and stuff…”         

Indeed, it’s the opulence of Invasion of Privacy’s last act with which Cohen took umbrage. Supposedly, Cohen was annoyed at Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting for what he perceived to be a lack of finesse on the part of its helmer, Mark Robson. According to legend, the reason Cohen began directing his own scripts in the first place was because he considered the former Val Lewton collaborator’s admittedly slightly awkward and clunky direction shoddy and uninspired. Perverse, then, that the indie maestro deemed the wonderfully snazzy and immersive Invasion of Privacy obnoxious, overcooked, and a victim of a director taking liberties with his material. As Cohen explained in Michael Doyle’s 2015 book, Larry Cohen: The Stuff of Gods and Monsters:

“They [Hickox and the producers] rewrote Invasion of Privacy’s climax. They restaged it and seriously fucked it up. They got mixed up with their own inane ideas and really made a mess of it… They followed my script almost ninety percent of the way and just when they arrived at the ending, the most important part of a movie, they deviated. If the movie is good and the ending is bad, that’s all people remember. The audience will not give you credit for the early part of the film. They’ll just think it’s lousy because they judge you by how it works in the end.”

A needlessly harsh and somewhat bitter assessment in my opinion. Despite clearly being designed to facilitate more of Invasion of Privacy’s gimmick-cast guest star, supermodel Naomi Campbell, the film’s conclusion is a suitably exclamative and pleasingly pulse-quickening sign-off to an engaging, thought-provoking, and fantastic nerve-racker. 

“I loved it but, looking back, did Invasion of Privacy need it?” mused Hickox when I asked him about it. “Maybe I should have toned it down… Still, Invasion of Privacy has some of my favourite music of all my movies. The opening theme — it was by Angelo Badalamenti, who does all of David Lynch’s movies. I just called him up and said, “I love your work, and I can’t afford you, but can you just do me a theme?” And he did!”

[1] Though California’s then-governor, Ronald Reagan, reluctantly eased restrictions in 1967 due to public outcry, abortions were still illegal until the U.S. Supreme Court decriminalised them nationally in 1973, following a landmark ruling in the case of Roe v. Wade. The ruling protected a woman’s right to have an abortion without excessive government interference. As of this writing, the Supreme Court has, shockingly, now voted to overturn it.
[2] To cement the allusions, Theresa and Josh live in Castevet Apartments; Castevet, of course, being the name of Rosemary’s sinister neighbours.

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