I'm always fascinated to revisit the 90s _____-from-hell genre, of which this film is one of the prominent examples, and gave us such classics as The Temp, The Crush (both total hoots), Sleeping With the Enemy, Mother's Boys, and other such cinematic achievements. My interest in revisiting this film got sidetracked by the direct-to-video sequel, Single White Female II, and the low-budget African-American parody Single Black Female, reminding me that I should check to see if any other sequels have come out in the meantime. Anyway, here we are, with the original.
This was director Barbet Schroeder's follow-up to his Oscar-winning Reversal of Fortune, and attempts to carry his sheen of highbrow quality to an inherently cheesy genre. This one features a screenplay by Don Roos, who also wrote the hoot-a-riffic remake of Diabolique and wrote and directed the wondrous The Opposite of Sex, thus promising us a bit of a knowing gay sensibility in the mix. We open with a sequence of two twin girls, which we will later understand is Hedra with her twin, then quickly join Bridget Fonda as Allie, young designer who has lucked into a gargantuan rent stabilized apartment in New York (in a prominent building that does indeed exist on the Upper West Side), in bed with her fiancée, Sam, planning their marriage. In short order it is revealed that Sam slept with his ex, Allie boots him out, and Graham, her gay best friend, advises her to get a roommate. Graham also represents a primary example of the "gay best friend" type also prominent in the 90s, and like the majority of them, he is marked for death so that our straight characters may achieve fulfillment.
After the montage of unsuitable roommates (parodied humorously in Single Black Female), Allie is crying over Sam's lost love when Jennifer Jason Leigh as Hedra Carlson comes in. You'll note that Hedra just walks in, and is soon offering to make tea and generally making herself helpful, beginning the gentle insinuation into Allie's life that she'll continue throughout the movie. She asks outright if Allie will get back with Sam and want her out. She also tells Allie that she was a twin, but her sister was stillborn. They soon become friends and things go along okay for a while, while we see little touches like Heddy erasing an answering machine message from Sam, hear of a missing letter from Sam, stuff like that. Hedra impulsively buys Allie an adorable golden lab puppy with a target painted on its head, and they bond over it.
But despite her efforts, Sam and Allie get back together. Allie walks around one night soon after riding the baloney pony and sees Hedra masturbating--possibly from hearing HER noises. Hedra starts trying to make friends with Sam, and the puppy, but both want Allie. The dog is the first to get it. Sam goes away for business. Allie almost gets raped by her creepy client. Allie is starting to get creeped out and vaguely bitchy to Hedra, who then gets exactly the same haircut and color as Allie, so they look like twins. Allie snoops and finds that Hedra's twin actually died when she was nine, and finds that Hedra stole Sam's letters. She follows Hedra as she gets dolled up and goes out to a SM club, located at the Hellfire club, which was actually there (but is now, of course, an upscale restaurant). You KNOW this club is kinky, because they're playing Enigma. She goes upstairs to talk to Graham, who advises get her out--tonight. Hedra hears this through the old ventilation system, and now it's ON.
SPOILERS > > >
After Graham gets a crowbar sandwich, Allie, now thoroughly creeped out and scared of Hedra, utters my favorite line, a terse, fake-friendly delivery of "Want some tea? I'm making some tea. Chamomile." around 104:56. Sam is back in town, but Hedra intercepts his call and sneaks over to his hotel. She sneaks into bed, looking like Allie, remember, and performs a skin flute recital. He wakes, is creeped out, but soon receives the old spike-heel-in-the-eye treatment. Witnesses think they see Allie. The next morning, Allie finds out, and is soon taken at gunpoint.
Now the rather extended final showdown, in which we get a look at the first stages of the Internet (seriously), the creepy client comes back and is dispatched, Graham wakes from his coma (he's STILL ALIVE!), and Allie decides that she might be better defended by a shard of glass than the GUN that is right there, inches from her hand. In here some psycho psychology is applied at just the right moment, which is always a satisfying thing. It all comes down to a struggle in the basement, Hedra gets dispatched with a screwdriver, and then SUDDEN voice-over by Allie, who has miraculously found another gargantuan apartment, about how she's moved on, etc.
< < < SPOILERS END
Hmmmm, so hard to say it's GOOD, but it's a good example of its genre. It has a reasonably tight story, probably helped by the fact that it came from a novel, and the majority of its twists all work. Then you have two quite capable actresses, who add more to their roles than they really require, and are able to sustain the subtle shades of barely-concealed hostility required. Fonda is especially good, with her perfectly-modulated terse bitchery, enough to make one wish her career had gone a bit further (MUST SEE Point of No Return again RIGHT now). And the screenplay by Roos is able to draw out the sapphic undertones of the story without bashing us over the head. Then you also have knowing direction by Schroeder, and there you go: highbrow-toned trash.
The ending is a bit dull and simplistic, but given how solid everything has been til then one doesn't mind that much. The presence of scenes in the trailer that aren't in the movie indicate that there may have been some last-minute tinkering, but personally I'm GLAD we didn't have to go through the whole thing of Allie becoming a suspect because people saw "her" at Sam's crime scene. It's stronger just remaining a threat.
Anyway, one of the better, more prominent entries in the _____-from-hell micro-genre, but still, a genre that doesn't exactly result in cinema classics. It's amusing, as far as it goes, but if cheesy entertainment is what you want, you might be more amused by its over-the-top video-only sequel, or the low (i.e. LOW) budget but spunky Single Black Female.
If you want. You know what you're getting into.